I wrote last week about a recent forum in Beijing where government officials and internet industry representatives roundly praised media controls in the wake of the June 1 cruise ship tragedy on the Yangtze River. Using President Xi Jinping’s favoured term for non-critical reporting and public opinion, one of the forum’s participants remarked that there had been more “positive energy” on the internet this time than in the wake of any previous tragedy.

At the moment, when it comes to media control, the tone of Chinese officialdom is markedly self-congratulatory — one indication of just how successful (by the Party’s own estimates) controls on information have been under Xi Jinping.

On June 24, the Public Opinion Monitoring Center, a project established several years back at People’s Daily Online, released its latest report on the mobile internet: “China Mobile Public Opinion Development Report 2014” (2014年中国移动舆论场舆情发展报告). And once again it seemed the cat had swallowed the canary.

sweeping away rumors
2014 coverage of Chinese government policy toward the internet showed a cleaner sweeping “rumours” away from a computer screen.

For more than a decade, Chinese leaders have worried themselves over changes to the process of agenda-setting resulting from the advancement of commercial media — and an attendant trend of rising journalistic professionalism — and the internet. Essentially, the Communist Party media traditionally envisioned as the vanguard of “public opinion guidance” were losing influence, their circulations plummeting. Meanwhile, commercial magazines and tabloid newspapers were gaining huge audiences of paying news consumers for their more relevant, and sometimes envelope-pushing, content.

By 2003, when Chinese media achieved huge breakthroughs on a number of stories, including SARS and Sun Zhigang, even Party pundits had to admit to the co-existence of two quite distinct fields of public opinion, 1) the “mainstream” field of official media, that aligned with the Party-state, and 2) the “popular” (民间) field of commercial media and the internet. Some warned that the rise of this distinct public opinion sphere was a danger to the political status quo.

In the simplest sense, the past decade of media policy and propaganda practice in China has been all about the Chinese Communist Party regaining control of public opinion, increasing its capacity to “guide” the agenda against the backdrop of social and technological change.

The recently released report on mobile public opinion suggests that — at least for now — the Party might be winning the battle for dominance over information and public opinion, thanks to tighter controls on commercial media and the internet.

As Yan Hongshuang (阎虹爽), at People’s Daily Online, summarises the report: “According to the analysis, since 2014 there has been strengthened integration of the mainstream public opinion sphere and the popular public opinion sphere, and both the degree of consensus in online public opinion and the level of approval of the government rose rapidly, so that [China’s] online public opinion ecology got on the right track.”

Yan also noted that “mainstream media internal to the system,” meaning state-run media as opposed to commercially operating tabloids and others, had become more active and now enjoyed greater influence than popular opinion leaders, meaning those intellectuals, lawyers, journalists and writers — like the so-called “Big Vs” on Weibo — who tend to voice more dissident opinions on social and political issues.

Translated portions of the People’s Daily Online release about the “China Mobile Public Opinion Development Report 2014” follow.

On the morning of June 24, 2015, a ceremony was held jointly in Beijing by the Journalism and Mass Communications Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Social Sciences Academic Press for the release of the “China New Media Development Report No. 6 (2015).” At the same time, the “China Mobile Public Opinion Development Report 2014,” written by Liu Pengfei (刘鹏飞), Zhou Yaqiong (周亚琼) and Zhang Li (张力), was also released. This is yet another important report to emerge from the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Center, resulting from the long-term observation of the internet, social media and the development of mobile public opinion in recent years.

The report points out that by 2014 the mobile internet in our country had already become the hottest public opinion sphere on the globe, with the rise of WeChat, news clients, HTML5 and other trends, and microblogs and mobile internet sites continuing to occupy the main position in mobile public opinion — and with new and old media working together to serve an agenda-setting function on sudden-breaking incidents and hot-button issues, gradually forming “latent public opinion” (潜舆论) and a decentralised new pattern mobile public opinion.

The government and the media have all made new arrangements in terms of “thumb discourse power” (拇指话语权) [in other words, dealing with an environment where expression is mobile and at web users’ fingertips], and the new media “national team” (国家队) [meaning the presence of social media accounts and platforms operated by Party-state organs] has had clear results, and there is greater maturity in terms of end-point coverage by new media for [handling of] government affairs and in terms of service functions [in other words, providing of access to various government services through mobile]. Our country’s internet experience and the international influence of its internet enterprises has strengthened. The “cross-border” (跨界) nature of the internet has presented new opportunities and challenges for the innovation of social management. There have been major breakthroughs for internet management, which has meant great strides for “the governing of the internet by the law” (依法治网).

In 2014, we saw the strong rise of WeChat, news clients and HTML5. WeChat, which has 600 million users, 8 million public accounts, and generate 1.6 billion posts per day, has already become the largest domestic mobile social media platform. WeChat has started to become the principal field of public opinion. Numbers show that users of Weibo have falled by 7 percentage points, but Weibo’s role as a mobile front and a gathering point for public issues remains prominent, and it continues to play an agenda-setting role during various sudden-breaking incidents. Our country’s mobile internet has already become the hottest “in the hand public opinion sphere” (掌上舆论场) in the world.

. . . .

According to the analysis, since 2014 there was a further strengthening of integration between the mainstream public opinion sphere and the popular public opinion sphere, and the degree of consensus in online public opinion and the level of approval of the government both rose rapidly, so that the online public opinion ecology go on the right track.

In recent years, the online public opinion ecology has changed [in China], with mainstream media internal to the system (体制内主流媒体) — [NOTE: this means state-run media as opposed to commercially operating tabloids and others] — more and more active and of greater influence than the traditional popular “opinion leaders” (民间“意见领袖”).

. . . .

Summarising the situation of development of the mobile internet, and new [related] issues, we can draw out the following in regards to management of the mobile internet in 2014, and make relevant new suggestions:

Clarifying judicial interpretations for the handling of internet-related cases, establishing a new order for the “governing of the internet in accord with the law.”

The [so-called] “Ten WeChat Regulations” (微信十条) and the real-name web registration system have important significance for raising socially responsible [behavior] among web users, for protecting the information security of citizens, and for their enjoyment of information rights.

The release of new regulations for internet account names [in late February 2015, taking effect March 1, 2015] mean that internet users can no longer act in an “unruly” manner. In the future, an even more complete system of internet laws will be issued and implemented.

The real social impact of new internet technologies will become more and more obvious. Online finance, rider apps [like Uber] and “cross-boundary” innovations will have an impact on traditional industries, and [related] reform will continue to offer the way forward.

Fake e-commerce goods have been a constantly hot public opinion topic. In this regard, not only to platform operators have a responsibility to strengthen oversight of sales of fake goods, but the government must also prioritise platform management and involve itself in this process; at the same time, online patrolling systems must be built, using internet technology to supervise buying and selling through online sales platforms.

The building of intelligent, geo-located early-warning systems for non-specific groups in public places (公共场所日常非特定人群地理位置信息智能化预警系统), and the building of intelligent mobile applications for citizens’ personal safety, would benefit raising our capacity to respond to and handle public crises.

[We must continue our] long-term and active development of Online to Office (O2O) e-government, facilitating connection online and facilitating services offline. One aspect of this is prioritising online public opinion channeling, while another is resolving real issues offline. The internet [can be used to] adequately resolve the problem of difficult handling of matters offline, and this must become the main trend in development.