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Beijing Is Doomed to Lose the War of the Internet

April 25, 2012

18th Party Congress Watch (8)

Gao Wenqian, HRIC Senior Policy Advisor

This is the year of the dragon, traditionally viewed as an unlucky year, often a year of famines. This is certainly the case for the Communist Party. Wang Lijun taking refuge in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu tossed the Beijing political circles into a storm, and Bo Xilai, once expected to join the Standing Committee during the upcoming 18th Party Congress, was made a prisoner overnight. The authorities are in a terrible fix over how to deal with Bo, with fierce fighting in the Party’s upper echelons. They are sinking into one of the biggest political crises since June Fourth.

That things could get to this point of course has to do with Bo Xilai being a ruthless careerist and a skillful trickster. Yet there is also a broader social background to this. Namely, we are seeing a great explosion, in advance of the 18th Party Congress, of the many conflicts that have been building up over the years. And this is a standoff among the many political forces in China, played out on the platform provided by the Internet. This has made the drama riveting, better than a Hollywood blockbuster. The Internet has become a strategic ground for the contest among the various forces. All sides are using the Internet to leak information in order to guide public opinion, trying to turn the story in their favor. At the same time, the people are actively participating and watching, each fighting one’s own battle, sharing all sorts of news, and expressing their own opinions. All kinds of rumors are spreading like wildfire and public opinion is raging. All this has forced the authorities into a passive position. Unable to cope, they do nothing.

The authorities are extremely anxious. According to reports, Zhou Yongkang, Secretary of the CPC Political and Legislative Affairs Committee, recently stated that the survival of the Communist Party rests on winning this war of the Internet. In a speech at the end of March, Zhou said that the CPC was at a critical life-or-death moment and was facing a grim battle—one without the smoke of gunpowder. “The battlefield is the Internet. If we lose, the Party will definitely fall from power [...] we must win this war at any cost!” Zhou ordered thorough investigations of and heavy punishment for those spreading “rumors” online, and that they should be severely dealt with.

Zhou’s words betray a doomsday mentality. They are, of course, related to his own rumor-ridden situation, but they also show how public opinion online has become a serious problem challenging Beijing. It has been more than 60 some years since the CPC came to power, but it is still relying on the two magic weapons it had used to win power to govern society now: the gun and the pen. The gun is the final line of defense in maintaining the party-state system. Though effective, it cannot be used except as a last resort, because if it fails, the power of the Communist Party will collapse instantly. Thus the authorities rely predominately on the pen, using the dual tactics of indoctrination and blocking [of information] to control public opinion.

Yet the emergence of Internet presented a new problem for the old revolutionaries. The authorities have spent a great deal of money and manpower all these years to control public opinion online, but got little in return except a severe headache. In fact, most of the “rumors” circulating online about the Bo affair are spread by those within the system. Many of them have been proven true. No wonder a netizen quipped that the “rumors” are in fact “prophecies way ahead of the rest.” Even if some actually are rumors, they are a function of the authorities’ black-box operation and of their fear of revealing the truth, which provide a breeding ground for rumors.

Expressing oneself freely is human nature, and the Internet is the enemy of autocracies, striking dictators where they are most vulnerable. As a Chinese netizen put it, “The Internet is God’s gift to the Chinese people.” Rather than going against the times and being in a constant state of panic, the authorities would be better off laying down their arms, fundamentally changing their course, initiating political reforms, conducting public affairs openly and transparently, and affording the people the right to know. Otherwise, all they do will be in vain, like Don Quixote chasing windmills; they are wasting all their efforts and are doomed to failure in the end.