In China, transparency, accountability and civic engagement are all politically sensitive issues. The root of the tension can date back to the Cultural Revolution, when people were told to say what the government, or more exactly, the Communist Party of China (CCP), expected to hear. Those who said what they really thought, or questioned the CCP’s acts, were often jailed or worse.
After China’s period of economic reform beginning in 1978, political reform and freedom of speech were brought back to the agenda. In 1987, the 13rd National People’s Congress brought up the idea of “supervision by public opinion,” and specified that “major situations should be known by the people; major questions should be discussed by people.” (Wu Guoguang, 1997) Emphasis on political transparency reached its historical peak in modern Chinese history.
The 1989 the Tiananmen Incident was a turning point for China's policy making about the control of public discourse. The CCP used tanks to “clear up” Tiananmen Square, where hundreds of thousands of students demonstrated for political reform to eradicate government corruption and promote democracy and transparency. The international response was enormous, but in China any mention of the incident was banned. On the Internet, keywords such as “June 4th”, “6.4”, and others were all automatically filtered from websites. It is common that young people today in China have no clue about the incident at all.
Article 44 of the August 2007 Emergency Response Law offers a small opportunity for improvement because there is no explicit restriction on what the media must do in emergency incidents, compared to past warnings by officials that media should be “helpful, not troublesome.” Also, from a legal perspective, according to Article 41 of the Chinese Constitution, citizens are entitled to not only know what is actually happening, but also to “criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary.” The constitution also specifies that citizens are entitled to demonstrate and protest. However, these civil rights were seldom practiced due to the strict political control enforced by the government. In short, the absence of an independent institution for the trial of laws that go against the constitution means that the articles themselves are not enforced.
Transparency and Traditional Media
The press was supposed supervise the state. However, after the Tiananmen incident, China’s media system characterized by a low level of autonomy, high government intervention, strong institutional continuity, and no correlation with any clear pattern of democratization. (Colin Sparks, 2007) He Zhou has referred to the role of Chinese media as “Party Inc.”. In other words, the role of the media has changed from a propaganda machine in the age of the Cultural Revolution to the Chinese Communist Party's PR agent, whose major task is to maintain a positive image of the party. Though most journalists take pride in investigating watchdog stories that also reveal the negative side, they generally choose less controversial topics like consumer culture or environmental protection. No core issue that involves political accountability or the election process can be touched. (Zhou He，2006) The Party, through the Central Propaganda Department and its local branches at all levels, still control mass media content in great detail. It renders public distrust against the government, but there’s still no mechanism for citizens to dissent. In a nutshell, the priority of the CCP is to “maintain a stable society.” Any challenge from the citizens is basically “harmonized,” or filtered from access. Since citizens cannot receive the real and timely information from mass media, new media have become increasingly important in China.
Transparency and New Media
In recent years increased participation and communication, two basic aspects of transparency, have taken place on new media platforms. (Yang Guobin 2009) The primary form of netizen participation is online protest and dissent, most commonly in the form of replying in comment and forum threads. There are times that online activities are accompanied by offline activities. Relying on the online community platform, these kinds of activities are spontaneous and loosely organized, but they can have influence not only on online discourse, but also on offline public discourse and government policies. Social problems such as the widening divide between the rich and the poor; corruption; environmental pollution; changes in cultural values, etc. are reflected in the online discussions. (Yang, Guobin, 2000) The rise of an urban middle class is particularly important in the new online activism. The urban middle class is more confident in the aspect of culture, and has more confidence in both domestic and international media than the working class. (Du Junfei, Wen Yunchao, 1999) This finding is also reflected in the case studies of technology for transparency projects I documented. Three of the four founders were educated abroad (including Hong Kong), and one is a senior manager at an IT firm.
On the other hand, new media also gives netizens new channels to break through the Chinese government’s information censorship, thus empowering Chinese netizens to hear voices other than those of the “Party Inc.” (Hu Yong, 2008) Online it is hard to draw a fine line between the private and public sphere. Nevertheless, in China, a country with an under-developed public sphere, the Internet has had a major impact on unraveling the information monopoly, and creating a space for other voices. No mediium can change deeply rooted, non-democratic behaviors over night, but for many Chinese the Internet has brought political discourse into citizens’ daily life, and in some instances has changed citizens’ perspective toward the control of information, freedom, and creativity.
In response to the influence of the Internet, the government has updated its online censorship tactics. Search engines at home (Baidu) or abroad (Google) have conformed to filter out search results with personal information of national leaders and keywords related to politically sensitive issues. (Google.cn has since migrated to Hong Kong.) A project to install monitoring softwares (adult content and political sensitive content) called Green Dam, Youth Escort was proposed to be installed on every PC in China in 2009. The Great Firewall blocks numerous websites from Hong Kong, Taiwan and abroad that may contain politically sensitive content, or that facilitates discourse of about such topic. This includes platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and news sites like Apple Daily. In the end of 2009, the government released a list of websites in China that do not have the “license” to run multi-media content. Countless websites did not survive this “policy adjustment,” and many activist blogswere shut down or erased from the blogging platform. The Wu Mao party (50 cent) part has been observed actively leaving patriotic comments in forums, blogs, and portal sites. It seems that China’s censorship is so powerful that it has managed to control what was thought of as the uncontrollable Internet.
