Beijing’s Growing Credibility Gap
August 1st, 2012
11:08 AM ET

Beijing’s Growing Credibility Gap

By Kelley Currie, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Kelley Currie is a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute in Washington. The views expressed are her own.

Authoritarian regimes have traditionally relied heavily on controlling the flow of information that their subjects receive as a critical element of maintaining political power. The Chinese Communist Party is no different: they have an extensive and well-funded propaganda apparatus that’s integrated into all aspects of the Party’s operations, coupled with a sophisticated set of tools that are used to control the Chinese public’s access to alternative sources of information. After decades of maintaining a fairly successful monopoly on the flow of information, the party-state’s current approach is much more calibrated and nuanced. It seems to be based on the principles of modern flood-control techniques: allow a greater flow in certain channels when necessary to take the pressure off the highest risk zones. While these techniques are generally successful, recently we’ve seen how freak events and unexpected storms can overwhelm systems that are based on routine handling of high probability events.

The analogy to flood control is an apt one given the latest disaster to tax Beijing’s information management apparatus: the deadly floods that swept through the capital on July 21. The systemic failures that led to at least 77 flood-related deaths have been broadly commented on, and have recalled another deadly infrastructure disaster that occurred almost exactly one year earlier: the Wenzhou high-speed-rail crash on July 23, 2011.
In both cases, the authorities appeared unprepared for the disasters, responded poorly to the aftermath, and failed to provide adequate, timely information. The Chinese public quickly linked these disasters to the dark side of China’s economic boom, particularly rampant official corruption and the extreme prioritization of rapid economic growth. In the case of the Wenzhou crash, it was the link to the Ministry of Railways – whose former chief had been accused of massive corruption just months prior to the accident – and the triumphalist official propagandizing around China’s HSR network. In the case of the Beijing floods, commentary has keyed in on failures of the development model as well. Reports have highlighted the dramatic disparities between Fangshan – the site of the worst flood damage – and the much better drained thoroughfares of more prosperous areas of central Beijing. Some have also noted that the ancient drainage canals around the Forbidden City and other imperial sites worked well, while newer infrastructure failed to handle the floodwaters effectively. There were even wry mentions of the billions spent to prepare Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, while basic sewer infrastructure was left wanting in less privileged parts of the city.

The conspicuous failures of official Chinese disaster response are intensifying anger among the population, as citizens can increasingly compare the official version of events to local, on-the-spot reporting by average people using smartphones to post images and commentary to Weibo and other social networking sites. The gulf between the government’s pronouncements and the reports of these citizen journalists is often dramatic, and has served to validate long held suspicions that the government was hiding things from the citizenry to serve its own purposes.

Weibo, a Chinese clone of Twitter, has been particularly devastating to the authorities’ efforts to control the flow of information. It takes time for the censors to catch up to both direct reports and “memes” that emerge on the site, and in a matter of minutes a message can be re-tweeted thousands of times. The ability to cross-post messages to Twitter and Weibo accounts simultaneously also ensures that the messages live on even after Weibo has been scrubbed, because Twitter remains outside the reach of China’s net nannies (for now, anyway).

Even on an average day, Weibo is a compilation of the evident mistrust that many Chinese have toward official pronouncements. It has become the go-to source for breaking news – including breaking rumors – much like Twitter has for many outside China. Chinese authorities recognize Weibo’s power, and are making huge efforts to manage and control it, but are struggling to do so due to the enormous amounts of information that fly across the platform at any given time and the incredible ingenuity that users have shown in circumventing censorship efforts. Most of the time, their failure to control the flow of news and information amounts to relatively harmless leaks in the system. But even these small discrepancies between the official story and the Weibo version of events are continually undermining confidence in the party-state’s narrative. While these are small cracks, and the party-state retains many tools to patch them up, they appear to be fighting a losing battle.

And when a “freak event” happens, these small cracks can quickly develop into a chasm. In some instances, the credibility gap has forced the party-state to respond with more, and more accurate, information in an effort to calm public fury. But even this tactic has begun to backfire as the corrosive effects of long-term information management come into play. A case in point has been the effort to manage the narrative around the fall of Bo Xilai, a rising star in the Party whose wife has recently been charged with murder and whose own future looks increasingly precarious. The selective release of salacious details to an intrigued Chinese (and international) public has led to suspicions that those who are trying to end Bo’s career are intentionally publicizing information that damages him and his allies ahead of a major political transition. In this case, flooding the zone with information has only reinforced cynicism about the nature of the case against Bo and his family.

