Social Media in China

In class this afternoon, we will have as our guest David Wertime, one of the founders of  Tea Leaf Nation, a website devoted to stories gleaned from Chinese social media. We will discuss social media and how it is developing in China. Developments in China’s social media have made the news of late, with the government censoring and deleting posts. Consider this essay by Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. And check out this Foreign Policy article by new media expert Rebecca MacKinnon, author of a new book on the impact of the Internet on privacy and democracy, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.

“Clearly, China is no longer a classic Cold War-style authoritarian state,” MacKinnon writes. “I call its new style of information-oriented governance ‘networked authoritarianism.’ Thanks to the Internet in general and social media in particular, the Chinese people now have a mechanism to hold authorities accountable for wrongdoing — at least sometimes — without any actual political or legal reforms having taken place. Major political power struggles and scandals are no longer kept within elite circles.” She concludes: “A wide range of policy positions, political loyalties, and ideologies can be found throughout Chinese society, and thanks to the Internet those differences have become publicly visible for the first time. Millions of Chinese Internet users engage regularly in public-policy debates because they feel that at least in some cases, the weight of public opinion can make a real difference. These trends in the long run are great cause for optimism about what the Internet means for China’s political future.”

UPDATE: This blog essay by The Economist‘s Gady Epstein follows how a tweet by a journalist may have sparked rumours of a coup in China.

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Assessing the Power Shift in China

China is in the midst of a shift of power, with new leaders expected to be named in the autumn and a new president and premier taking office next spring. Chinese politics is typically opaque but every so often the outside world catches a glimpse of what is going on behind the scenes. The unfolding drama surrounding disgraced Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai is just one such episode. In a series of articles in YaleGlobal, three China hands – Cheng Li of Brookings Institution, former US ambassador Stapleton Roy, and University of California, San Diego, professor Susan Shirk – consider the power shift that is playing out in China and its implications.

Cheng Li believes that Bo Xilai’s downfall could have positive consequences for China’s political development:

Although these shifts in power have caused new tensions in the PRC’s governance and a sense of uncertainty, viewed from a broader perspective they should be considered encouraging developments. Factional checks and balances within the leadership, dynamic interest groups, and the widely-shared perception of China as a rising power could all become factors in a democratic transition. In the near future, the focus of China analysts should not only be on how effectively the CCP leadership uses legal procedures to deal with the Bo case, but also whether the leadership can boldly adopt more electoral mechanisms in its selection of senior leaders and search for new sources of legitimacy.

Stapleton Roy, meanwhile, writes that the US should plan on China becoming stronger and more prosperous:

We should constantly bear in mind that China’s challenge to the United States is of an entirely different order than that posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The USSR never posed a serious threat of overtaking the United States in terms of the size or vitality of its economy. In China’s case, it has for an extended period been advancing in multiple areas that contribute to comprehensive national strength. There is no question that China faces daunting problems in sustaining its rapid growth, but US policy should not be based on expectations that China’s structural weaknesses will prevent it from becoming stronger and more prosperous.

Finally, Susan Shirk warns that a more open selection process for its leaders will not necessarily mean that China’s continued rise will be peaceful:

Political succession has always been the Achilles heel of authoritarian systems. Bo is unlikely to be the last Chinese politician to use the media to build a public following. Trying to keep leadership competition under wraps within a black box is a losing proposition. More open competition for power within the party could open up new possibilities for reform that would have positive spillovers for China’s foreign relations. But it’s no guarantee of a China with the political legitimacy and institutional wherewithal to rise peacefully.

What are your thoughts on the shifting power equation in China?