By B. Raman
Recent events in the port city of Dalian in north-eastChina where public protests forced the local Government to accept a demand for closing down a chemical plant following an accident and for re-locating it elsewhere show a new style of political management. This new style is marked by sensitivity to public opinion and a willingness to respond to reasonable public pressure instead of trying to suppress it as used to be done in the past.
The plant produces paraxylene (PX), a petrochemical used for the production of polyester film and fabrics. Last week, huge waves caused by a storm breached a dike built to protect the plant from floodwaters. Residents were concerned that a flood could damage the plant and cause it to release toxic chemicals.
Details of the breach and the dangers that could be posed to the environment of the city and the lives of its residents by any damage to the plant were disseminated by many netizens through Weibo, a Chinese microblog service similar to the Twitter. This led to a large number of residents —about 12,000 according to one estimate— demonstrating in the streets and outside the local municipal office on August 14, demanding that the plant should be immediately shut down and re-located elsewhere.
Instead of seeking to suppress the demonstration as they would have normally done, the local authorities accepted the public demand for shutting down the plant to prevent any damage and eventually re-locating it elsewhere. Initially, the authorities did try to prevent the dissemination of the information about the breach and the call for demonstrations through Weibo, but subsequently gave up the attempt.
In a refreshing departure from past practices, the Government-controlled Xinhua news agency itself disseminated details of the breach and the demonstrations in an apparent attempt to prevent the circulation of exaggerated rumours. There was a greater transparency in the coverage of the incident and the public demonstrations and a greater willingness on the part of the authorities to accept the reasonableness of the public expression of concern and to respond to it.
Commenting on the way the local authorities dealt with the incident, the Party-controlled “Global Times” wrote as follows on August 15:
“The Dalian incident indicates social progress, as it shows the public has more opportunities to be heard. In Dalian, their opinion was treated with respect.But it is worth mentioning that while there are more channels for individuals and groups to express their opinions, it is essential that a distinction be made for rational opinion. There should also be channels for other voices to prevent a single opinion from being regarded as the mainstream.
“The incident showed that the demands of the public are taken seriously by the Chinese government. The pace of information disclosure and releasing of the official statement may not have been quick enough, but the adjustments that the government made were swift. Both the public and the government have begun adapting both their language and actions to a more democratic time.
“It should not be simply seen as a victory of a “protest.” In fact, in China, reasonable public appeals will eventually be accepted by the government. New technological tools, such as Weibo, have strengthened communication between the public and the government. Protest, as a means of expressing opinions, will not likely become the main way Chinese people will make their voices heard.
“China’s reform is being advanced by various minor incidents, and this reform has, in turn, created more room for understanding and tolerance.
“What the Dalian incident has shown is China’s adaptability and problem-solving capability, not the risk that it may flounder over an emergency.”
In a report on the increasing role of microblogs in mobilising public opinion in China disseminated on August 14, the Xinhua said:
“A decade ago, the most favoured medium for Chinese people to air their complaints was perhaps through the state-owned China Central Television network.
“However, the Internet has superseded television as the most popular means for the airing of discontent, with microblogs leading the charge.
“Microblogs came to prominence in China just two years ago, but have exploded in popularity. Sina Weibo, one of the country’s most popular microblog providers, has allowed the country’s citizens to supervise – and criticize – China’s government in ways that were never thought possible before.
“In comparison to microblogs, traditional media entities face technical and systematic restrictions in their efforts to observe and supervise the government. The Internet and its vast number of microbloggers are now able to make up for this deficiency, according to Zhan Jiang, a professor of journalism at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
“Microblogs make it easy for people to speak their thoughts in real-time, essentially making their public voices louder, according to Professor Zhan.
“Sina Weibo was launched in August 2009. Since then, it has attracted more than 140 million registered users, with the number expected to exceed 200 million by the end of this year, according to the company.
“Microblogging services enjoyed “explosive growth” in the first six months of this year, with the number of registered microblog users surging by 208.9 percent to reach 195 million, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.
“A 2010 report quoted by the Beijing-based newspaper International Herald Leader said that more than one-fifth of the 50 most-discussed public events in 2010 were first reported on by microbloggers.
“Traditional media outlets have blind spots in performing their role as “society’s watchdog.” However, microblogs have allowed ordinary citizens to fill in these gaps.
“The general offices of the State Council, or China’s Cabinet, and the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee have issued a circular stating that information on major emergencies and items of public concern, such as government efforts and the results of official investigations, should be released to the public in an “objective and timely manner.”
“The People’s Daily, the CPC’s flagship newspaper, has urged officials to answer questions from Internet users in a timely and accurate fashion and to brush up on their online communication skills in a recent article titled “How to Speak in the Microblog Era.”
“The article encouraged officials to address public concerns through online platforms and not to shy away from answering thorny questions. “Online performance reflects an official’s all-around capability.”
While adapting themselves to the role of netizens as watchdogs and supervisors of the performance of the Government, the Chinese authorities have at the same time noted with concern the role played by social media networks in facilitating anti-Government mobilisation in Egypt and in helping those who violated law and order during the recent riots in the UK in exchanging information with each other in matters such as the deployment of the police.
The fear that the mushrooming of the netizen community and the emergence of a new wired civil society may result in a dilution of the control of the Communist Party and its leadership role and lead to political destabilisation is palpable. How to use the microblogs in the interest of public welfare and better governance without letting them become detrimental to political stability and public order is a question that has been engaging the attention of the authorities. They still do not have a satisfactory answer to this.
Political and social activism by netizens is slowly changing China in ways unanticipated even a couple of years ago and could pave the way for a greater democracy through the Net instead of through the ballot box.