With news that China now has 450 million Internet users
-- that's more than one-third of the country's 1.3 billion population -- an interesting white paper has come out giving more insight into how the Chinese authorities view the Internet.
In the Western press, the Internet in China is often lauded as simply a means of the disenfranchised masses keeping their leaders in tow, sometimes through the notorious "human flesh searches." But a recent white paper, reported on by "The Wall Street Journal,"
has the government praising the Internet's role in enhancing public supervision:
“In recent years, with the rapid development and popularity of the Internet,” the paper said, “supervision through the Internet has become a new form of supervision by public opinion that spreads quickly, produces great influence and features a wider range of participation.”
“China highly values the positive role played by the Internet in enhancing supervision,” it said, adding that efforts would be made to ensure that incidents of corruption can be easily recorded through the Internet via a feedback system that offers “a convenient and unimpeded channel for the public to exercise their right of supervision.”
Enabling public participation via the Internet fits into what scholars studying the Chinese Internet have called "networked authoritarianism,"
where civilians have a much greater sense of freedom -- they can discuss local municipal issues in state-run forums, their opinions are crowdsourced on forming new laws
etc. -- but in reality they gain little in terms of actual rights.
The key question is who that "supervision" is directed against. In China, for example, removing officials from power on the premise of fighting corruption is nothing new. But the Internet gives a new sense of legitimacy. The authorities can appropriate genuine grass-roots campaigns against unpopular officials. Or, through state-sponsored forums or more nefarious online mobs, they can help cultivate astro-turf campaigns against troublesome officials. What started perhaps as a bureaucratic campaign against a particular out-of-favor party flunky can end as a people-powered net campaign to root out corruption.
There's a good example in Evgeny Morozov's forthcoming book, "The Net Delusion,"
where in January 2009, a Chinese man, who had been arrested for illegal logging, died while in police custody. The official explanation was that he died after hitting his head on a door while playing hide and seek. The explanation, however, wasn’t good enough for engaged Chinese netizens, who accused the local police of a cover-up. A popular site attracted more than 70,000 comments on the issue.
But rather than pulling the plug, the Chinese authorities turned the situation to their advantage. They asked concerned netizens to investigate what happened in Cell Number Nine and write a report. By crowdsourcing the investigation, the authorities won brownie points for their supposed commitment to justice and democratization. Smart work.