As I argue in an upcoming piece for ChinaFile, Chinese media coverage of the capsizing of the Oriental Star cruise ship earlier this month offered us the clearest indication yet of how rigid restrictions on information are in China under President Xi Jinping.
While it is generally true, as international media have said, that Chinese authorities followed a “familiar playbook” of media control on the story, restrictions were in fact more effective this time than we saw during disasters under Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao — most notably the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the 2011 Wenzhou train collision.
But don’t take my word for it.
Many internet bigshots (互联网大咖) and internet user representatives gathered together at a forum on the spontaneous spreading of positive energy (网民自发传播正能量主题研讨会), where they discussed how after the “Oriental Star” tragedy internet users took it upon themselves to spread positive energy (自发传播的正能量).
Li Weining (李未柠), deputy director of the Internet Information Research Center of the Communication University of China, said of online public opinion during the “Oriental Star” tragedy that more online positive energy was spread in this case than in any previous period following a natural disaster.
Chen Lina (陈丽娜), deputy general manager of Sina Weibo, said that after the capsizing of the “Oriental Star,” there were close to one billion related posts on Sina Weibo. “The vast majority of web users looked at it through their own expertise or their own personal experiences,” [she said]. “There was no [widespread sharing of] public slogans (公众的口号), and there was no sensationalizing.” Chen Lina said that one ordinary user made a post late at night about precipitation around the Three Gorges Dam which didn’t at first get much attention, but then the next day reached more than 100,000 shares. Of these, more than 90 percent were shares by ordinary people, with positive discussion of 80 percent, neutral 10 percent and negative 10 percent.
Chen Lina said that in the case of this sudden-breaking natural disaster, the Weibo posts with the most interaction came from ordinary users, something unprecedented. Chen Lina believes that the positive energy of web users relies to a great extent on the timely release of information by the government and positive channeling of public opinion by the media. Only on this basis, [Chen said], can web users respond in a positive way.
After the tragic sinking [of the Oriental Star], Tencent’s [QQ.com] pushed out the news of rescues by divers, including news about more than 200 people diving down to search, which received more than 100,000 comments from web users, of which 80 percent were complimentary. Concerning this, QQ.com’s deputy editor-in-chief, Li You (李游), said that internet users really cared about positive energy.
When Xinhua News Agency reported on the incident, it created a “Q&A” section. Unlike previous expert interviews in the past, this section consisted entirely of questions and answers from web users themselves. Zhou Hongjun (周红军), deputy editor-in-chief of Xinhua Online, said that after the incident occurred web users expressed some doubts about the methods and intensity of the rescue effort. Xinhua Online selected and refined the comments and messages by web users and collected and arranged those hot topics most of interest to web users, introducing platforms for interaction on the basis of a whole series of topics.
“Every Q&A was handled on the basis of grabbing the hot points, the focal points that really concerned internet users each day,” Zhou Hongjun said. “For example, the first installment was on the topic of what difficulties there were in the Oriental Star rescue mission and why the hull had not been cut open at the first opportunity. These questions represented the doubts harbored by many internet users.” Because we were using the language of the internet, said Zhou Hongjun, this effectively checked the spread of online rumors.
Xue Chenzi (薛陈子), the chief executive officer of Media Observer (传媒大观察), said that online rumors did not appear during the Oriental Star tragedy, and this was because in recent years authoritative [official government and Party] departments had struck out decisively against [rumors], and also because the mainstream [Party] media had openly and transparently reported [the story], channeling the development of public opinion.
Zhu Huaxin (祝华新), secretary of the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Center, said that recently internet users had been relatively reasonable, and the online public opinion climate had been clearer. Online public opinion, said Zhu Huaxin, offers a kind of feedback on the national mentality. “Since the 18th National Congress of the CCP and the hard collective work of the central leadership in fighting corruption and advancing reforms, the social psychology today is far more stable.”