Watch the story unfolding in the media about change gripping the Middle East and North Africa and you could be forgiven for assuming that Twitter and other social media are progressive new tools that spell doom for authoritarian governments everywhere. Social media may of course be a “critical tool,” but the most critical question of all is about who is using these tools — and how.

The debate over whether the Internet and social media promote change — read “positive and democratic” change — or not is often couched in terms of “cyber-optimism” (or “cyber-utopianism”) versus “cyber-pragmatism” (is there a “cyber-cynicism” too?). Some have written about “networked authoritarianism” and the possibility that new communication technologies might actually help to sustain repressive regimes.

Given its recent efforts to assert control over dissidents and the Internet, China certainly seems on alert for some sort of “contagion” from events happening elsewhere in the world. But it’s worth pointing out as well that China’s leaders — “networked authoritarians”? — are also catching the social media cold, exploring new ways to use these tools to their advantage.

A piece from the CCP’s official People’s Daily today, promoted prominently on many, many websites, including Sina, QQ and Xinhua Online, introduces attempts in Sichuan province to use domestic Twitter-like microblog platforms as a means to push the government’s own agendas.


[ABOVE: Sichuan’s official government microblog on the Sina Microblog platform, which now has close to 255,000 followers].

The People’s Daily article is a sycophantic piece of propaganda, a plug for leaders in Sichuan that includes a priceless paraphrase of web user response to the launch of the provincial government microblog: “Sichuan is so hip!”

But the piece also points to some of the ways governments across China are exploring the use of social media to further their own agendas. Microblog platforms, for example, might be effective ways to release timely information on so-called “sudden-breaking public events,” which are often social flash points leaders work energetically to contain.

Obviously, if official microblogs were just one among many unmediated sources of information, this might be trend to celebrate. But strict control of information about sudden-breaking news events, combined with timely reporting by official media (and restrictions for others, including commercial media), is now policy in China, a strategy President Hu Jintao outlined in June 2008.

Is this openness, or Control 2.0? More responsive leaders, or leaders “grabbing the megaphone“?

The following is a partial translation of the People’s Daily piece.

Official Government Microblogs Become New Platform for Connecting with the People

More and more government departments are opening up official weibo accounts

Reporter Liu Yuguo (刘裕国)

2010 has been dubbed the “Year of the Microblog in China” (中国微博元年). Now more and more government departments are opening up official weibo accounts, and this is become a new platform for connecting with the masses.

At 3:33pm in the afternoon on December 29, 2010, the People’s Government of Sichuan Province officially launched its “Heavenly Province Focus on Sichuan Microblog” (天府微博聚焦四川). As a rare example of a provincial-level microblog platform for information openness, the “Heavenly Province Focus on Sichuan Microblog” had 260 “fans” within the first four hours, meaning one new web user was becoming a “fan” every minute.

By February 25, the Sichuan provincial government already had close to 240,000 “fans.”

The Provincial Party Secretary Sends New Year’s Greetings Via Microblog

After the launch of the “Heavenly Province Focus on Sichuan Microblog,” the very first post came from Li Qibao (刘奇葆) the party secretary of Sichuan and head of the standing committee of the provincial people’s congress: “Sichuan today is a place of history and actuality, with a deep history and culture, its people intelligent and hardworking, its economy open and flourishing, its mountains and rivers vast and beautiful.” Within minutes the post had drawn notice from more than a hundred web users, and more than 10 made comments.

Right at the turn of the new year, at 0:0:2011, Liu Qibao made a weibo post in which, among other things, he “express[ed] heartfelt thanks to all people nationwide and overseas who have supported the rebuilding of my Sichuan after the disaster, and [encouraged] its economic and social development!” Instantly, web users discussed the post passionately: Sichuan is so hip!

Many web users clicked “promote” [the equivalent of a “retweet” on Twitter] for this post. Web user “Blackclothed Mozi” (青衣墨子) wrote: “A provincial party secretary sending a New Year greeting by microblog, now that’s new. I have to promote this.”

At the same time, the story of the “Sichuan Party Secretary Uses Microblog to Wish the People Happy New Year” drew widespread attention in the media. People’s Daily Online, Xinhua Online, China Daily Online and other website placed the story in prominent positions.

[NOTE: This piece was written by Sichuan Daily and posted on Sichuan Online, the province’s official news platform. It was then cross-posted on other websites].

A spokesperson with the press office of the Sichuan government says that: “Sichuan will use the external transmission platform provided by the microblog to propagate various information about Sichuan to the entire province, the nation and the outside world in a timely manner, providing links to news on [government] decisions and policies so that more people take notice of Sichuan’s development and progress. More and more people are now using microblogs to issue information quickly, and the special strength of the microblog as a means of releasing news and information is now patently clear.”

. . . A representative with the external propaganda office of the Sichuan Provincial Party Committee said that new media as a broadcast form had already broken through relatively closed geographical boundaries and had enabled quick delivery of information about changes in Sichuan.

Government Microblogs Have Been Born, With Their Own Character

It is said [NOTE: presumably by Sichuan government sources] that 11 local-level governments in Sichuan province have already set up certified official microblogs. Seven government offices in Sichuan have set up microblogs at Sina Microblog, including two government offices at the provincial level — the information office of the provincial government, and the provincial tourism office. Four city-level government microblogs, including the “Chengdu Microblog,” have been set up at QQ Microblog . . .

[The story introduces various Sichuan government microblogs here and their followers and characteristics]

Microblogs Open New Round of Online Politics

Famous [Sichuan-based] microblogger [and Sichuan official at a CPPCC delegate] Fan Jianchuan (樊建川) commented by saying: “We should really research the principles of how transmission via microblogs works, so that [information is] accurate and easy to understand.” To this [Chengdu’s official government Microblog] “Chengdu Release” (成都发布) responded head on that: “Using this modern transmission tool of the microblog to release breaking developments on sudden-breaking public events would certainly for propaganda offices be a new experiment . . . We’re confident that we will become better and better, and more and more professional.”

Xiang Zhuchun (向志纯), director of the Guangyuan City Internet Management Center [NOTE: this is the city-level office from which web controls are implemented in the city of Guangyuan] says that microblogs are are a great through train (直通车) for connecting with online public opinion. Since launching the “Guangyuan Microblog,” information they have received and responses to information they have posted have resulted in a number of messages and requests from the masses.

A spokesperson from the Information Office of the People’s Government of Sichuan Province said that ever since the information office of the government launched its microblog its “fans” have increased, and they plan next to set up microblogs on other major platforms, including QQ, Sohu and Netease, so that they can cover different user bases. In the future, all 21 of the province’s cities and prefectures will release information through this microblog platform for openness of information on government affairs, so that the content on “Heavenly Province Focus on Sichuan Microblog” can be continually diversified and its influence can increase.

FRONTPAGE PHOTO a version based on a photo by LarimdaME available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.