By David Bandurski — Not so long ago, the suppression of any and all information about mass incidents in China was a matter of virtual certainty. But Chinese officials have surprised over the past year. They have often been right on top of strikes, riots and opinion storms. And crisis management has been, at least on the surface, more about press conferences and press releases, and less about police muscle.

At CMP, we have used the term Control 2.0 to talk about an emerging new order of information management and control in China, something more nuanced and clever, and something altogether more Hu Jintao.

But the government’s handling of the recent situation in Shishou, Hubei province, raises serious questions about whether Hu Jintao’s policy of first reporting is actually drawing support among the leadership.

There were more explicit rumblings of Control 2.0 in early 2007, when Hu talked about “using” the Internet more actively to more effectively achieve “guidance of public opinion.” But in June 2008, when Hu spoke in a pivotal address at People’s Daily of a “new pattern of public opinion guidance” for the information age, the framework of Control 2.0 was more clearly drawn [MORE on “guidance” and “channeling”].

Hu’s policy of “grabbing the initiative” in news coverage of sudden-breaking events, including mass incidents, has been stretching its wings ever since the riots in Weng’an, Guizhou province, one year ago. We have had since then: Menglian in Yunnan (孟连事件), Longnan in Gansu (甘肃陇南), Jishou in Hunan (湖南吉首非法集资事件), taxi strikes in a number of areas, a primitive armed conflict in Dongfang, Hainan (海南东方械斗事件), and incidents in Ningxia’s Haiyuan (海南东方械斗事件) and Jiangxi’s Nankang (江西南康事件).

In all of these cases, we have seen must faster response on the part of the government, which has moved to release limited information quickly through official media, such as Xinhua News Agency. Is this openness? Or as a correspondent of the Telegraph recently asked: “Is this because media restrictions have been lifted, allowing news of riots to spread . . . ?

No. And a thousand times, no.

For news stories that are especially sensitive politically — like that surrounding the verdict in the Yang Jia case, the corruption case against former Shanxi governor Yu Youjun (于幼军), and the more recent corruption case against Shenzhen mayor Xu Zongheng (许宗衡) — media controls are as strict, or stricter, than ever. And controls are also more nuanced than ever. Many so-called “negative reports” are handled by limiting coverage, even at People’s Daily and CCTV, to news bulletin style releases from Xinhua News Agency, and in-depth reporting is strictly controlled.

Media controls this year are tighter even than in 2008, owing especially to the 20th anniversary of June 4 and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the P.R.C.

So we have to see these overtures of “transparency” within the context of tightening control.

To understand what kind of “transparency” we are looking at, in fact, we would do well to return to the words of Jiang Zemin, the policy author of “guidance of public opinion,” on that very subject. It was Jiang Zemin who said after June 4, 1989: “There are things that should be transparent, or must be transparent; there other things that cannot be made transparent right away; then there are those things that must not be made transparent.”

Is that clear?

The difference with Control 2.0 is that the party is moving from a defensive position, as passive controllers and censors, to a more active position. That is to say, they are now on the offensive.

Control 2.0 is control that makes a shrewdly realistic assessment of China’s new information environment — the result of the Internet, predominantly — and recognizes there are some events that cannot be entirely controlled. So the core of Control 2.0 is reporting at the first possible moment those news events that cannot be concealed, getting the government’s official explanation and version of the facts out first. This preempts other media, including international media.

By getting the information out, officials can get the “peripheral media” (especially influential portal news sites, but also commercial newspapers) to work for them. These media feed off of the original Xinhua reports, amplifying their effect. Those same reports, with only slight permutations in many cases, become AFP, Reuters and AP reports. Finally, using those methods that create the smallest stir, you kill the information it is most critical to keep under wraps, keeping rabble-rousing professional media away, and punishing those media that “don’t listen.”

BUT. In the recent Shishou incident, Xinhua News Agency did not report the news at the first available moment, and it was five days before Hubei provincial leaders relayed the news that “the incident had been calmed.”

This handling of the incident has drawn some criticism from the same official media, including People’s Daily, that have been drumming home Hu’s point about “taking the initiative” in news reporting, the Control 2.0 mantra. People’s Daily wrote back on June 25 that:

Weng’an was a seminal moment for the government’s new approach to information control and the handling of important news events. Guizhou’s top leader, Shi Zongyuan (石宗源), said during this year’s meeting of the National People’s Congress that a policy of information transparency had been the key to calming down the crisis at Weng’an.

As in the case of Weng’an, the Shishou mass incident originated with a death under suspicious circumstances, in which the explanation provided by police did not satisfy the family members of the victim and the general public.

The problem was that the authorities did not work fast or effective enough in getting out “the government’s point of view.” Meanwhile, posts in Internet forums multiplied.

The People’s Daily piece concluded by repeating Hu Jintao’s gospel of media control:

In the age of the Web, everyone can potentially be a source of information and a wellspring of opinion. It is as though everyone has a microphone before them. This has raised the bar on the need for public opinion channeling. Faced with sudden-breaking issues, it is not sufficient for the government and mainstream [official] media to release information. They must also move quickly to understand the pulse of new information emerging on the Internet, reacting quickly to public doubts. This requires that governments, and especially propaganda offices, be equipped with the ability to rapidly and accurately compile and analyze public opinion.

Now we are hearing from media insiders that orders have come down from the propaganda department telling news media not to report critically on the handling of the Shishou incident.

Is it possible that the Shishou incident signals the weakness of Hu Jintao’s bold new media control strategy, a reticence at even the highest levels about the wisdom of opening things up at all — even when the ultimate objective is control?

The response to Shishou, and the reversion to traditional information control tactics in its aftermath, could suggest a reassertion of the old “guidance.”

We’ll have to keep watching.

[Posted by David Bandurski, June 29, 2009, 8:09pm HK]