Can microblogs change China's rulers?
- 8 August 2011
- From the section Asia-Pacific
The Communist Party has urged its members to reach out to the public by using microblogging websites - but can the party cadres master the art of web speak?
Microblogs are wildly popular in China. There are tens of millions of users. People are expressing themselves like never before, and there is a lot of criticism of the government.
A recent high-speed train crash in Wenzhou, where 40 people were killed, is the latest example of an incident that has provoked a huge response on the web.
People flooded microblog and other internet sites with messages critical of the government for letting the accident happen, and for its response to the disaster.
"I'm going to take a high-speed train back to Beijing. My friends all say I'm heading for death. Please bless me," was just one recent comment on Sina Weibo, one of the most popular microblog sites.
Last week, a commentary piece in the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, called for officials to communicate with the public through microblogs in an attempt to better understand the people it rules.
"It is hoped that there will be more and more leading cadres who are adept in speaking and are popular on the internet and microblogging sites," said the piece.
Actions must follow
In a country where free speech is severely limited, microblogs - and the internet in general - have become an important channel of expression. The web is changing the way the government relates to its people.
In public, Chinese leaders mostly talk in official-speak; language that is often heavy on cliches and light on meaning.
As the People's Daily article put it: "The language environment of the grassroots, with its special characteristics, is different from that of the [Communist] party and government officials."
The article goes on to give officials advice on how to tweet: "Only by abandoning bureaucratic or empty talk can one's microblog messages resonate with the public."
Established media outlets - newspapers, magazines and TV programmes - are all heavily censored in China. That is why the internet has given Chinese people the chance to express themselves in a public forum like never before.
Even the compensation claim form being handed out to the families of victims of the rail crash was posted on a microblog site.
These new ways of communicating - there are 480 million internet users in China - are proving to be a challenge for China's unelected leaders. For perhaps the first time, people have a tool to tell the government exactly what they think.
It was a topic of debate at a recent lecture at Beijing's Communist Party school, where senior party members are given training.
"The spread of the internet and hundreds of millions of web users means the government will lose credibility if it can't meet the public's demands," said lecturer Wang Yukai.
That is the main issue: the government has to address people's grievances - not simply learn how to talk to them through microblog sites.
The central government seems to understand that point, said Mr Wang.
"That's why it is cracking down on corruption, demanding officials understand people's needs and allowing more information to be released," he said.
A few days ago the State Council, the Chinese government's highest decision-making body, issued a notice calling on officials to "make more efforts to ensure transparency in government affairs".
Microblogs and the internet have not changed the fundamental nature of government in China, but they are forcing officials to change the way they operate.