A leading Communist Party official has conceded that one in ten Beijing citizens is a “propaganda worker.”
The revelation appears to confirm that China’s authorities, confronted by a generation of microbloggers that “can no longer be seduced by traditional propaganda,” is turning social media into a battlefield for the right of free expression, say two leading analysts.
“This generation compels Chinese leaders to govern with more transparency but it also secures them tools for authoritarian spin-doctoring to sustain their rule,” according to Jonas Parello-Plesner and Michael Anti, respectively, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a Chinese blogger:
A legacy of the Hu-Wen decade is social media, in Chinese called weibo. Microblogs were almost nonexistent in 2003 but have exploded since 2009, totalling 300m people in instant and constant communication.
Even the seasoned China follower Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, was surprised by this strong undercurrent in Chinese society as he joined Weibo.com and 700,000 Chinese attached themselves to him. He now calls it “one of the great gaps in any western analysis about what’s going on in China”.
The authorities are also using Weibo to project and reinforce the ruling Communist Party’s propaganda, China Digital Times reports
Beijing’s deputy mayor Lu Wei implored 60,000 propaganda workers “in the system” and over two million “outside the system” to “use Weibo.” According to official records, Beijing has a population of more than 20 million–from Lu’s statement, one out of every ten Beijingers is a “propaganda worker.” The South China Morning Post has confirmed this number.
Cai Qi, a Communist party chief in Zheijiang, described the government’s strategy as “controlling weibo while using it, and facilitating control by using it,” note Parello-Plesner and Anti, co-authors in the book ‘China 3.0’.
Nevertheless, weibo allows individuals to “muster followers the size of a country,” they suggest:
Popular actress Yao Chen boasts more than 30m followers. ….Recently she added her voice to the quarrel over censorship at the Southern Weekend, when she posted a Solzhenitsyn quote on the intrinsic value of truth. That resonated around China even though searching and posting on Southern Weekend was blocked by Chinese cybercrats.
Weibo is the bane of local officials since corruption is unearthed by netizens. And local government does not have the capacity to pull the plug on posts. ….Although this development is positive for transparency, it remains a proxy for a genuine system of rule of law and accountability.
“Consequently, the Chinese government is adapting to this social media reality,” they contend. “It marks a new forum for public debate that can be distilled through using updated tools of authoritarian propaganda.”
China Digital Times is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.