The Media and Government in the USA, Europe and China
Edited By Christ´l De Landtsheer, Russell Farnen and Daniel B. German
17 Implications for E-Media, the Press, Government, and Politics in China
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Associate Professor, Director, Institute of Higher Education, China University of Mining and Technology, Xuzhou, People’s Republic of China
Assistant Professor, School of Government, Nanjing University, Nanjing, People’s Republic of China
In 1994, China adopted the international Internet TCP/IP protocol and became the 71st country with Internet access. Since then, the number of Chinese who logged onto the Internet expanded dramatically, from 0 in 1994 to 538 million in 2012. China is on the “information superhighway.” The accelerating advance of information technology is changing the lives of common citizens; it is also the governing model of the state, catalyzing the transformation of Chinese society and politics.
This discusses the development of information and communication technology (ICT) and its impact as a new communication media on Chinese politics. The anticipated promise of the Internet as a revolutionary vehicle for Chinese politics prompted both ecstasy and consternation. The increased use of the Internet in heightened citizens’ interest in and capacity for political participation, broadened the channel of civil participation, improved government efficiency, enhanced communication between government and citizens, and advanced the transparency of the government’s functional departments. Meanwhile, the Internet has broken the pyramid structure of traditional Chinese society, but at the same time, it has formed a new bureaucracy and digital divide. The irrationality of electronic participation, the fragmentation of the legislative system, the disorganization of Internet use, and the government’s strict control of the Internet’s content are all barriers to Chinese cyber democracy.
China Enters the Internet Era
Since Chinese people accessed the Internet in 1994, the population of Chinese “netizens” expanded dramatically and the Internet penetration rate increased significantly. According to the 30th Chinese Internet Development Statistics Report from the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), by the end of June 2012, China had netizens 538 million netizens, with 39.9% Internet users (Figure 1). ← 341 | 342 →
The CNNIC is China’s first Internet research institution and issues statistical reports each June and December since 1997. The data from the December 2008 CNNIC report showed that the population of netizens, netizens with broadband connectivity, and registrations of CN domain names all surpassed other countries. Moreover, the regional distribution, age structure, and demographic structure of Chinese netizens has been optimized. The popularity of the Internet among people who live in developed areas with easy accessibility is high; but it is gaining converts among people with little education and those who live in undeveloped areas. By the end of June 2012, the number of netizens in rural China had reached 146 million, an increase of 14.64 million since the end of 2011, and 27.1% of total netizens (Figure 2).
In addition, the Internet infrastructure furnished access gradually, the Internet technology developed quickly, and the Internet performance improved continuously. By the end of June 2012, the number of IPv4 addresses approached 330 ← 342 | 343 → million, there were 8.73 million domain names, and there were 3.98 million CN domain names. The total number of websites increased to 2.5 million (see Table 1).
Table 1: The contrast in Chinese Internet infrastructure resources between December 2011 and June 2012 (Source: The Thirtieth CNNIC Statistics Report on Chinese Internet Development in June 2012)
The Chinese government also realized the Information Communication Technology had great significance for national political, economic, and social development, so the government actively promoted the Internet. People’s Daily Online (opened on January 1, 1999) became the first important news website of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which is achieving its web propaganda strategic goals via mainstream media. The 1999 launch of the “Government Online Project” was envisioned as a public relations showcase in the Internet era; it provided convenience for online service and government-public communication. Currently, Chinese e-government employs the top-to-bottom, crisscross patterned architecture, including “one station, two nets, four databases, and twelve operation systems.” (One station means one government portal website; two nets include the government intranet and the government network; four databases are the databases for population, corporate units, spatial geography and natural resources, and macro economy; twelve operation systems provide information about the government’s main business areas.) This e-government communicated with the central, provincial, municipal, county (or district), and town governments. 2008 was called “the first year of an era in Governance Online.” Chinese chairman Hu Jintao communicated with netizens online for 22 minutes through the Forum of Powerful Nation (the forum’s name comes from the BBS of People’s Daily Online), which set the new precedent of online communication between China’s highest leader and common netizens. Wen Jiabao, the premier of the State Council, first used text and video to communicate with the netizens all over the world through China Internet Information Center and Xinhuanet.com on February 28, 2009. During those two hours, there were hundreds of postings, and tens of thousands of feedback messages from mobile phone users. ← 343 | 344 → Based on the rapid increase of micro-blog users, the government micro-blog appeared in 2010. The sense of Internet governance by Chinese government departments strengthened unceasingly; the mechanism of Internet governance was built up gradually.
