In today’s China, lack of popular trust in officials has become a vexing problem for the government. Something happens, big or small, the government comments, and the public is incredulous. The public always assumes they are covering something up, they are lying, they are twisting the facts, or even destroying evidence. Online, suppositions fly, but all in the same general direction — thinking the worst of the government. When the government conducts an accident investigation, no matter how it is done, there’s no way to earn the confidence of the public. And so, in the case of every major incident, the truth is always, inevitably, regarded as incomplete or delayed.
We must confess, concerning truth and trust, that the China of the past and the China of the present are two different worlds [existing side by side], operating each by its own logic. Government officials in China have, with little preparedness, been thrust overnight into an age of explosive information and fierce communication. But the ideas in their heads are still mired in the past. They find it impossible to avoid feeling panicked, angry, at a loss, or even wronged [by public opinion].
In a traditional age without modern media, there were generally just two channels to obtain information outside one’s own circle. First, there were the mass channels of the government [such as state-run media], and then there were smaller popular channels. As for the official channels, people have a visceral sense of skepticism. In ancient times, while the ordinary population tended to believe the emperor, they felt obstinately that the emperor was sure to be hoodwinked by his own officials. With the exception of a handful of so-called “clean” officials, precious few officials could gain the trust of the people. So people tended not to give much credence to official channels of information, and if their attitude was one of half-belief and half-skepticism, that was already a decent situation [from the government’s standpoint].
If something happened in a nearby area, such as a revolt for example, the population would certainly have their own reading of the event that differed from the government’s official notice. For its part the government claims that those leading the revolt have been killed, but people spread around word that they have fled. These [smaller] popular channels [of information] were not just gossip among the villages. They were generally accredited by elites too. These elites might have been rural gentry or unofficial grassroots leaders. They had support, authority, learning and extensive experience. So whatever the information was, the people tended to believe it if it came by their hands.
It was for this reason that the government’s response was generally to crack down, regardless of where [the information] came from. And great effort was invested in grooming local gentry, through whom local public opinion could be more effectively controlled. Local gentry dealt with matters on both sides. On the one hand, their status came through official sanction, whether they were serving or retired officials or held official titles earned through an official examination system connected to the government. On the other hand, they were real leaders of civil society (民间社会), born and raised in the area, sharing in the weal and woe of the local population. In some sense, it was only through the mediation of local elites that the government could gain some level of popular support. In times of peace, this form of validation would allow the government to muddle by — but when even local elites were unable to convince to population, crisis came.
This was essentially a one-dimensional system of information transmission and feedback, and in the era before economic reforms it in fact seriously intensified. One contributor to this was the strengthening of official [information] channels as a result of readily available modern forms of communication such as newspapers, radio and television. Another factor was extreme change to the nature of small channels of communication (小渠道的传播), as local gentry were scattered to the winds. Boundless back alley news became much more favored by the general population. Even though this information was generally not accredited in any way, and had no way of being verified, transmission was rapid and widespread. In this era [ahead of reforms], information transmission was a much simpler matter than it had been traditionally, essentially I speak and you listen, a low level with high repetition. Information output meant propaganda. The normal condition was to leave things concealed and unreported.
It should also be said that, under these circumstances, even as propaganda was crude, back alley gossip was far too unreliable and there were no other authorities acknowledged by the public, and so information provided by the government was still believed by many. This was true even in the face of natural disasters, in which many people would choose to believe the government, scarcely raising their guard, and pay no heed to backstreet gossip
China today has already opened up, and gone are the days when you could be accused of crimes just by listening to foreign radio broadcasts. In an era when hundreds of millions go online, in an era when internet technologies are changing with each passing day, sources of information have already diversified and are now multidimensional (立体化). As a result of the development of microblogs, online information is now multifaceted (多面), multi-threaded (多头), multi-variant (多元) and rapid (异常迅捷). This means it is necessary to dismantle the [government’s] old model of self-investigation and self-correction in the investigation of accidents and other cases.
Even if [investigations] come from high-level government departments and have a high-level of expertise, they must all the same be subjected to strict examination, because there are many capable people online as well, and no shortage of expertise. Investigations carried out through non-governmental third parties or civic organizations would most inspire public confidence, but such investigations must equally be open and transparent, otherwise it would be similarly subjected to public doubts.
It’s quite simple. In modern societies, no state or government is trusted. The era in which the relationship between the government and the people is like the relationship between parents and children is long gone. The mark of a modern society is how “modern” its sources and transmission of information are. This means, too, that people have changed.
This article was originally published in Chinese in the August 8 edition of Southern Metropolis Daily.