Blogs1 have become a way for people to express personal opinions online, and in China the “blogosphere” is turning into an arena for political debate. This stands in sharp contrast to the Chinese state media which, not surprisingly, usually present the officially acceptable version of social events. Self-censorship among journalists and editors is well-known, and consequently public debate does not really take place in the newspapers or on TV. In that context, the new media with their capability of user generated content provides opportunities for expression of beliefs and values that would previously have remained in the private sphere. To be sure, political blogs bring something new into the public sphere.
What is the role of political blogs in China?
This case study introduces the phenomenon of political blogs through one particular example, namely the blogger Han Han2. His blog has been the most debated political blog in China, and it serves as an extreme case which in the clearest possible way
brings out the new political dynamics. The blogpost printed below can serve as a basis for
discussing the role of political blogging in politics and more specifically if it can be used for
In the “blogosphere” one of the superstars is the mentioned blogger Han Han (韩寒) who was born in 1982. He is first and foremost an author and also a race car driver. He dropped out of high school to pursue a career as writer, and before he started blogging he had already gained fame through his books. His blog is called Twocold and can be found on the Sina-website in the Culture section. It is an extremely popular blog with more than 481 million visits (as of June 2011). The name of the blog refers to his name Han which means “cold”. As the sound is repeated in his name (Hán Hán) it sounds like cold pronounced twice – hence Twocold. Normally, for any single of his blog entries there will be around one million hits and 10-20,000 comments. It is possible for other blogs to present such numbers at special occasions but not for every posting, and so the blog has further
fuelled his celebrity status in China. Even so, he has chosen not to participate in public or media events apart from writing his own blog. Still, this does not stop the tabloid newspapers and magazines from writing about him much in the same way as about any pop-star. In addition to the blog, Han Han has opened his own web-shop, where he sells signed copies of his books. He also edited a magazine called Soloist Ensemble (独唱团) which was only published in one volume and then then authorities put so much pressure on him that the second volume was cancelled.
On the blog he debates many different things such as literature, movies, car racing, and the list continues. There is no topic too big or small to be discussed, but they have a thing in common namely that they somehow address social issues of China today. His initial debates were on the role of literature in society in which he launched fierce and sometimes personal attacks against other writers. In the last few years he has been commenting on just about each and every major social topic. His language resembles spoken language, and often it is ripe with imagery such as when he likens government buildings to prostitutes because of their instantly recognisable style. This brings up another reason for its popularity: There is a strong element of criticism of the political system in his writing.
Han Han’s blog makes political statements which go further than is usually accepted by the
authorities. He questions the fundamental principles of the Communist party-state, the legitimacy of their rule, and the role of citizens. The authorities have a hard time, because the number of followers makes it very difficult to shut his blog down. The fear is that it would create large protests, an unpleasant thing for a government which is generally very concerned with its public image. Han Han’s posts are sometimes initially posted with very critical content, and will hence be ordered removed. In spite of that, before the police orders the original post removed it has already been copied to several other locations and multiply in a way that makes it practically impossible for the censors to do anything about it.
Often, bloggers’ importance are measured by the number of visits or comments, and in Han Han’s case it is obvious that a lot of people regularly read his blog posts. Even so, as is well-known from user produced content websites, the quality of the comments is varying. Let us take the Shame on Baidu blogpost as a concrete example. This blogpost has 10,127 responses (12 June 2011). The first comments read like this:
Sina Mobile User 2011-03-25 15:28:12:
Go Han Han!!!!!!
56606632 2011-03-25 15:28:19:
Estrella 2011-03-25 15:28:25:
Political blogs in China: the case of Han Han
Han Han’s Bodyguard From Dongbei 2011-03-25 15:28:25:
If Not Clean Don’t Disturb 2011-03-25 15:28:33:
Invasion of red fruit
Musangma Yeye 2011-03-25 15:28:42:
(A cartoon image of a rabbit)
Estrella 2011-03-25 15:28:47:
So fast, wow!
Radius_Ukiyo 2011-03-25 15:28:47:
Han Han’s Bodyguard From Dongbei 2011-03-25 15:28:53:
The first many pages of comments continue in this vein with a number of people commenting on the feeling of being close to Han Han, simply because they post their comment shortly after the original posting. After some time a number of comments get more substantial in relation to the discussion, but the quality of the “debate in the public sphere” can be questioned. Nevertheless, the impact of the blog is only partly to be found in the comments on the blog itself. Equally important is that people read it and take up some of the points in other connections, e.g. on their own blogs. They are inspired by Han Han’s clear and easily understandable statements. Copying, posting links to his blog, using his phrases are all examples of ways his ideas are taken up by “netizens” and through them shape the public discourse. And this is important to notice, because government is to
an increasing extent using netizens’ opinions as a gauge on public opinion.
In conclusion, Han Han’s blog is an illustration of how the Internet has facilitated pluralism in society. This also includes a broadening of the scope and depth of political issues which can be discussed. Through the Internet, bloggers like Han Han gain a medium which can provide them with a very broad base of followers who can make it difficult for government to entirely shut them down. On the other hand, even though Han Han’s blog is often edited by authorities, it is not censored beforehand which means that some of his critical messages and ideas escape to cyberspace before the censors manage to react.