The Internet developed quickly in China, but prosperity created problems: 1) the unbalanced development of the Internet existed among different regions in China, as well as between China and developed countries; and 2) Internet information security could not be guaranteed. These problems included lack of security measures, improper management, offline technical difficulties (partly unintentional because of technical glitches and system defects), and many serious security incidents concerning disclosure of sensitive information due to tampering, being attacked, and exploiting vulnerability. According to the Blue Paper, the Development and Research of New Digital Media in China 2012, with the development of mobile technology in new digital media, the threshold of information transmission will be greatly reduced; therefore, the problems of ideology security and information security will be prominent. This blue paper was an investigative research report about new media. The Development and Research of New Digital Media in China 2012 is the third volume of the blue paper system. The book includes the general report as well as reports on hot spots, the Internet media, plus mobile and electronic media.
Because of these problems, China began building the government-dominated nationwide strict Internet administration system in 1995. Various administrative departments that relied on a series of laws and regulations concerning Internet administration adopted multiple measures to set up the “Chinese National Firewall,” which became the Internet with Chinese characteristics (Hartford, 2000). The administrative departments of Internet in China include: the State Council Information Office, the Ministry of Information Industry, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Public Security, the Press and Publication Administration, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Public Health, and other departments. Similar Along with the huge number of administrative departments, China has had many laws and regulations concerning Internet administration since 1994, including Decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on Guarding Internet Security, Law of the People’s Republic of China on Electronic Signatures, Regulations on Telecommunications of the People’s Republic of China, Measures on the Administration of Internet Information Services, Regulations on the Protection of Computer Information System Security of the People’s Republic of China, Regulations on the Protection of the Right to Online Dissemination of Information, Provisions on the Administration of Foreign-funded Telecommunications Enterprises, Measures on the Administration of Security Protection of the International Networking of Computer Information Networks, Provisions on the Administration of Internet News Information Services, Provisions on the Administration of Electronic Bulletin Services via the Internet, and so on. Relevant ← 344 | 345 → provisions of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, General Principles of the Civil Law of the People’s Republic of China, Copyright Law of the People’s Republic of China, Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Minors, Law of the People’ s Republic of China on Punishments in Public Order and Security Administration are all applied in the case of Internet administration. There are over 80 laws and regulations concerning Internet administration. Besides the laws and regulations, government still employs informal ways to administrate the Internet, such as instant text messages, mobile phones, e-mails, and informal discussions. The government directly regulates Internet content and indirectly controls it by restricting the users’ access to the Internet (Wang and Hong, 2010).
Professor Li Yonggang of Nanjing University pointed out that in the last decade, the Chinese government’s supervision of Internet content has changed. Because of the large-scale mobilization and high-investment equipment modifications, the Chinese government has taken the initiative and has remodeled the core belief of the whole ruling system. (Li, 2007)
In conclusion, the Internet’s development in contemporary China exhibited two features: 1) the increase of netizens and the wide gap between the country’s rich and poor coexist; 2) the government closely watched both the active use and the strict regulation of the Internet.
The Internet as the New Political Communication Media
The rapid spread of the Internet in China is based on its characteristics as a new media, such as activity, immediacy, extensiveness, openness, and richness. These are combined with the characteristics of information transmission in unidirectional mass media and bi-directional interpersonal communication. Chinese netizens use Internet applications to acquire information and to take advantage of e-commerce, communication, and online entertainment (see Table 2).
The Internet information (using video, audio, and other multimedia techniques) combined the multiple applications with splendid content and provided users with strong sensory stimuli that heightened their desire for interactive participation. This interaction was very attractive to Internet audiences and was unmatched by any other single technology form. The BBS (bulletin board system) provided netizens with a public place to express their opinions on any topic at any time. The anonymity of online discussion was considered a key attraction of BBS and gave netizens an opportunity to speak freely. ← 345 | 346 →
Table 2: Internet applications of Chinese netizens from December 2011 to June 2012 (Source: The Thirtieth CNNIC Statistics Report on Chinese Internet Development in June 2012)
The Internet’s interactive communication capability (and its apparent power to foster inclusiveness and mobilization) possessed the characteristics of democracy and freedom, which the traditional media lacked. For this reason, many major presses, newspapers and other traditional media in China began using the Internet (such as Xinhuanet.com, People’s Daily Online, CCTV.com, and STAR Group) to disseminate news. The news agencies as well as radio and television stations in China have used the Internet to develop their resources and brand advantages and to develop an open forum, bulletin board, and comment section to meet the people’s need for communication.