As other sources of the party-state’s legitimacy are looking weaker, particularly the economy, there’s reason for concern that the party state will become increasingly reliant on its other pillar of legitimacy: an assertive nationalistic foreign policy. The importance the party-state places on information control in portraying the Chinese Communist Party as the protector of the Chinese nation can’t be understated. From pre-school curricula to the work of top scholars, from village newspapers to the People’s Daily, the importance of a clear and centrally defined narrative on key national security issues is paramount. Yet here again, the credibility gap is increasingly undermining the party-state’s effort to control the narrative.

Since 1949, China’s foreign policy identity has been rooted in three core elements: the “victimhood” narrative, that characterizes China as having been abused and taken advantage of by colonial and western powers; the “salvation” narrative, that portrays the Chinese Communist Party as the entity that enabled China to finally “stand up” and begin returning to its rightful place in the international firmament; and the “non-interference” narrative, that depicts China as a benign power that doesn’t meddle in the affairs of other countries. Setting aside issues of validity of these themes, they have come to broadly characterize Chinese views of international relations at both an official and societal level.

Increasingly, these elements are overlain with a gloss that conflates the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese nation, and an intimation that China’s return to its rightful international position means that it can begin to “right the wrongs” visited on it when China was “weak.” This more assertive, even menacing, narrative hasn't only rattled China’s neighbors, but is raising interesting and, in some cases, skeptical discussions at home. As Chinese people become more exposed to outside sources of information, and become increasingly distrustful of government pronouncements on all manner of domestic issues, it’s only natural that some will begin to question the propagandistic elements they have long been fed on China’s foreign and national security policy. Even on issues as sensitive as Tibet and the South China Sea, there’s some evidence of a growing diversity of thought and greater questioning of the official line. This is to say nothing of the broad skepticism that often greets Chinese pronouncements in the international arena.

Like the system of Mississippi River levees that failed to protect New Orleans from the catastrophic floods unleashed by Hurricane Katrina, China’s censorship system is likely to be severely challenged by unexpected storms. Even as the censors keep piling on the sandbags, the levees are springing new leaks. While China’s leaders are determined to manage the forces of globally networked information to their own advantage, such forces are notoriously unpredictable. Neither a good plan nor perfect implementation is likely to be enough to control them.

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Topics: China • Media

soundoff (222 Responses)
  1. Sivick

    I wouldn't trust anything that comes out of china that isn't panda related, and even the pandas are on shakey ground with me.

    August 3, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      So why are you still using that Chinese made dudo?

      August 5, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
      • lebonnie

        We are going to have to address your fascination with body parts...and your spelling. Everything you post has do you say...fundalmentalist stench....yeah, you got issues, Maersk.

        August 6, 2012 at 3:03 am |
  2. JeffinIL

    Hey, they are our best buddies now. No need to berate them. They're not Commies anymore.

    Oh, wait.

    August 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Reply
  3. Alex

    Anybody else find it ironic that we are pointing fingers at an "Authoritarian regime" over an event that has cost < 100 lives when Katrina cost us nearly 2000 lives? Ludicrous war-mongering.

    August 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Reply
    • Wahaha

      I still don't understand why American people trust their "free" media so dearly like media and journalists are parent-figures.

      August 3, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Reply
    • Beth

      I'm not understanding your point. Our media was highly critical of our government's response to Katrina. We have a free press. China does not. The Katrina example shows this freedom of the press.

      August 4, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Reply
    • Beth

      Wahaha, America is made up of people of all races, not just 'white people'. We have a free press here. There is more and more consolidation in ownership of the media but there are still small time reporters, internet bloggers, etc and things can't be hidden here by the government as easily as in China. We don't have propaganda departments actively trying to shut up people on the internet as China does.

      August 4, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Reply
      • Maersk

        Beth, have you ever had a thought that you might just another regenerated trash from the "Trash" that drifted across the Atlantic?

        August 5, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
      • lebonnie

        Maersk, sweetie, your attempts at being witty are a huge fail. Stop it, please. Your not impressing anyone and it's starting to make us uncomfortable.

        August 6, 2012 at 2:34 am |
  4. El Filipino

    Someone in the secret chamber of the Chinese capital is dreaming of world dominion. Its the lust for power and pride that closed his heart to the ideals of democracy, freedom, human rights, and justice. He now has the means to grab the world and like Hitler, he may no longer has the patience to wait for more time. A closed mind can only mean that armed conflict may be inevitable, its only a question of when.

