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By Steve Kelman

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Stirrings of freedom rustle in China

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Pluralism, and with it, freedom of expression, seems to be on the rise in China. (Stock image)

I have written in past blog posts that anybody who thinks China is a semi-totalitarian society where anything but official opinions are suppressed does not understand the country's growing pluralism.

True, it is something of a fine art to figure out what is allowed and what isn't, but I think most Americans would be surprised at the range of publicly expressed opinions. The pluralism has been dramatically increased by social media, which are creating a small revolution in Chinese society and politics through the spread of "microblogs" (weibo) that are filled with non-official information.

As I mentioned in my recent blog post from Hong Kong, anger at unsafe food and unsafe products has been rising in China. (Indeed, the recently concluded session of China's National People's Congress, the country's quasi-legislature, approved an upgrading of the status of the food safety regulatory agency.) Observers have noted that CCTV, the government TV broadcaster, along with some media, frequently emphasize food or product safety issues involving foreign multinationals (such as McDonald's, KFC, the Japanese noodle chain Ajisen, and Walmart), though these firms' products are certainly much safer than those produced by many Chinese companies.

Recently, CCTV had its annual consumer protection gala tied to the annual World Consumer Rights Day, where it exposed various product and food safety scandals. As frequently occurs, foreign brands were disproportionately represented in the gala – this year Apple was attacked for refusing to replace broken back covers of iPhones in order not to extend the warranty period, and Volkswagen was criticized for some defective gearboxes that could cause vehicle acceleration.

What was interesting was not so much these somewhat-trivial attacks on foreign brands, but the reaction in the weibo and even the print media. Shortly after the program was broadcast, many of the most popular microbloggers in China published, at around the same time, statements on their microblogs attacking Apple and praising the CCTV program.

However, the weibo world quickly noticed a line at the end of one of the posts, published by the movie star Peter Ho (with 5.4 million followers): "To publish at about 8:20 pm." Quickly, the incident went viral: weibo lit up with accusations that these comments were planted by CCTV. Within a few hours, many of the celebrities had deleted their posts. It is unclear what happened – the celebrities claim that the posts were put on their sites without their knowledge, while others suspect (and some have publicly stated) that CCTV, a powerful media outlet and representative of the government, leaned on them to publish the "recommended" remarks.

As noteworthy as the spread of all this on weibo, though, is that it was picked up by at least the English-language Chinese media. (This seems to have been in the Chinese-language media as well, because a Chinese friend I asked knew about the story.) Shanghai News, in a typical headline, headlined their story: "Comments 'At about 8:20' Put CCTV in the Firing Line."

The next day, the Global Times ran a story subtitled: "Public outcry as CCTV gala expose chooses 'wrong targets.'" In addition to discussing the celebrity comments on the CCTV Apple story (including providing a quote from one of those involved stating that "CCTV has invited influential Internet figures to comment in accordance with a certain event,") the Global Times story stated that the problems unearthed in the CCTV show were trivial. The article ended with a quote from a public management professor at Renmin University: "People are increasingly disappointed with environmental pollution and food safety issues. The fact that these issues were not addressed and the knowledge that CCTV was trying to control public opinion rather than embrace it is going to hurt the authority of CCTV and create a crisis of confidence."

Speaking of the environment, the Chinese media also reported that almost a quarter of the delegates to the National People's Congress voted against a list of candidates presented for the body's environmental protection committee, as a protest against insufficient efforts to fight pollution. An American asked me whether the local media has been mentioning the dead pigs found recently in waters near downtown Shanghai, which has gotten significant attention in the US media. The answer is yes – as the article "Floating Carcasses Prompt Safety Concerns" from China Daily illustrates.

Posted on Mar 22, 2013 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Sat, Mar 23, 2013 Tinghua New York

Weibo= freedom of speech? Or, means of social control? Apparently, there is a censorship committee behind the curtain of weibo. The top-level committee members decide the baseline of regulations. Personally, I agree with the strategy: gradually release some social control and legitimate some freedom of speech to its citizens. Now, Chinese Netziens have partial freedom of speech that we have ever enjoyed inside the China. I am not sure if it is ‘Stockholm syndrome’ (our mindsets were ‘kidnaped’ by the government for a long time and may feel grateful to this kind offer of partial freedom), but I argue the process of power re-distribution and negotiation in a step-by-step manner is essential in order to reduce the possible acute political turmoils in reality. What I dislike is the operational level. It is relatively acceptable to see posts are deleted (every Chinese Netizens know what happened when they see ‘ Not Found 404’), but it is less acceptable for fans to see their celebrities are used as political tools as well, which affected their confidence on the government. When Chinese Netizens accept baselines designed by the government, they expect the government should have baselines for its behavior as well.

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