Regulations about Civil Associations in China
For a project to promote transparency, accountability and civic engagement, forming civil society organizations, or NGO's, should be an effective way to start the operation. However, in China, such organizations are taboo. Between China’s Reform in 1978 and the student movement in 1989, there were neither legal policies nor official bureaus to regulate civil society organizations in China. Nonetheless, at the peak of the student movement in 1989, the government began considering the creation of a regulatory system to regulate civil society organizations. The Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) was appointed to be responsible of managing civil organzations and NPOs (Non Profit Organizations). These organizations, or associations, were required to register, and they could not register with the MCA unless they were under the supervision of government or party agencies.
In 1996, Jiang Zemin strengthened the system by bringing in more detailed and comprehensive regulations. Nevertheless, many rules governing NGOs derived from the speeches of high officials or from unpublished speeches and documents that NGO leaders might not be aware of. In 1998, the CCP’s Central Bureau and the MCA even jointly issued a document that required every civil association that has three or more CCP members to establish a party branch to supervise its political behavior. As a result, most internet projects were loosely organized and can be easily claimed as “illegal” by the government and shut down.
Transparency in Hong Kong
The case in Hong Kong reflects a shrinking of the public sphere after its return to China. Hong Kong was the sanctuary for a great number of political refugees from mainland China, and the UK maintained a liberal media order when Hong Kong was a British colony. However, the transfer of sovereignty brought about two anti-democratic trends. First was transfer of media groups’ ownership and management. Many middle-class professionals moved overseas before returning. Pro-Beijing capitalists bought many critical magazines and closed them. International capitalists and overseas Chinese capitalists who have major investments in mainland China also bought several major media groups. This led to the second anti-democratic trend: self-censorship and moral bankruptcy. Beijing controls news sources from the mainland and it can decide which media group it releases news to. Moreover, the chiefs of several Hong Kong media groups have close relationship with Beijing (some of them even members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference), and request that their employees voluntarily self-censor their criticism against Beijing. In conclusion, transparency in Hong Kong has been undermined due to economic-political reasons, but it has a richer legacy of criticism and watchdog journalism than that of mainland China, and the media enjoys greater autonomy about local and international issues. (Lee Chin Chuan, 2003)
The case studies
The case study features a community forum called Jiang-Wai-Jiang. It serves as a platform to bring together residents to protest against the construction of a waste incinerator in Guangzhou, China. The construction of waste incinerators were not only reported in Guangzhou, but also many other major cities in China. In the end, because of the communities’ strong opposition, the government suspended the project. However, as soon as the threat of pollution was gone, most community members on the forum returned to silence. From a researcher’s point of view, collaboration with other anti-waste-incinerator efforts would diminish the risk for Jiang-Wai-Jiang in the future.
Inmediahk has influenced many major political issues in Hong Kong by providing independently-investigated information on its website. It aims to overcome the problem of Hong Kong's shrinking public sphere after the handover of sovereignty to mainland China. Its goal is to protect freedom of speech in Hong Kong. In the recent “Hong Kong High-Speed Railway Incident,” it provided series of insightful posts that attracted tens of thousands affected people and advocated on behalf of the most affected community, Choi Yuen Village. Though the Choi Yuen Village is still scheduled to be dismantled, the villagers were better compensated. Moreover, it aroused public attention about the negative side of the project. About 10,000 people attended the protest to support the Choi Yuen Village and to protest the High-Speed Railway construction. Inmediahk reveals mature and healthy model of online civic engagement with the ability to be self-sustained. It’s a pity that the social system in mainland China has far not copied such a model.
The Sichuan Earthquake in 2008 took away thousands of lives of school children. While the public mourned the loss, Ai Weiwei, a renowned blogger in China, noticed that the government never released the exact names of the victim students. He made hundreds of phone calls to inquire at all levels of government, but none of them were able to offer him the list. As a result, he organized a team to conduct a citizen investigation to compile students’ names behind the casualty numbers. But the investigation encountered impediment from all levels of governments in Sichuan Province. The team was detained, interrogated, and, at times, beaten. The names and reports that Ai Weiwei published on his blogs were all deleted by the government. It was widely suspected that the government’s corruption in the school construction projects was the leading reason why so many schools just collapsed. In the end, he managed to publish “Ai Weiwei’s list” with basic information such as names, school, class, age, etc. However, the project is heavily reliant on the celebrity effect of Ai Weiwei and his own safety has been severely threatened. This society needs more Ai Weiweis, who are fearless to confront the government and who have profile to demand accountability. We cannot afford to lose citizens like Ai Weiwei any more.
Free More News (FMN) was established in September 2007 and has since become one of the most trusted online media for Chinese Internet users (as opposed to the government controlled media). Especially since March 2009, FMN's use of Twitter and other Web 2.0 platforms has enabled it to break through some of the barricades placed by Chinese government censors in order to report on big news that has happened in China, such as the Xinjiang riots, the Shishou mass protest, the Hong Kong 7.1 march, the Guangzhou protest against the waste incinerator construction, and so on. It represents the emerging civil power of the “sea turtles” (the term shares the same pronunciation with “returning from the overseas” in Chinese) in modern China. Nonetheless, it depends heavily on volunteer work, which may result in inconsistency and could be an obstacle to sustainability. Working on a sustainability model will eventually allow them to focus more of their goals as an independent source of news and information.
Conclusion and Recommendations
The four cases that I selected represent different technologies that are currently widely adopted in China: forums, websites, blogs, and micro-blogs. All of the projects in mainland China are vulnerable when facing powerful government censorship. All of the projects reflect the emerging power of the middle class and the democratic influence from outside of China. From the above observation, we should realize that democratization in China is a long process. Though China is going through a fundamental shift in how information spreads and is controlled, the power that China’s social system has regulating networked communication and the adoption of technology should never be under-estimated.
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