Reports that China’s ruling Communist Party is training officials to use new social media are a further indication that authoritarian regimes are supplementing straightforward censorship with proactive efforts to shape opinion and Internet discourse.
Training is available to senior “bureau-level” apparatchiks to help “raise cadres’ understanding of information dissemination and social and public sentiment in order to better respond to sudden crises.”
The regime believes that new communications technologies have “become knowledge that leaders must cram on,” praising officials who have “acted to set up their own blogs and issued blog entries”.
The training, provided through the Beijing party school, will focus on micro-blogging, including sessions on “what is micro-blogging; how to browse blogs and micro-blogs; what is MSN all about; which BBS (bulletin board system) sites and posts are most popular; and which search engines to use to find hot topics in society.”
References to China’s Great Firewall are misleading, she told a Stanford University conference on liberation technology in authoritarian regimes: a hydro-electric dam is a more appropriate metaphor as the government “both needs and fears information [so] does not fully block it but controls it.”
Hitherto, Beijing has not only censored dissident opinion but used its 50 cent army to post information and polemic on blogs and websites, although many of these propagandists are rumored to be less motivated by political commitment than financial incentive. Their name refers to the amount of money they reportedly receive for each post.
Beijing’s Communist Party recently launched an online bulletin board for “netizens” to express opinions and air grievances directly with government officials. The Direct Line to Zhongnanhai has published thousands of complaints on issues like corruption, housing and rising prices.
The initiative creates a semblance of civic participation, functioning as a release valve for public discontent. But the party retains strict control of the agenda and certain issues are barred from the online forum, says Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China.
Netizens cannot post “anything that endangers state security, that leaks state secrets, subverts state power, that damages national unity,” as defined by the regime, she notes.
Despite the regime’s efforts, online dissent is growing as the Internet has allowed a resistance discourse to develop to a degree not possible in the broadcast era, Xiao Qiang told the Stanford conference.