Before and during the recent political meetings in Beijing, Internet discussion and official media coverage in China turned to the possibility of Weblogs as a tool for grassroots political participation, allowing the people to interact more directly with leaders. How much of this “grassroots revolution” was real and how much was official hype? Here’s a quick review of some of the hubbub.
Internet chatrooms bubbled with discussion on March 3 after Tian Bingxin (田炳信), an columnist for Guangzhou’s New Express newspaper (新快报) and a former reporter for the official Xinhua News Agency, made a modest proposal: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao should start his own blog to ensure better contact with the people.
Commenting on four discussion forums Wen Jiabao held from February 6 to 10 with people from all walks of life in China, Tian said: “To meet face-to-face in Zhongnanhai [China’s official enclave] with the premier is a chance that comes once in a blue moon … If the premier, department heads, mayors and county heads all set up their own blogs, policy decisions and directions, investments (expenditures), and all incomplete thinking on tough decisions could benefit from opinion from all quarters, the opinions of bloggers at all levels. The cost is minimal, the speed quick, the reach broad”.
“It’s very difficult for people to see the county head or the mayor, to say nothing of the premier,” New Express quoted one netizen’s enthusiastic response to the idea. “A blog from the premier would be the people’s fortune”.
In a move New Express said was inspired by Tian Bingxin’s suggestion, People’s Congress representative Deng Mingyi (邓明义) submitted a formal proposal that Wen Jiabao establish a blog ‘in the near future or by next year’s  political meetings” in order that “to more widely and directly give ear to the people”.
During the recent political meetings [of the 10th People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress political blogs in general were the subject of some attention. People Online, the official website of the Party’s official paper, People’s Daily, set up a blog service for leaders on March 1, with message boards for Web users. Eight officials taking part in the meetings set up their own blogs via the Website.
“China’s bloggers are on the rise, and one the eve of the meetings, this Internet-based ‘grassroots revolution’ is opening a channel for the voicing of popular sentiments”, hailed the lead of a March 2 article by China News Service, one of China’s two official news agencies.
The same article also said the news centers of many Chinese web portals had set up online polls to hear the thoughts of average Chinese.
In light of China’s rigorous system of censorship, the burst of enthusiasm in state media over blogging and “grassroots” political participation, particularly from official mouthpieces like People’s Daily and Xinhua, suggested Chinese leaders wished to project an image of greater popular participation and transparency during the meetings.
Generally speaking, average Chinese have no way of influencing or participating in decisions at this level. The perception is still that China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s highest legislative body, is merely a “rubberstamp legislature” serving only as a symbol of participation in decisions made at the highest levels of leadership. Although this has changed some in recent years, with some members beginning to take a more active role in pushing certain policies, participation is still limited.
German news agency Deutsche Welle pointed out that while People’s Daily was hyping the political blog by saying that “by transmitting information about the meetings through blogs representatives could more conveniently communicate with the people and bring the two sides closer”, only eight of 5,000 officials at the Beijing meetings had set up blogs. Of the roughly 3,000 delegates to this years NPC, only two created personal Weblogs to communicate with average Chinese.
Despite the limited scale of political blogs in China, however, some officials expressed reservations. Li Weicheng, a National People’s Congress representative from Guangzhou, told Yangcheng Evening News that not all ideas expressed by bloggers were good or helpful, and officials were better off conducting inspection tours in person to gauge public sentiment. Moreover, said Li, the Internet could prove hard to control if Chinese were encouraged to express their views.
Whatever the long-term outcome of this year’s political blog mania online and in official media, there is little denying that the Internet, in the form of blogs, chatrooms and message boards, has served as an unprecedented platform for the voicing of public opinion in China. There are an estimated 16 million bloggers in China, running some 30 million blogs, and the numbers are on the rise.
In one recent case of Internet opinion concerning political decisions, netizens raised a cry for a national law against cruelty to animals after photos were published online showing the abuse of a cat [More coverage from Danwei].
[Posted by CMP Intern Loretta Yang, March 20, 2006]