By David Bandurski — China’s leaders seem to be scoring major points with the public again this week for making themselves accessible on the Internet. This time it is Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) who is grabbing the headlines for an event newspapers and Web portals are reporting — déjà vu — as “unprecedented.” Saturday, we are told, marked “the first time Premier Wen Jiabao has chatted online with Web friends.”

Wen fielded questions about education, healthcare and the progress of reconstruction work in earthquake-ravaged Sichuan. But the real focus is Wen’s act of openness itself, which has been understood by some as a grand gesture promoting “online democracy” (网络民主).

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[ABOVE: Screenshot of Gov.cn site with images of Premier Wen interacting with the Web masses.]

Xinhua News Agency writes today that “overseas media have recognized that the Internet has steadily raised the civic mindedness and sense of participation in state affairs among the Chinese public, and 2009 will be China’s ‘Year of Online Politics.'”

One of the overseas media cited, Hong Kong’s PRC-funded Ta Kung Pao, wrote that Wen’s online dialogue “once again threw the spotlight on ‘online democracy,’ this new form of democratic expression.”

It’s all so very exciting, right?

Well, for those who believe Wen’s gesture means the voices of ordinary Chinese are getting heard, let’s begin by boiling down all of this hype with a bit of grade school mathematics. The full text of the session is here, but let’s just suppose that Wen can cogently address one question every 60 seconds. That’s 120 questions from 120 “netizens” during the course of his 120-minute session. OK . . .

120/1,300,000,000 = .00000000923076

So according to our highly scientific “democracy calculator,” roughly 1 in every 10.8 million people had an opportunity to raise a question with the country’s top government leader. How represented does that make you feel?

The limitations of the Web as a vehicle for “democracy” should be clear, insofar as “democracy” assumes the responsiveness of leaders to the concerns, suggestions and policy demands of the public. Just as an official — even if he transforms into an octopus — cannot possibly answer 960,000 phone calls from concerned citizens, nor can he possibly represent the interests of 1.3 billion people through their computer screens.

All of this should be plainly obvious. So why do China’s leaders continue to talk about Internet technology as though it is an exciting and viable new alternative to that old-fashioned democratic technology — the voting booth?

Because, at risk of sounding like a broken record, the Internet is the perfect distraction. It is a far-reaching medium symbolic of change that party officials can use to push the perception that political change is happening in China and that leaders are more responsive to citizens. As we wrote last week:

For the moment, meaningful political reform is off the table in China, and that means any viable form of participation or free expression is inconceivable. But fostering a public perception of self-empowerment and government responsiveness has now become a matter of political urgency for China’s leadership. And that’s what Control 2.0 is all about.

The bottom line is that party leaders cannot truly be more responsive to citizens unless institutions make this possible — or more to the point, imperative.

In its lead editorial today, Southern Metropolis Daily uses the occasion of Wen’s online dialogue and the hubbub about “online democracy” to talk about the need to make the transition to institutional change.

Its criticisms are coached in a powder-puff of praise. The gist of the piece, however, is that China should not only develop “online democracy,” but should use the positive lessons from the Web to develop democracy — read, real democracy:

Online Chat Between Premier and Web Friends Unlocks the Road to Online Democracy

In the afternoon the day before yesterday, Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) spent more than two hours chatting with Web friends on the official Website of the Central People’s Government. You can imagine how excited Web users were. In the seven hours from the time a pre-announcement was made at 10am to the conclusion of the session at 7pm, more than 300,000 questions were raised by Web users. True to form, Wen Jiabao showed his personal side as he answered a series of questions from Web users on topics ranging from education and healthcare to the work of rebuilding in the earthquake zone. He also shared some of his personal thoughts and feelings, eliciting feelings of intimacy among Web users.

Although everyone knows Wen Jiabao frequently goes online, and that he pays close attention to online public opinion, this is the first time that Premier Wen has had an online discussion with Web friends. Some editorials have said that this discussion between Wen Jiabao and Web users has broken through the boundaries between officials and the public, setting a new trend in “civic dialogue.” This is something we [at Southern Metropolis Daily] support, and we believe that for officials and ordinary people to speak plainly is not only a gesture of closeness to the people, but also a kind of leadership attitude (执政的态度). Of course, the biggest point of significance in Wen Jiabao’s online meeting the day before yesterday should be that it further shows that high-level leaders in China’s government have given Internet politics (网络政治) their attention and affirmation.

In June last year, President Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) spoke online with Web users through [People’s Daily Online’s] “Strong Nation Forum” (强国论坛), and this drew a strong [positive] response. Editorials already said at that time that this was testament to the function and use of the Internet as a gathering place for public opinion and as a platform for political discussion — and that this turned a new page for Chinese democracy. As the National People’s Congress approaches . . . Perhaps we can say that we hope the Internet creates new space for political life in China, that it opens a new path for dialogue between the government and society, that it can tread a path for democratic politics in China. On this point, the hopes of the government and society go hand in hand.

On the basis of this consensus, we can now talk about a number of issues of technical issues. How can the government better use the Web and the popular will expressed on the Web? How can the public opinion power represented by the Web better convey the will of the people, and better achieve communication with the government? How can it better serve a soft monitoring role? Summing up, how can the government, Web users and Internet bodies better promote the development of online democracy?

The newness of the Web as a platform for supporting public opinion lies not in its technological aspects, but in the new speech environment it enables. It is in the ability of Web users to freely express themselves, without bars or restrictions, that our great expectations for online democracy are rooted. If we wish to develop online democracy, we must ensure the freedom of online speech. This is the first thing.

As a platform for gathering public opinion, the Web has places where it is imperfect . . . The imperfection of online public opinion lies in the fact that the process by which it arises is accidental and random, lacking organization and continuity. While Web users may gather according to their values and interests, the situation overall is that our sampling of online opinion relies principally on major Web portals and other large forums such as Tianya], and is obtained either from a limited number of Internet bodies or from administrative departments. Under these conditions, Internet speech is insufficiently independent and cannot therefore adequately represent public opinion. So while its impossible to go to the absolute [in granting freedom], if we want to use the Web to open up the road to democracy, we must do our utmost to ensure the independent of online public opinion. This is the second thing.

The Internet is tied closely to immediate circumstance, and often when it turns to a specific incident it can have a major effect. Take for example the recent “hide and seek” affair. While the investigation conducted by Web users was unable to reveal the truth, we are confident that online opinion lead in this case to the greater efficiency and transparency of the investigation by law enforcement. But what is regrettable is that the victories of Web users in cases like this one always stop with the particular event itself. It is always difficult to ensure that they promote institutional improvements. Even the much-commended Xiamen PX case became an isolated instance, and government decisions to invite effective public participation did not become regular practice. The Web can at times offer successful examples, and if we can reflect practicly on these and improve their duplicability, giving institutional protection to successful practices [ie., protecting freedom of speech], this will not only develop online democracy but will enable us to use the Web to develop democracy. This is the third thing.

The road to development of online democracy should still be a long one, and there will certainly be more than just the above problems that need resolving. We will have to feel our way across the river . . .

[Posted by David Bandurski, March 2, 2009, 4:30pm HK]