Providing a political panorama of a society always comes with the risk of missing important details and therefore misinterpreting the general picture. However, if a certain viewpoint is established first, the essential issues may be easier to detect. This can be an appropriate method regarding the Chinese political climate. Starting from the beginning of the past summer a new political season, at least within the social media, has begun. Two interwoven elements emerged, the rule of law and the state’s efforts to “correct” public opinions. Both a series of lawsuits against high officials and civil cases, in which the government arrested prominent bloggers in the name of purging online rumors, aroused a passion for simplifying the actions of the Chinese government into a blatant attack on the civil society or an intrusion into the public sphere. However, we should not blindly indulge in this cathartic protest against the totalitarian regime. An analysis of the causal relationships between recent political campaigns and the nature of the Chinese public sphere, in this case Weibo, is necessary for a sobering understanding of the reality. I will not reiterate each event in detail because The New York Times has already done a much better job. What I am attempting to achieve here is a narrative that rationalizes the state’s beastly actions and the public’s seemingly receptive, or at least passive, reactions. Why does the government take action in such a manner? Why does the public respond in such a way? I hope to answer these two questions. The answer lies in the two major concerns of the present government, which have also been the two main issues of the past three or four months.
The rule of law here, in Chinese society, is a potentially misleading concept. In recent cases in China, such as the trial of Bo Xilai — a prominent former Chinese politician as well as a red princeling (i.e., the son of an influential communist leader) — and the following suits against high officials, the rule of law does constrain the behavior of government officials, but its power is borrowed from the state, rather than inherent in itself. In other words, the increasing impact of the rule of law, on the surface, is another round of intensive state actions. However, the party is not simply cleaning up the “bad members” and therefore establishing the right party principles; it is also trying to appeal to the public. However, this attempt may not necessarily be successful in the social media. If you take a random walk on the beach of comments, for example, with respect to the Bo Xilai case, you can see various points of view competing with each other. Most importantly, one of the two dominant perspectives within social media is quite cynical, usually expressing indifference to the political struggle with the appearance of the triumph of justice. The other one is sincere satisfaction with the state’s determination. Here I am not regarding the extreme leftists as a considerable power in this context. The second one is the state’s desired result, but the first one annoys the party. Apparently, a simple explanation for the first perspective is the specific components of the population who are actively involved in this discussion through social media. Generally speaking, urban people are the main users. Simultaneously, they are also exposed to running rumors and scandals. The conspiracy theory is spreading like a virus. However, this cynicism does not directly interfere with the party’s business. Instead, it helps with cultivating a society filled with the pursuit of satisfying immediate needs and emotions, namely entertainment and consumption. This is not bad for economic growth. However, the party does not like this result either. Implicit obedience through indifference is not satisfactory because it also indicates disillusion with the regime. The party needs “positive energy” flowing around in the society. However, right now, the influential bloggers with their somewhat overly-critical attitude and outright disapproval of the state become hindrances.
Naturally, at least in the Chinese state’s mindset, the horse of public opinion needs a new bridle, albeit a possibly suffocating one. Who are the instigators of the rumors that are harmful to the state’s legitimacy in social media? The Big Vs — verified accounts in Weibo. These Chinese online celebrities can attract as many as nearly 30 million followers. They accumulate their popularity mainly through the cunning use of their voice. Most of the time, either a former prominent status beyond the internet world or the production of provocative messages on a daily basis helps them establish their gradually surging reputation. Does the public view them completely positively, as the speakers of the people’s will? Not really. The people’s will is already a morbid cliché, thanks to the efforts of the traditional Communist ideology. Moreover, a person consciously evaluating the big Vs’ arguments could always find some hastily constructed inferences or “frivolously” reposted information. The big Vs know how to deploy their power of voice for their personal interests, such as advertising for a brand or their own products. They are not public intellectuals purely concerned with the public interest. By the way, the Chinese word for public intellectuals, “Gongzhi,” is nearly a curse-word in the Chinese social media. The usual expression is “the smelly public intellectual.” Frequently the big Vs are called that because, on the one hand, they often express their discontent, but inconsistently, with numerous flaws in their arguments; on the other hand, not many people find pleasure in reading tweets of cathartic verbal abuses or messages containing either implicit or explicit commercial advertisements. As a result, when the state attacks on the grounds that the big Vs are disseminating rumors or they committed other crimes, the public is in fact somewhat satisfied with this action. Moreover, the moral tone surrounding this drama has put the big Vs at a great disadvantage. Charles Xue, a famous Big V and a 60-year-old American citizen, was found soliciting prostitutes in August and was thus arrested. Despite the state’s obvious attempt at manipulating the public opinion against him, many citizens find this news morally disgusting, and this distrust regarding one big V successfully spreads to the whole group. In this regard, the state succeeds at mobilizing the public opinion to suppress the big Vs.
On Sept. 9th, the Supreme People’s Court of PRC published its explanation on the definition of libel on internet: the condition of five hundred reposts of a certain piece of defaming information allows the court to prosecute the person posting the original message. Although it sounds depressing, since it limits the freedom of speech in China, it also has some positive consequences. The state now plays the game, following the rules. You may easily sense that this is only following formality because the rules are still mostly single-handedly set by the state, but the formality is important. Even the pretense of following the law may open the possibilities of further improvement of individual rights through law. I know this sanguine expectation may appear quite naïve and that the present circumstances in China are not promising at all. Moreover, the prospect of constitutionalism in China is explicitly denied by the speaker of the party. However, the recognition of the power of law by the state is also an implicit admittance of law’s own importance and legitimacy. At least the current Supreme People’s Court’s president has studied and practiced law, while the previous one had no experience. No matter how vicious or benevolent the intention of the state behind the curtain is, the rule of law conflated with the public’s power in the social media may create a new feature of the Chinese public sphere. After all, the state’s ambushes in the social media demonstrate that the power of public opinion is considerable, even in the eyes of the ubiquitous state.