1 The term “blog” comes from web-log and refers to an online chronological publication of thoughts and web-links.
2 Biographical information based on: http://baike.baidu.com/view/5972.htm
Han Han’s blog: blog.sina.com.cn/twocold
Are the "flower revolutions" in the Middle East and North Africa endangering stability in China? by Christian GöbelPosted: March 2, 2011
These are fascinating times, as the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East might well be the beginning of a “Fourth Wave” of Democracy. The late political scientist Samuel Huntington once likened clustered incidences of democratizations to “waves”. After the apparent ebbing out of the “Third Wave”, which between 1974 and the early 1990s swept over Southern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe, the time might have come for another democratic push. As a political scientist studying stability and instability of authoritarian regimes, I am extremely interested in the events that are currently unfolding, and as a China scholar, I naturally wonder if China will be caught in that wave should it occur.
To start with, it is quite significant that the current events in Northern Africa and the Middle East are not simply instances of political change, but revolutions, masses rising up to overthrow oppressive and often corrupt regimes. They are happening in regimes that, no matter their actual problems, were perceived as stable (which is also why we did not see the protests coming). They were long-lived, lacked an organized and visible opposition, their leadership appeared united, and the people were aware and afraid of the significant capacities to repress social discontent. That mass protests took place there despite these structural inhibitions means that theoretically, they could take place in China as well, something which some observers are predicting (and perhaps hoping for) and which no doubt the Chinese government is very much afraid of. Of course, one important question is if Chinese citizens have reasons to protest, another if they would like to see the regime gone. Both will be addressed below, but suffice it to say here that the developments in the Middle East have taught the Chinese leadership to take the repeated calls for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China very seriously. This is why it has displayed a massive show of government force at designated protest sites instead of taking a laissez-faire approach and trusting the legitimacy it has been building up for three decades now.
In a related manner, one might argue that social protests are nothing new in China, and that they even serve as a pressure valve for the regime. For years, we have seen an increase in the number of local protests, and most of these protests are directed against specific grievances. In my opinion, these protests are not system-threatening because they are localized, issue-specific and signify that the population still has trust in the central government to address these grievances. The “Jasmine Revolution,” however, is very different, as it addresses systemic deficiencies, is coordinated and encourages demonstrations all over China. In addition, the Chinese government has a very hard time dealing with the ambiguity of the movement: on the hand, the organizers profess that they do not want to overthrow the government, but to peacefully express society’s discontent with rising food prices, corruption and more generally the lack of government accountability. On the other hand, the term is deliberately borrowed from movements trying to unseat the governments in their respective countries.
When the riots in Tunisia started in December 2010, I doubted that they would spread to China. My argument was that in contrast to Tunisia (and perhaps most of the other countries recently gripped by protests), the last 30 years have not only seen unprecedented economic growth, but also important legal and political reforms. Despite continuing social inequality, life has improved for nearly everyone in China. Having seen the protests spread into bastions of authoritarianism like Egypt and Bahrain, I am not so sure anymore if this, while true, really matters. The protests in Northern Africa and the Middle East come at a very bad time for the Chinese rulers and could inspire protests in China as well.
Not only the recent hike in food prices and the looming real estate bubble, but more fundamentally the continuing revelations about poisoned food, fake medicine, environmental degradation and other issues that directly concern personal well-being are taken very seriously by all strata of the Chinese population. Many citizens blame the government for being too lax against these crimes, and suspect that corrupt officials are protecting those responsible for them. These and other cases of corruption and favoritism, which are all documented on the internet, draw, as blogs and comments show, an increasingly irate virtual audience. The developments in the Middle East might well inspire parts of this audience that a turn-out in great numbers will pressure the government to seriously address these issues.
This explains why there is potential for wide-spread and non-issue specific protest, even if it is not aimed at overthrowing the government. Why, then, the paranoia of the Chinese government? What probably troubles those in power are two things. First, although the Chinese people might be grateful to the CCP for the improvements in livelihood they have enjoyed in the previous 30 years, they might not be sure if the CCP is able to continue delivering these goods under the present system. Just like in 1989, protests aimed at systemic deficiencies might develop into protests directed against the system itself, simply because the system, lacking channels of political accountability and competition, does not allow for an institutionalized input of public discontent. Discourse within the movement might lead to a radicalization of demands and aims, which is especially likely if the government does not react adequately to the challenges presented by these groups. This is closely connected to a second issue, the regime’s conflict capacities.
Hierarchical organizations such as the Chinese security apparatus find it very difficult to deal with symbolism, satire, and ambiguity more generally. Their organizational thinking revolves around different kinds of threats, and the more evolved an organization is, the more threat scenarios it will have worked out, and the more responses to each threat it will have planned. Problems occur when an event that is not threatening to the regime is treated as one that is, as violent reactions against non-violent protests always prove the protesters right. Arresting a man for laying down a white flower at the McDonald’s in Beijing’s Wangfujing Street, beating and detaining foreign journalists reporting on a (non-)event, or blocking the word “jasmine” on the internet invites not only accusations of over-reaction, but also mockery of the regime. Such events might easily escalate, leading to even harsher responses and finally massive resistance against a regime perceived as unduly coercive.
