China’s New Political Class: The People

In a post for the Council on Foreign Relation’s Asia Unbound blog, CFR’s director of Asian Studies Elizabeth C. Economy describes current trends in China’s civic engagement. By referring to many recent events, Economy explains how the Chinese people are using both the streets and the Internet as venues to express their concern:

Chinese people power has arrived. As China’s top officials meet in Beidaihe to finalize their selections for the country’s new leadership, they are being overshadowed by a different, and increasingly potent, political class—the Chinese people. From Beijing to Jiangsu to Guangdong, Chinese citizens are making their voices heard on the Internet and their actions felt on the streets.

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One of the events that Economy uses to underscore this trend is the flood that continues to wreak havoc on Beijing after last weekend’s torrential rains. While the government’s manipulation of death tolls and censorship of media and micro-blog coverage of the event led to serious public anger at the offical response to the disaster, the incident allowed citizens an opportunity to effectively stand up for themselves in the relief effort. China Media Project provides an in-depth media survey to show how the government has been trying to mitigate the fallout of negative public opinion by highlighting “positive” stories:

As we approach the critical one-week anniversary of the floods in Beijing last Saturday that claimed at least 77 lives, according to the latest official numbers — and as Chinese continue to heap criticism on the government via social media — China’s propaganda leaders are moving aggressively to contain negative coverage.

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While Weibo has proven a potent means for civic interaction, it has also become a valuable government tool to survey public opinion. An op-ed run in China Daily and the Global Times calls attention to the need to reconcile a discrepancy in digital literacy between officials and the public:

A recent local public servants’ selection test highlighted Chinese officials’ poor knowledge of Weibo.

[…]The situation of Chinese officials and governmental agencies not being able to keep up with the public’s demands needs to be changed. It’s worrying that they don’t know how to properly use this platform. Learning Weibo and other Internet applications should be a required course for civil servants and governments in the future.
More importantly, a “real life” interaction model between the government and the public also needs to be established. The government should learn to listen to the people rather than merely issue administrative documents. It needs a thorough reform. Perhaps a Weibo post of 140 words is a starting point.

The past year has been rife with incidents in which citizens have taken to the streets and to the Net to voice their concerns. For a few examples, see prior CDT coverage of the Wukan uprisings on the ground and in the blogosphere, or the Shifang protests and social media’s role within.