Beijing Listens to the People. What Does That Mean?

At The Washington Post last week, Simon Denyer reported on the expansion of Beijing’s efforts to gather data on public opinion, both online and through surveys:

[… T]he government is trying to understand public opinion on an unprecedented scale. In response to government demand, opinion monitoring centers have sprung up in state-run news organizations and universities to mine and interpret the vast rivers of chatter on the Internet. At the same time, the authorities are hiring firms to poll people about everything from traffic management to tax policy.

“The government used to have more power to control the agenda,” said a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of restrictions on talking to foreign reporters. “But now there is a new approach, to identify the hot spots and try to control the crisis.”

[…] Increasingly, public opposition to a proposal can shape policy, although not yet on issues vital to the party’s interests, such as political reform. [Source]

The report spawned widespread commentary, much of which warned against reading the news as a sign of a more democratic approach to government. From Max Fisher at The Washington Post, for example:

This program looks, to me, a bit like the Chinese government’s response to popular protests, which became especially common after the 2002 labor rights demonstrations, and then seemed to evolve again with a December 2011 protest movement in the village of Wukan, which briefly expelled all government officials before winning some of its demands. As I wrote at the time, both waves of protests eventually led the Chinese government to become more flexible and responsive to such demonstrations, which at first looked like a hint of greater public participation in government — and maybe it was.

But officials also shrewdly exploited these movements in ways that actually helped them to cement autocratic rule. They did this by signaling that they might occasionally grant concessions to public protests, but only if the movements pledged their fealty to one-party rule and kept their demands local. It worked: protests are much more common now than they used to be, but they’re assiduously “within-system,” careful to ask only for things that the party might feel comfortable granting. In this way, protests often tend to serve as an internal release valve that actually helps sustain the autocratic system rather than undermining it. You might call that a quasi-democratic process, but it’s not the same thing as a step toward actual democracy. [Source]

Jay Ulfelder cited Charles Tilly’s definition of democracy as involving “broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding consultation”:

[…] Using Tilly’s definition as a prism, I think it’s easier to see why those social-media monitoring efforts and polling firms in China call democracy to mind, but also what’s different about them. Asking people what they think and listening and responding to their online chatter are forms of consultation, but this consultation isn’t protected, equal, or binding. It’s not protected because Chinese citizens still face harsh punishment for speaking out on sensitive topics. The state still chooses who gets to speak about what, and transgressions of those boundaries carry steep costs. The consultation isn’t equal because not everyone can participate. According to Denyer, “Chinese villagers, who still account for nearly half of the population, are not comfortable expressing their views to strangers and are generally not active online.”

Finally and probably most important, the consultation isn’t binding because the state decides when it will respond to what it hears, and citizens still have no way to hold them accountable for those choices. This is why competitive elections are so important. Without a formal mechanism that gives all citizens a chance to reward or punish political decision-makers for their behavior, the Chinese Communist Party can continue to cherry-pick its “listening” efforts in ways that are meant to maximize its own corporate interests without really attending to citizens’ preferences. There may be an element of democratization in these polling and eavesdropping endeavors, but if so, it’s an awfully thin and fragile form of it. [Source]

Others have discussed how radical a departure listening to the people really is. In a conversation at ChinaFile, Orville Schell suggested that the reported initiatives are a logical extension of existing systems, while BDA China’s Duncan Clark argued that even taking this monitoring online is nothing new:

The Internet has for years now been embraced by the central government as a tool to gain a better understanding of what’s going on (or not) in the Provinces. From “The Mountains Are High, and the Emperor is Far” thanks to the Internet today we have “The Mountains Are High, But The Emperor is Online.”

Of course the Party has invested heavily in the technology and manpower to remove inconvenient truths from Weibo, but there are plenty of convenient exposes of local corruption or cover-ups that it is only too happy to re-tweet.

The sum of all fears for the Party though is the emergence of a true civil society in China that would undermine its power to set the rules of the game. Allowing ‘netizens’ a limited degree of freedom to express and share their opinions online is one thing, removing these limits altogether to allow people to think of themselves as citizens is quite another. [Source]

The novelty of contracting work to private polling firms is also unclear. In his defenses of China’s one-party state, venture capitalist Eric X. Li has repeatedly cited such activity, most recently in a talk at this year’s TED Global conference:

You know, Frank Fukuyama, the political scientist, called the Chinese system “responsive authoritarianism.” It’s not exactly right, but I think it comes close. So I know the largest public opinion survey company in China, okay? Do you know who their biggest client is? The Chinese government. Not just from the central government, the city government, the provincial government, to the most local neighborhood districts. They conduct surveys all the time. Are you happy with the garbage collection? Are you happy with the general direction of the country? So there is, in China, there is a different kind of mechanism to be responsive to the demands and the thinking of the people. My point is, I think we should get unstuck from the thinking that there’s only one political system — election, election, election — that could make it responsive. I’m not sure, actually, elections produce responsive government anymore in the world. [Source]

Challenging Li’s separate use of polling data to argue for the legitimacy of the Party’s rule, MIT’s Yasheng Huang expressed caveats about the value of public opinion surveys in China. From TED Blog:

I have done a lot of survey research in China, and I am always humbled by how tricky it is to interpret the survey findings. Apart from the political pressures that tend to channel answers in a particular direction, another problem is that Chinese respondents sometimes view taking a survey as similar to taking an exam. Chinese exams have standard answers, and sometimes Chinese respondents fill out surveys by trying to guess what the “standard” answer is rather than expressing their own views. I would caution against any naïve uses of Chinese survey data. [Source]

At ChinaFile, on the other hand, Ouyang Bin cautioned that apparent public opinion online might also mislead, because “China’s microblogs amplify some voices and drown out others.”

Even if information gleaned through these channels is accurate, the question remains of how best to act on it. While some worry that the system will not be responsive enough, the opposite risk also exists. A recent series of environmental protests, to which officials reacted by placing immediate social order over all other concerns, may be a discouraging precedent. The recent decision to scrap plans for a uranium processing plant in Guangdong, for example, has been hotly disputed, and left a question mark over the country’s nuclear fuel supply. “If authorities keep making decisions following pressure from the public,” warned a political progress report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on Monday, “it will harm their credibility on a long term basis.”

Closer monitoring of public opinion may help avoid hasty decisions made with protesters already on the streets, but could also encourage officials to make the same flawed choices preemptively. As Rogier Creemers argued at ChinaFile:

[… R]esponsive government does not mean responsible government. While I do not want to imply for a minute that many of the demands put to the Chinese government are illegitimate, politics in China, like anywhere else, often ultimately is an exercise of distributing scarce resources rather than finding ideal solutions to technocratic questions. So far, strong economic growth and strict social control has allowed the Party to evade this particular aspect, but in a complex society, everyone must learn that, like the Rolling Stones once sang, you can’t always get what you want. [Source]

See—with the above caveats in mind—Chinese netizens’ views on whether Beijing is really listening to them, via CDT.