By David Bandurski — The internet is growing rapidly in China, and it is set increasingly on a collision course with entrenched local party officials who fear the greater scrutiny it brings. There have been many documented examples in recent years, most notably the Chongqing SMS case in 2006 and the Shanxi open letter case last year. [Frontpage image by Marcio Eugenio available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

In yesterday’s edition of Southern Metropolis Daily, blogger Ten Years Chopping Timber analyzed two separate 2008 cases in which local officials handled cases of online “rumor” in different ways with markedly different results:

When it comes to online gossip, why can’t officials swallow their pride?

The internet has promoted economic development and and social progress, and it has also wrought trouble for many, in particular public figures (公众人物) such as party officials. Because information on the web travels so quickly, with a complex trajectory, and because it is difficult to trace information to its source, people find it tough to work out what’s real and what’s fake, and damaging rumors can emerge from nowhere. An ancient saying goes, “It must be true what all men say” (三人成虎), and on the internet we’re talking not just about three people spreading gossip, but one hundred or one thousand times that many.

We can’t turn back to the olden days of inscribed bamboo slips or hot-metal typesetting, so how should officials handle gossip, and in particular rumor, that they find disadvantageous? Recently, Wang Weicheng (王伟成), mayor of Changzhou, offered us a very good exemplar. Someone spread gossip on the web saying that Wang’s relatives had used the political power at their disposal to seek personal gain, and they offered some level of detail. Things being as they are, with the public generally doubtful about the moral character of officials, this news was definitely damaging. I don’t doubt that it is within Mayor Wang’s power to mobilize police and begin investigating the case, ferreting out those responsible and arresting them under charges of slander. But this is not how Mayor Wang handled the situation. Instead, he posted his own message as an ordinary web user, writing from Changzhou’s Dragon City Teahouse, and replied to the charges. This response met with widespread approval from web users, and one user writing under the alias “We can get by” said: “I’ll saying nothing for the time being on the merits of his argument, but the situation today being as it is, for this mayor to decide to face questions from web users openly on the web is something that should be supported.”

It is perceptive of Mayor Wang to handle things in this way, because if he were to abuse official power to deal with online gossip it would probably have the opposite result. So long as we’ve had societies, speech and writing, gossip about kings and bureaucrats has never stopped . . .

. . . But when some officials face gossip on the internet . . . they wield their public power as a deterrent. At the beginning of the year a post made the rounds on the internet from a female college student charging a ministerial-level official in Shaanxi of “corruption and lechery” in peremptory tones. My initial feeling on seeing the post was that it wasn’t reliable, because the style was flowery and exaggerated. But many web users readily believed what was said about the official. The local police intervened immediately, opening an official investigation and eventually determining that the post was orchestrated by a local businessman, Zhang Shengli (张胜利). Thereupon, a warrant was put out for the businessman’s arrest, and the highway toll service center he was under contract to run was forcibly taken over. If Zhang Shengli really did seek revenge on this ministerial-level official, slandering him with rumors, then naturally he should bear legal responsibility accordingly. What Mayor Wang said in his post holds true for this ministerial-level official: “The mayor is a person too, and his personal dignity must also be protected under the law.” And he can first refute the online gossip; next, if he believes his personal dignity is being insulted, he can make a report and ask relevant departments to get to the bottom of the case; finally, he can bring a libel suit. Is a high ministerial official unable to condescend to use the internet to combat rumors, or to stand in the role of plaintiff and argue for his own rights? Perhaps this ministerial-level official feels he is above appearing as an ordinary web user or a plaintiff? He is confident, no doubt, that by virtue of his power he has a tougher and more straightforward way of tidying up “rumor mongers.” Nevertheless, using these old methods and lashing back did not have a positive impact on the public relations crisis facing this ministerial-level officials. Quite to the contrary, it fed public feelings that the “rumors” were indeed credible, and the “rumor monger” conversely received widespread public sympathy.

Both this ministerial-level official and Mayor Wang can be considered “old revolutionaries facing new problems,” but the crisis management approaches of the two men are so different, and there is a world of difference too between the results.

UPDATE, 1:53pm:
In today’s edition of The Beijing News, freelance columnist Wu Yue San Ren (五岳散人) offers his own perspective on the internet post by Changzhou Mayor Wang Weicheng:

Having a dialogue with public opinion has always been a kind of top-down process, basically leaders placing opinion boxes outside their doors and saying they are willing to hear opinions. The people write letters and slip them in, but as to whether these ever make it into the government’s hands and whether problems are actually handled, this has to be ensured by specific operational mechanisms.

The emergence of the internet has changed this old method, and exchanges have now become more direct and interactive.

Now it is entirely possible for politicians to voice their own opinions at the first opportunity, and for ordinary people to face their computer screens and speak their minds. Everyone can put their views out there, and everyone can decide on the merits of the case. In the past we always dealt with matters secretly, but if we build habits and mechanisms for dialogue, the old “black box” way of doing things will fall away naturally.

But there is another reason I feel respect for this [Changzhou] mayor. As the reader knows, there have been numerous cases in recent years of web users questioning officials in text messages or in chat rooms, but these officials responded not by explanation and interaction but rather by arresting those involved and charging them with “rumor and slander.” These responses exacerbated matters and damaged the reputations of the local governments involved. Here we have the same sort of situation, and while this mayor has similarly raised accusations of “rumor and slander,” he has chosen to deal with the situation without resorting to strong-arm tactics, instead using his own right to free expression.

What is positive about the mayor responding with his own web post is that the internet is already increasingly becoming a channel for public expression, and if this channel comes to include interaction with officials it could truly become a platform promoting equal dialogue, discussion and participation in state affairs.

FURTHER READING:
Their Own Worst Enemy,” by James Fallows, The Atlantic

[Posted by David Bandurski, October 21, 2008, 12:03am HK]