While it is by no means certain that wide-spread protests will materialize in China, the government’s precautions illustrate that it is afraid of them and does not rule them out. The coming weeks and months will be interesting, as they will provide us with important insights into the capabilities of the CCP regime to deal with crises. One thing, however, we have already learned. The hard resolve to nip the peaceful “Jasmine Revolution” in the bud shows us just how unsure the CCP regime is about the amount of legitimacy, trust and goodwill it really enjoys among the people of China.
Christian Göbel, PhD
Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies
Yes, there has been a serious crisis recently between China and Japan.
The collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese coastguard patrol boat close to the disputed islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, prompted both countries to take drastic measures which resulted in China canceling a number of high-level ministerial meetings between the two countries. But no, this doesn’t imply that the region is on the brink of open confrontation. It doesn’t disturb the general trend towards a more pragmatic cooperative attitude from both sides.
Junichiro Koizumi held the post of Prime Minister in Japan from 2001 until 2006. During the Koizumi years, relations between the two major powers of East Asia were indeed truly paralyzed. By visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo where 14 Japanese war criminals are still revered, Koizumi brought exchanges between high-level officials in the two countries to a halt for several years. At that time, the fact that the two major powers stopped communicating did indeed have serious implications for the region.
There are so many important issues that are universal in this globalized world. In order to face these issues there needs to be a dialogue in order to make things happen. That counts for environment, climate, energy, and also trade and financial matters.
The economic and political elites of both countries know this very well. For this reason, during the Koizumi years the elites in both countries were in fact united in the belief that history is important, but not so important that it be allowed to paralyze things to the extent that it ended up doing at that time.
When Koizumi resigned in 2006, therefore, one of the urgent tasks for his successor was to repair relations with China. Shinzo Abe, the new prime minister, who may have been an even bigger hawk than Koizumi, travelled to Beijing within two weeks of being appointed.
Within the next two years, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Prime Minister, and then the president, Hu Jintao, made broadly publicized visits to Japan .
All three visits were major public relations efforts from both governments for the benefit of skeptical populations in both countries. The smiling leaders played table tennis and watched baseball together while the cameras were on, and they obviously seemed to enjoy themselves while talking positively about the bright prospects of further cooperation in the future.
Most importantly, when Wen Jiabao recognized that Japanese leaders have actually apologized profusely on several occasions for the wartime invasions and war crimes committed by the Japanese imperial army, he did it in Chinese at the Japanese parliament, while it was being broadcasted across China and hence aimed at the Chinese public. This was received very well by the Japanese public.
He had finally done on China’s behalf what the then President, Kim Dae-jung, had done on behalf of South Korea ten years earlier. It was indeed a necessary step towards a future with less historical shadows over current relations.
This kind of show from the two governments’ side towards the two populations is extremely important as it is a fact that there is strong resentment towards the other side among the general population in both countries. The elites want to get along; they want to find some kind of working relationship where Japan has a role as neither partner nor rival to the new superpower on the continent, China, but rather something in-between, namely a very important second violin in the orchestra of East Asia.
Hostility among the population is a reality in China as a consequence of history and because new generations being so deliberately reminded about that unfortunate part of the long history.
But hostility among the population is also a reality in Japan where many people still have to adjust to the fact that in contrast to a few decades ago, China is now obviously the major power of the two. There is certainly a market in Japanese bookshops for literature about all kinds of evil intentions being harbored by the Chinese leadership.
The tough and shrill Chinese reaction to some of the recent crises, specifically the crisis following the September ship collision, has made even many liberal-minded and traditionally pro-China Japanese highly irritated about the conduct and intentions of their big neighbor. The new Japanese government has been harshly criticized for being too soft on China and too soft in the arrested Chinese captain; a criticism emanated across the political board in Japan.
Whenever there is a crisis in the relations between the two countries, one tends to focus on Chinese public opinion, but maybe we should also focus a little bit on avoiding a situation whereby developments on the Japanese side increase the risk of further political tensions.
Apparently, the two governments still have the important task of convincing their own people that the other side is not that bad after all. And to some degree they have a common understanding about this, in spite of all the harsh words during the peak of any crisis.
It is worth noting that on the very first day of the anti-Japan demonstrations in China last fall, the Japanese foreign minister publicly thanked the Chinese government for deliberately avoiding even bigger and more violent demonstrations.
At the same time the business community and civil society are busily shaping a future with much more integration between the two neighboring countries than one would expect considering the frequent political crises and the general public debate in the two countries.
Companies are busily hiring the brightest young people from each other’s country; students, from China at least, are busily applying to study in Japan; and young Chinese and Japanese backpackers are filling up the cheap hotels each other’s country.
In the end, it is these developments that will change the relations between the two countries much more effectively than any political developments ever will. In the meantime, in the aftermath of the crisis late last year, the politicians in both Japan and China once more have some repair work to do.
Asger Røjle Christensen,
Journalist, Danish Broadcasting Corporation,
NIAS associate Senior Fellow