    We the Filipinos are at the front line of this conflict. We are the first line of defense of the free world. In the past wars and even today, we have demonstrated our courage to answer the call. We need weapons, please support us. It is wrong to brand the United States as the one behind the conflict to assert their hegemony in the area. We and Vietnam are the ones who called for the U.S., not the other way around. And to the U.S., I would like to say that no matter how bad your reputation is in some of your past foreign policies or interventions, you are still the champion of democracy. No other country comes close to what you have done in defense of freedom in history. Yes you have been bad. But other countries have also been bad. But you are the remaining beacon of hope in this terrible time. I urge you to wake up, look to God and help save the day. We Fillipinos will fight to the end, BECAUSE THEY MAY TAKE AWAY OUR LIVES, BUT THEY CAN NEVER TAKE AWAY OUR ISLANDS...I mean OUR FREEDOM!

    August 3, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      And your only dream is to zuck another white kwok I suppose?

      August 5, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  5. Skeptikor

    "The importance the party-state places on information control in portraying the Chinese Communist Party as the protector of the Chinese nation can’t be understated."

    What you meant to say is either "...can't be overstated." OR "...must not be understated." It can most certainly be understated.

    You're welcome.

    August 3, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Reply
  6. Bobby American

    I are everyday white christian American who think this author is liar! Communist Party is greatest thing to happen China. There are no revolutions in China every year, I bet it perfect place to vacation and live.

    August 4, 2012 at 1:40 am | Reply
    • OregonTom

      The Chinese Communist party is an abomination and an insult to freedom loving cultures around the world.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:32 am | Reply
      • Maersk

        Kwok head, what about your uncle sending the U.S. soldiers to commit crimes against humanity in Iraq and Afghanistan?

        August 5, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Meatbag

      Its okay we know they have a gun to your head.

      August 5, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  7. tdsd

    I think the whole world other than the western countries think the US has an even bigger credibility gap.

    August 4, 2012 at 2:47 am | Reply
  8. 2Bob

    For 50 years the US and the Soviet Union managed to avoid the catastrophe of nuclear war. Can China and the US?

    August 4, 2012 at 3:19 am | Reply
    • JACK

      China will never ever go to war with USA. However, the USA will find a reason to attack China. As you know, more and more Americans are very jealous and hate any NON-WHITE countries getting wealthier.

      August 4, 2012 at 11:01 am | Reply
      • Name

        Attack China?? LOL

        August 4, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
      • lebonnie

        LMAO, one is JACK who is so unsure of himself he has to shout it and Name's name is Name. Lame. You both need to get out your translators, computers, Iphones, rosetta's stones or whatever else we invented to make the world a better place and get a less obvious moniker. Your taking all the fun out of trolling. Naw, I'm still having a good time. Go ahead and take yourselves seriously some more.

        August 6, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  9. Beth

    I hope one day the Chinese will live in a real democracy and not the current totalitarian government.

    August 4, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      Beth, you should zuck your uncle's kwok and get another mouthful.

      August 5, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  10. RescueRonny

    It's quite apparent that the Western world is engaged in a second Cold War. While the enemy is no longer the USSR, it can easily be argued that China poses an equal, if not greater threat. China is partaking in a Cold War characterized by subterfuge, grasps at economic superiority, outsourcing of labor, and espionage, as opposed to the age-old Soviet military doctrine. It isn't so much about nukes this time around as it is economic dominance. The sickening part of this whole thing is that the West appears to be blind to the threat China poses. If we were in the Soviet-era Cold War, we'd be endlessly preparing our militaries to combat any perceived threat and out propaganda machines would be in full effect. I think that it's about time that the Western world steps up to the plate and calls out China for what it really is: a threat to the West.

    August 4, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Reply
  11. hasan

    من هم با نویسنده موافقم و امیدوارم چینی ها بتوانند دموکراسی واقعی را تجربه کند

    August 5, 2012 at 4:35 am | Reply
  12. joe

    Do we all remember Obama's choice for White House Communications Director Anita Dunn? "Two of my favorite political philosophers: Mao Tse-tung and Mother Teresa." And who is the biggest Obama media supporter and endorses his political philosophy? The Communist News Network (this is CNN). But as long as there is a chance one of my posts might get through, many are 'moderated' even though no curse or hate words, I will give it a shot. The Democratic Party has been ambushed by 'Progressives' who even call themselves 'Progressive Democrats'. The Party is full of Anita Dunns and Van Joneses who do not have American interests at heart but rather a 'New World Order' mentality where communications are controlled. Controlled, as in former Obama Communications Director Anita Dunn's favorite political ("Power comes from the end of a gun.") philosopher, Mao Tse-Tung

    August 5, 2012 at 8:33 am | Reply
    • Beth

      I'm liberal and I find Dunn's talk about Mao troubling. I don't think it is a subject any more to joke about or speak ironically (as Dunn claims she was doing) than Hitler as Beck frequently referred to in his various anti-Democrat rants. I have zero respect for any American who calls themselves a 'Maoist'. They need to go read history and talk to people who lived through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, etc. I do not think she is in any way representative of the Democratic party or Obama. I don't hear that type of talk at all among Democrats or liberals. Please give other examples. The Republican party is the one that scares me–giving up our rights, selling them off to the wealthiest of the wealthy. Where will that lead? When you go far left and far right they come to the same style of totalitarian government. Which side is going there faster right now? The right in America certainly is. Those who equate health care access for all to Mao's brutal dictatorship should also go take a history class.

