Neigborhood Watch to Netizenry? Thoughts on Governance in China

Even when something as new and seemingly above cultural differences as the internet develops, cultural processes continue to exert their influence. In the relationship between cyberspace and the government in China, particularly so…

One of the strangest issues with contemporary China, especially given its drive for (international) soft power, is how many things seem to be done right, only to be handled in such a way as to be put into a very negative light.
The rail system is pretty great – then you get an accident and instead of coming clean, the online speculation is “harmonized” (i.e., blocked, deleted), and the netizenry is even more irate. You have great food – but also lots of food scares, exposed and exploited online – and even when an organizer tries to represent parents who lost their child because of tainted milk powder, he’s thrown in jail for supposedly inciting subversion of the state.

One of China’s great problems, when it comes to governance in international perspective, is that rule of law has not been established. The laws are, for the most part, up to (Western) standards. However, their interpretation is rather contextual, based on political circumstances extant in the particular situation; not least, rather fitting also for the Confucian influence, it is shaped very much by personal relations, examples to be made or lessons seen as having been learned. Also, the implementation of laws is oftentimes lacking, as the central government creates a new law, but the local administrations responsible feel that following up on it would put undue burdens on their businesses, which make them their tax money, for example (this seems to be the usual case with environmental rules and regulations…).

Where the internet and the state have come together, the situation is particularly interesting: the story often told is one of online whistleblowers exerting great power, to the point of shaping policy that used to be the simple purview of the central government. Beijing has probably never since the days of Mao Zedong been as all-powerful as this view suggests (power in China has typically been more devolved to local authorities than that). Still, one has to wonder…

Quite certainly, the possibility of anonymously and quickly commenting on matters of one’s interest has been influencing how (not least legal) matters developed. Where a problem may have been more cleanly swept under the rug before, it now tends to get out there into the (online) public’s consciousness; and there are obvious ways in which the central government is listening and heeding the (cyber-) vox populi.

Both positives and negatives surrounding the internet go to the point where it’s not clear whether the controls imposed on online communications – websites and “sensitive” topics being blocked and comments/blog posts getting deleted – are just controls, or also get data-mined. The Chinese netizenry may still be a skewed sample of the total population, but if the online comments get analyzed, the result may be a better representation of public sentiment than democratic countries get by way of elections and referenda…

There is another thing that at least appears as an oddity to the outside observer, though: China’s government appears to have quite enough public support, China itself to be strong enough a country – but at the same time, the extent to which critical voices are suppressed speaks of weakness and insecurity. Even within the country, to those interested in such matters, it seems to have become a major irritation when online controls are imposed on matters that regard one’s personal health and safety, stoking fears that authorities (maybe colluding with businesses paying them off) are trying to hide something.

The entire matter resides in culturally contested terrain, though: on the one hand, it fits in well with the social control that is to be found (not only) in Chinese culture/society. The ways others are looked at and commented upon with approval or disapproval is one major force shaping behavior, and this observing and commenting has found all new playgrounds online. On the other hand, there is also a tendency to accept things which one may not particularly approve of, as long as they are not talked about – and a concurrent desire not to have people talk about problems or talk badly about those who are important to them, which not only applies to family, but also to badmouthing country and government in public.

These intersections of diverging processes make for a problematic situation, of course. Where it will evolve is quite unclear – some simply argue, towards democracy; others, towards more control and authoritarianism. It could conceivably also be found that it would be better to empower the people (and control them by making them official representatives), by using them like neighborhood watches have been used to report on ‘wrong’ happenings, be more open, and get stronger in the process…

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