Can Xi Jinping Harness Social Media?

Despite new rules passed by the National People’s Congress to tighten control over the Internet, The Diplomat’s David Cohen calls attention to two recent state media reports which extolled the role of the web and in stamping out official :

I’m honestly not entirely sure how to reconcile these two trends: on the one hand, expressions of approval for independent public and media oversight of officials, and on the other, the recent push to increase the power of Chinese censors, who are being given new tools to control online content while foreign media outlets are being punished for critical stories about the wealth of Chinese leaders – financial firms have reportedly been told not to buy Bloomberg terminals, while the New York Times is facing difficulty renewing visas for its staff (the foreign ministry is suggesting that Buckley may eventually receive his new visa, but the case is clearly not merely a bureaucratic delay).

But for the time being, it seems very clear that is happy to allow social media to continue exposing corrupt officials.  His pro-reform speeches and signals have encouraged the present mini-glasnost – which includes a significant uptick in the number of allegations of corruption emerging on Weibo, and prominent scholars petitioning for political reform for the first time since Charter 08.  Xi has been experimenting with Weibo himself, allowing state media to live-tweet a recent routine visit to some villages in Hebei, with great success.  He, or someone close to him, may even be maintaining a personal account.  If Xi can keep this trick going, he stands to become an exceptionally powerful president.  Online discontent isone of the primal fears of the Communist Party.  If Xi’s brand can defuse it, or even successfully exploit it, it will be very hard indeed for stability-minded officials to oppose his policies.

Nor does the anti-corruption drive necessarily run counter to the policy goals of China’s leaders – on the contrary, reducing corruption among “grassroots-level officials” has been a longstanding aim of the Hu administration – one which even Hu seems to recognize that he has not achieved.  The problem, most likely, is that online discussion about local corruption threatens to raise questions about the legitimacy of the entire party.  It makes sense, then, to think that Chinese leaders might be willing to experiment with using social media to get a handle on local corruption, provided they have the tools to stop such hunts from going beyond their control.