      August 5, 2012 at 9:21 am | Reply
  13. Sad American

    It saddens me to see how most people care little to nothing about about other people's problems, and how they seem to think think everything is our fault or fellow americans thinking everything is the other country 's fault. the fact is the world is messed up as a whole that makes it everyone's problem. i'm tired of hearing what country can beat who's does it really matter when it's the common person dies not the leader who says " Its our right!" "Death to the godless people" "it is a threat to our freedom " and so on. All governments have wish to rule either by force or the illusion of freedom. This will not change because in the end the person power cares for its own power. And its us the people that suffer in the end thats the truth no matter where your from or what race you are we are all taught to hate each other so we turn a blind eye to what happens to people not our own and its wrong, Think about it how many people that wish peace for all with the means to do so and to help other don't get killed and live to see there dream come to pass, the reason is there is money and power from conflict and to many people desire it. I fear in the end world peace will only be achieved when the world is in pieces.

    August 5, 2012 at 8:53 am | Reply
    • Nina

      So sad?
      Suicide is allowed for you muslims.

      August 5, 2012 at 10:31 am | Reply
  14. OregonTom

    You sound as if you actually support the Maoists.

    August 5, 2012 at 10:30 am | Reply
    • Sad American

      i'm not supporting any one i'm saying to many people are to concerned with personal gain and the thinking their way of of life and ideas are the right ones and damn any one else, live your life any way you want follow any religion you want there is nothing wrong with that. It's only wrong when it is forced upon others or punishing others for not accepting it and using it as an excuse to kill,that goes for any nation any religion.

      August 5, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  15. Sashimi Boy

    As a Filipino, I remember the turn of the 19th century when the US stole our independence and massacred thousands to pacify our islands, their new colony. But you know what? I prefer American hegemony to crude Chinese imperialism. At least nowadays the US gets what it wants through subtle suasion and if you don't like it you can run to the UN or international courts. The Chinese just fabricate excuses and take what they want using military or economic force. They even damage nascent democracies by bribing government officials to seal lucrative deals for their companies. The US system of international trade, on the other hand, has allowed millions around the world to escape poverty since WWII -and, yeah, especially in China. Moreover, the US is a country made up of immigrants from different parts of the world, including Asia and it will be like a mini-UN, when the time comes that its demography and polity changes to become more representative of the world. I can't imagine another country more suitable to be a super power.

    August 5, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      Are you saying you would rather zuck some white or black kwoks?

      August 5, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • lebonnie

      Dude, you must be hella old.

      August 6, 2012 at 2:29 am | Reply
  16. wxnut

    Authoritarian regimes have traditionally relied heavily on controlling the flow of information that their subjects receive as a critical element of maintaining political power. Next they'll be screaming to shut down talk radio an Fioxx news.

    August 5, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  17. dj-MD

    Wow; a policy wonk who finally shows that she has a clue. I was starting to wonder if all the "sky-is-falling" types would persuade American policy makers and the general public that the Chinese and the CCP were omnipotent and that we were toast. China has a lot of problems that will keep them very busy for decades, and the Chinese Communist Party is facing a Spring of its own one of these days.

    Sadly their Spring will likely involve even more blood than the Arab Spring has because the CCP has such a huge policy/army sector. But the Chinese people cannot be expected to simply "take it" forever. At some point CCP B/S won't be good enough, and the Party's power won't be enough to hold back the flood.

    August 5, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  18. lebonnie

    Oh, oh you should meet facepalm28 or at least reply to it's post. You are both articulate and not crazy. Ummm, a breath of fresh air and a respite from the foreign posters and the lunatic fringe.

    August 6, 2012 at 3:10 am | Reply
  19. lebonnie

    Thanks folks that was fun. Obama in 2012!

    August 6, 2012 at 3:11 am | Reply
  20. Joseph McCarthy/Quigley/LyndsieGraham/krm1007 ©™/Joe Collins/J. Foster Dulles/Marine5484

    I am a useless piece of camel dung. I post anti American, anti GB, anti semite, anti India, anti modern anything because I am a good moooooslem. I steal people's monikers because I am so ashamed of myself and post the most stupid comment. When people get angry with me, I claim insanity. I am the same guy.

    August 18, 2012 at 9:13 am | Reply
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