China’s Communist Party and its military are waging an ideological war against hostile Western ideas on the Internet. Through censorship, intimidation and repression, and with the help of an army of “patriotic” netizens, the party appears to be winning, The Washington Post reports:
It is part of China’s larger effort to tame the Internet and to disprove the notion that the flow of ideas across the World Wide Web would be an unstoppable force toward democracy… Indeed, social media is increasingly being harnessed by autocratic regimes to bolster their rule, says University of Toronto political scientist Seva Gunitsky. It helps dictatorships gauge public opinion and discover otherwise hidden grievances, while also allowing them to disseminate propaganda and shape the contours of public debate….
A study released in May by Harvard University’s Gary King, Stanford University’s Jennifer Pan and the University of California at San Diego’s Margaret Roberts suggests that government-directed accounts generate nearly 450 million posts a year, with intense bursts of “cheerleading” or “distraction” around specific events or at sensitive times.
“China has been at the forefront of this, and they are quickly getting very sophisticated about it,” he said. “Social media can allow autocrats to become stronger, more informed and more adaptable. As with radio and television before it, social media is not just a way to spread information but a potential tool of subtle control and manipulation — one that often works more effectively than brute-force suppression.”
Guobin Yang, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of many books on China’s Internet, says the online environment has “really changed” in recent years, the Post adds:
“Critical voices are still there, but it is less likely they will coalesce into a broader form of online protest,” he said. Yang calls it a form of “psychological war” but also a harking back to the early days of Communist China, when the masses were mobilized to support major new government policy directives.
“It’s a Maoist-era strategy revived in new technological conditions,” he said.
The ruling Communist Party is also cracking down on emerging civil society initiatives.
On the 10th day of Peter Dahlin’s captivity in a secret Beijing jail, Chinese state security officers sprang one of their big surprises — something he found even more astonishing than hearing a colleague being beaten in a room above his cell, The New York Times reports:
They showed him a document about the organization he had started in China to promote access to legal services, complete with names of employees, associates and grant recipients. But it was not written by the officers. It appeared to have been prepared by the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit group based in Washington that is largely funded by the United States Congress….The officers also mentioned or showed Mr. Dahlin the names of almost every lawyer in China who had worked with his group, as well as recent emails exchanged by the group’s employees.
Despite such access, the officers appeared to have a “limited understanding of how NGOs operate, how international funding operates, how you transfer funds, what’s the project plan,” Mr. Dahlin said. “They’re basically trying to understand this field so they can counter it.”
Although few people in China are demanding a vote, many are becoming more and more frustrated by the lack of political accountability and transparency, even if they rarely label them as such, The Economist notes:
The party is clearly worried. In an internal document in 2013 it listed “seven things that should not be discussed”: universal values, press freedom, civil society, economic liberalism, historical mistakes made by the party, Western constitutional democracy and questioning the nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Recently these have often become flashpoints between the middle class and the government.
No wonder that political trust in China is declining. A series of nationwide surveys from 2003 to the present, commissioned by Anthony Saich of Harvard University, show that the wealthy think less of the government than poorer folk do. Other polls show that richer and better-educated people are more likely to support the rule of law, market allocation of resources and greater individual autonomy; the less-well-off often favour traditional values and authoritarian rule.
Wang Zhengxu of the University of Nottingham in Britain and You Yu of Xiamen University in China go further. They observe a clear decline in trust in legal institutions, the police and local government between 2002 and 2011, despite a consistently good economic performance and rising social benefits, and reckon that “the era of critical citizens” has arrived in China.
China’s Communist Party has shown extraordinary resilience to destabilising forces and an impressive ability to recreate itself, The Economist adds:
It has ditched most of its founding principles and tied itself to the middle-class wealth-creators, expanding its membership to include the very group it once suppressed. Since the 1990s the Chinese model has proved so flexible that it appeared to break the democratic world’s monopoly on economic progress. To some it seemed to offer a credible alternative to democracy.
Now China is beginning to reach the limits of growth without reform. The complexity of middle-class demands, the rush of unintended consequences of economic growth and now a slowing economy are challenging the party’s hold. It has to find new ways to try to appease a population far more vocal and more individualistic than previous generations.
President Xi Jinping has warned that Western nongovernmental organizations dedicated to building civil society — through training for lawyers and journalists and programs to address income inequality, for example — are working to undermine Communist Party rule, The Times adds:
He has overseen a broad effort to both restrict Western influence and clamp down on grass-roots Chinese activism. In April, the government passed a law requiring all foreign nongovernmental groups in China — about 7,000 by one estimate — to find an official Chinese sponsor and register with the police, who will have new supervisory authority over them.
The authorities have used televised confessions with growing frequency to intimidate foreigners and their Chinese colleagues, and few have dared speak publicly about the experience afterward.
“I think the era for effecting change in China seems to be over for now for NGOs,” said Dahlin. “It seems for now that the scope of civil society to try to influence is getting smaller and smaller.”