View From the Wall

Where is the Voice of the People?

China’s official name is the People’s Republic of China. Its army is called the People’s Liberation Army while the congress is named the National People’s Congress. China’s largest newspaper is titled the People’s Daily, and the state run radio station is known as the People’s Radio Station. Even the police are called the People’s Police. However, ask any Chinese person in China who the real policy maker of China is, and almost no one will answer “the people” of China. The policy maker in the People’s Republic has always been the Communist Party.

The Party has given the power of policy making to the Party’s top leadership—the politburo. Chairman Mao once said “the Party leads in every aspect of Chinese society.” During the Cultural Revolution, billboards in cities and villages proclaimed “the Communist Party is the nucleus of the Chinese people’s affairs.” As much as the Party propaganda portrays leaders as servants of the people, everyone in China knows the Party is China’s ultimate and only policy maker. For more than 50 years this has been true. The Party has established numerous propaganda departments, newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations to control the information flow. It tells the state run media what they are supposed to say and what not to say to the people. Now we even have Party websites as the voice of the government.

Strictly speaking, the voice of the Party is loud and clear. No matter where you are in China, you can hear and see its propaganda. Nevertheless, despite the lack of civilian run newspapers, radio stations and TV stations, the Chinese people have developed ways to obtain and propagate information and express their opinions. When something major happens, “rumors” will travel faster than any state run media. “Little alley” rumors and political jokes are so common that regardless of how hard the government tries to prevent them from spreading, they continue to proliferate rapidly. Basically, these rumors are spread abroad by word of mouth. However, as China enters the internet age, many common people are learning to disseminate news electronically via email and inter-net chatrooms.

For generations, rulers of China understood the power of public opinion. They understood that “stopping the mouths of the people is harder than stopping a flood.” For centuries, people’s voices have frightened their rulers; the same is true today.  To control publications in China, the government set up the News Publication Bureau to go through every single publication before it is published. To control the internet, the government created an army of internet police to sanitize its contents. Many websites are on the official ban list. Last year a 22year-old female college student, named Liu Di, was arrested for expressing her political viewpoint on the internet. She was charged with “threatening national security.” Since her arrest, many “Liu Dis” have appeared on the internet.

Another major event related to internet censorship occurred last year involving the well- known search engine Google. Jiang Mianheng, son of Jiang Zemin, was outraged when he discovered a lot of anti-Jiang Zemin Web sites on Google. As a result, the government blocked Google from being accessed in China. This action created a huge uproar in China with great numbers of its “netizen” population protesting it. As a result, the government was forced to put Google back online two weeks later.

Although today’s Chinese people can communicate through email, chat rooms and word of mouth, these activities by themselves are not sufficient to alter the control of the Communist Party over the public media, and they are not sufficient to change the Party’s control over policies. There are times when the people are dissatisfied with an individual or an event, but the Party frequently ignores public opinion. For example, Li Peng has been largely unpopular in China ever since the Tiananmen incident in 1989.  Nevertheless, despite his unpopularity, his position has not been affected.

After the 16th Party Congress, Li Changcun replaced Ding Guangen as the head of the Publicity Department. People thought there would be some reform coming from Li, but it did not take long for their hopes to be dashed. Shortly after taking his new office, the 21st Century Global Digest was shut down by the government. Several other publications with tendencies to express opinions beyond the government’s comfort zone were also forced to “close for reorganization.” It seems that it is still a dream for anyone to use the public media to influence policy.

The Chinese people have developed a way to counter the Party; it is called “you have policy, I have strategy.” Basically, this strategy is “you say whatever you want to say, I’ll do whatever I want to do.” They may not have control over the Party’s newspaper, but they can choose not to read it. No matter where you go in China, you won’t find the People’s Daily for sale. Since no one buys it, no one will sell it. What is really happening in China—unemployment, environmental issues, drug trafficking, AIDS, corruption, bad loans—seldom makes it into the state run newspaper. The news and editorial sections rarely reflect societal reality.

Recognizing this serious disconnect, the Party conducted several social studies or opinion surveys to understand what people are thinking. This is an unofficial way of communicating with the masses, and the survey results influence China’s policies more than most people realize. While foreign reporters in China often report based on official government statements, they rarely have access to the results of these government surveys. To control the free flow of communication, the government does not allow foreign correspondents in Beijing to conduct any type of survey, including marketing surveys.

Opening doors to the outside world and a market economy did not lessen the government’s control over the media.  After entry into the World Trade Organization, social and economic changes forced the government to alter how they manage media control. This does not imply willingness on the part of the Party; rather, it has been their only choice for survival. While there are more international exchanges, mobile phones, internet users, local elections and people with passports, in general, the government’s tactics for media control continue to be effective. What they cannot do effectively is generate enthusiasm among the people towards government propaganda. While government propaganda expresses official government positions, it is the news or chitchat of the alleys that represent the true sentiments of the masses.

These two voices characterize two parallel lines of communication in China. Only after there is true freedom of speech, free elections and freedom of assembly can these voices intersect and become one. Then the people’s voice will become a driving force behind government policy. As long as reforms are moving forward, albeit slowly, there are reasons to believe one day the people’s opinions will appear in newspapers and on TV everywhere. Common people will not have to whisper to one another, but will shout aloud. The People’s Republic will finally represent the people.

Image credit: 00515-NM-DSC00133 by neville mars via Flickr.

Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China.View Full Bio