Although the Internet and social media are widely regarded as architectures of freedom, it is increasingly recognized that they can also be reconfigured to restrict access to information, compromise online privacy, limit personal expression, and constrain people’s abilities to organize (Deibert, Palfrey, Rohozinski & Zittrain, 2010). This essay argues that the Internet and related information technologies have been long viewed by the Chinese government as architecture of social management, where administrations at various levels have actively shaped the uses and outcomes of new media technologies to maintain social stability, control political dissent and popular protests. Far from being passive and static, the Chinese state has proactively appropriated the Internet and social media: from E-government in the 1990s and 2000s to Government Weibo in 2010s and Government WeChat most recently.
Since the early 1990s, the Chinese state has invested strategically in government networks, office automation, e-commerce promotion and government websites, totaling over $120 billion (Yong, 2003). Starting in 1993, twelve “Golden Projects” established a national information system ranging from banking and taxation to security and intergovernmental data exchange. The “Government Online Project” was launched in 1998, encouraging various government entities to create online administration and improve efficiency. By 2006, all 31 provinces as well as 93% of municipal governments and 69% of county governments had official portals (Jiang & Xu, 2009).
It is clear from the very beginning the Chinese government viewed the Internet not as something inherently liberating, but rather, configurable and controllable. Wu Jichuan, then Minister of Posts and Telecommunications, remarked in 1995: “By linking with the Internet, we don’t mean absolute freedom of information… If you go throughcustoms, you have to show your passport. It’s the same with management of information. There is no contradiction at all between the development oftelecommunications infrastructure and the exercise of state sovereignty” (quoted in Goldsmith & Wu, 2006, p.467). While filtering and censorship are an integral part of the government’s “information management,” electronic networks have also helped spur economic development and institute a degree of bureaucratic efficiency and accountability important to the political regime’s legitimacy.
With the advent of social media, Weibo (or micro-blogging) took China by storm in early 2010s. By the end of 2012, China had an estimated microb-logging population of 300 million (CNNIC, 2013) since a censored version of Sina Weibo was first introduced in August 2009. It quickly became the epicenter of Chinese public life. The debate spurred by the 2011 Wenzhou high-speed train collision marked the heyday of Sina Weibo in China’s cyber discourse. The collision sparked unprecedented public criticism of authorities, registering more than 10 million comments on Sina Weibo about the crash, questioning the government’s rescue effort and accountability. Facing numerous public opinion crises on Weibo, the Chinese government sprang into action.
In a move dubbed by Wang Cheng, deputy director of the Central Propaganda Department, as “occupy Weibo,” various government entities opened their own Weibo accounts to bolster their presence on social media. By August 2013, there were more than 176,000 administrative Weibo accounts trying to assert official voices and engage the public (Chinese Academy of Governance E-government Research Center, 2013). Among them, public security agencies and officials maintain more than one third. The main goal for these official accounts is to collect information for decision-making, interact with users, promote positive news and maintain stability during crises. While local officials are often found to be reluctant and unable to engage in meaningful dialogues on Weibo with the public (Esarey, 2015), the hundreds of thousands of administrative Weibo accounts have undoubtedly become a means for “social management.” Many municipal Weibo accounts have struck a highly friendly tone, focused on everyday life tips and human-interest stories (Schlaeger & Jiang, 2014). Coupled with other tactics such as silencing outspoken Weibo celebrities, increasing pressure for micro-blogging companies to censor information, and passing legal regulations that require users to register with their real identities, Gov Weibo is softening the rough edges in “harmonizing” social conflicts.
In the past two years, Sina Weibo experienced a visible decline, partly due to migration to Tencent’s popular group messaging app Weixin (or WeChat). The once vibrant “town square” public forum, Sina Weibo, has gradually been replaced by semi-private group chats on WeChat. Not surprisingly, many government entities swiftly integrated WeChat into their daily operations besides maintaining government websites and Gov Weibo accounts. An April 2015 Tencent white paper (The Paper, 2015) states that Gov WeChat accounts exceeded 40,000, covering all 31 provinces. 84.7% of provincial and municipal units have opened WeChat public accounts offering information and services related to public security, weather, tourism, transportation, medical care, education, taxation and so on. The average followers of a Gov WeChat public account reportedly exceeded 36,000.
In many respects, Gov WeChat is a continuation and extension of E-gov and Gov Weibo. Whereas government websites used to deliver information, services and basic online interactions with government entities, many of these functionalities have migrated to Gov Weibo and Gov WeChat. For instance, through a municipal traffic police’s WeChat public account, a local resident can get the latest information about license regulations, gas prices, road conditions; pay traffic tickets, apply for licenses, call service hotlines; listen to traffic police’s radio shows and interact with the traffic police’s Weibo account. These interactions with government units are increasingly mobile and personalized, which simultaneously carry varying degrees of risk of data surveillance, privacy and security as well as increasingly complicated relations with commercial service providers.
From E-gov to Gov Weibo and Gov WeChat, the Chinese government has used a diverse array of communication channels and platforms and experimented with ways to interact and negotiate with their electronic publics. The incorporation of the newest technological tools into the administrative toolbox for social managementhas largely been designed, controlled and filtered to boost the state’s technical, symbolic and political power. While this appropriation is never uniform and straightforward, it has managed to reap the economic benefits of new technologies while minimizing their political consequences.
China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). (2013). The 31st statistical survey report on the Internet development in China. Retrieved on 30 April 2013 from http://is.gd/QkUcSS
Chinese Academy of Governance E-government Research Center (2013). Chinese government affairs microblogs evaluation report 2012. Beijing: Chinese Academy of Governance Publishing House.
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The Paper (April 27, 2015). Gov Weixin accounts totaling 40,924 nationwide; public security weixin “leading the pack.” The Paper. Retrieved on July 28, 205 from http://is.gd/Hagnnv
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