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.