Back in May 2010, when Guangdong province had just opened up the first Public Security Bureau [police] microblog in the whole country, I wrote a piece called “Three Recommendations for Government Microblogs” and talked about three principles I thought government offices should abide by to properly make use of microblogs. The first was, “face comments head on” (直面评论), which I meant to deal with the way some prefectural-level police departments were limiting comment functions purely out of fear once their microblogs were up and running. Second, dealing with the way some police microblogs were too thick with official jargon or propaganda, I offered the “please speak human language” (请讲人话) principle. Third, I emphasized that actions speak louder than words, and said that if [the government] made much of this so-called “microblog-based policy discussion” (微博问政), then it was crucial that questions be answered once they were asked — they must implement and follow through on the principle of “results above all else” (结果为上).

The results of a recent online study by The Beijing News on the topic, “What change can the trend of official microblogs bring?” suggested that these three principles are of real concern to web users.

For example, to the question “What change can the trend of official microblogs bring?”, 46 percent of those surveyed selected the response option saying microblogs could help officials “learn how to speak properly” (学会好好说话) — meaning microblogs could help them discard official-speak and pre-packaged Party jargon and speak like human beings. 45.7 percent of people responded that opening microblogs would mean “mostly putting on shows, with little real influence.” 36.8 percent believed government microblogs generally were “only set-up, but did not allow comments or interaction, so mean little.”

Certainly, what is the purpose of participating in an interactive medium if you don’t want to interact?

62.5 percent of those surveyed said microblogs “could advance interaction and conversation between the government and the people.” This suggests many believe the biggest impact of government microblogs could potentially come in busting through the barriers between the government and the public.

Looking at responses to another survey question, we can get a better grasp of the general environment for microblogs and the hopes people have vested in them. This was the question, “What do believe is the cause of upward trend in official microblogs?” 64.7 percent of those surveyed responded: “With advances in technology, methods for improving governance have come along.” 59 percent responded: “Through microblogs, [officials] can get to know real information about the people.”

These reasons are fair enough, but they don’t go far enough. Even if both the government and the people believe microblogs might enable two-way communication, the internet might ultimately become little more than a stage on which officials can strut their stuff if our understanding of the political role of microblogs stops there.

The use of the internet by officials must be understood on a higher plane of national political culture, and must go beyond the simple “asking after plans and policies” (问计求策) at the local government level.

In fact, the vast majority of officials still see so-called “online discussion of politics” (网络问政) as a new channel and method for obtaining information and exercising social surveillance. Just ahead of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in 2010, the People’s Daily interviewed 97 NPC delegates under the theme of “How NPC delegates view new media,” and they said there were two principal purposes they saw for using the internet. The first was “using the web as a means of gathering the feelings and opinions of the people, and carrying out research [or observing public opinion].” The second was “thoroughly using e-mail, blogs, microblogs and other new media to strengthen communication and mutual interaction with the masses.” The People’s Daily went so far as to say that “the new media of which the internet is representative have opened up a 24-hour channel for public opinion.”

The problem is that observing public opinion and communicating with the people is not what is meant politically by “democracy.” After all, the gathering up of online public opinion and the exercise of online monitoring [of affairs, by either the public or the government] is not the same thing as having a democratic system.

The online discussion of politics (网络问政) and democratic politics are two separate things. And online discussion of politics will not automatically eliminate the difficulties in communication that we see in our politics today. Many people talk about the discussion of politics as though it’s enough for government officials to hear what people have to say. This is why most of what we have termed “online discussion of politics” has typically been about the “hearing” stage, basically online mailboxes (where you can write in to government officials), online reporting (where you can write in to report abuses), etcetera, which can easily become a one-way street that is more about government officials scoring political points for apparent responsiveness than actually responding to public concerns.

Now that the government, formally speaking, belongs to the taxpayers, it is only right that the government should do its best to understand social conditions and public opinion. This means there is no reason to shower the government with praise for its efforts to use the internet to understand public opinion. Only real solutions to real problems are cause for dishing out praise.

A version of this editorial originally appeared in Chinese at
The Beijing News.