In the political area, the rapid expansion and wide use of the Internet in China accelerated the remodeling of the Chinese political communication system. The traditional political communication modes (newspapers, broadcasts, and television) had difficulty satisfying the Chinese government’s policymaking and implementation requirements; they also failed to cater to the public’s appeal for political ← 346 | 347 → participation, discussion, and supervision. Thus, China’s government readily opted for political communication via the Internet.
The Office of Publicity of Government Affairs of Liao Nin Province publicized the Government Work Report of all counties and districts in its jurisdiction online and appealed to the general public for comments for the first time in China on March 15, 2009. This indicated that the public was encouraged to discuss the Government Work Report, instead of relying on the deputy to relay their comment to the National People’s Congress during its sessions. Consequently, the online comments gave the Chinese government a way to quickly learn about the people’s opinions and recommendations and to accept the public’s supervision.
The Internet has encouraged people to express their opinions and has facilitated political participation from the grassroots. The annual meeting of the National People’s Conference (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) were vividly compared to a “yearly inspection” of government work and civic awareness. Since 2009, People’s Daily Online has not only continued to conduct the traditional interactive columns (such as “NPC and CPPCC investigation,” “Questions for Prime Minister,” and “Words online”), but also promoted some new ones based on the interactive idea and information and communication technology (ICT). These include “the Netizens Hall,” “E-NPC & CPPCC of Powerful Nation,” “Bills and Proposals online,” “Questions for Spokespeople.” This allows millions of netizens to indulge their passion for political participation and gives them the opportunity to offer advice. In the “Netizen Hall” column, netizens could discuss various topics, express their opinions, and make recommendations and solutions to their representatives and deputies. In “Bills and Proposals online,” NPC deputies and CPPCC members communicate with netizens and seek their advice. Both of these columns allow free discussion and thus motivate netizens’ participation. “E-NPC & CPPCC of Powerful Nation” (a large-scale interactive column) combined the netizens’ advice, voting recommendations, comments, and criticisms with interactive polls; thus, it became the netizens first choice for following NPC and CPPCC activities and for communicating their advice and opinions. Less than two days after those columns opened, almost 10,000 netizens registered for “E-NPC & CPPCC” membership, and posted hundreds of different proposals.
From “Participating in government and public affair via blog” to “E-NPC & CPPCC,” netizens have offered advice and made proposals on economy and people’s livelihood through People’s Daily Online, Xinhuanet.com, CCTV.com, which merged into “the tide of reasonable proposals” in the era of the Internet. Citizens’ concerns about and participation in NPC and CPPCC indicated their great interest in advancing Chinese democracy, the growth of citizens’ consciousness, and the strengthening of belief, rationality, and responsibility.
Accordingly, almost all local governments have actively promoted building the infrastructure for online participation and enhanced interaction with the public. On ← 347 | 348 → June 29, 2009, the general office of Guangdong provincial party committee held a meeting to solve the common problems posted by netizens for the first time in China; they assigned 17 issues on 5 topics to the departments concerned. On November 1, 2009, the first “Guangdong Netizen Forum” started at Guangdong Science Center. Thus, 150 famous netizens within and outside of Guangdong province and 50 government officials and experts from non-governmental think tanks got together to debate about the “financial crisis.” The netizen forum was China’s largest at that time.
In the past, Government Online was “speaking” with netizens online and “listening” to CPC committee and government offline. Instead of using reliable mechanisms to restrain and regulate participation, the online governance mechanisms focused on temporary ones (such as online e-mails, calls, and reports). The task-based meeting to solve common problems posted by netizens was convened to explore a consistent effective mechanism for interactive communication between government and netizens and to implement “online hearing” to promote “Governance Online.” On the one hand during this process, government emphasized the importance of online public opinions, built platforms, and created opportunities for effective government-public communication. On the other hand, there was an upsurge of enthusiastic netizens’ political participation; posting and criticism thus became the norm. The task-based meeting indicated the transition of Governance Online from “online hearing” to building a mechanism for expressing public opinions online. It heralded a commitment to foster interactive communication between the government and the public.
Microblogging on government and government affairs has become the new model and is an important platform for publicizing government affairs, serving the people, getting to know public opinions, and communicating interactively between government and citizens. Since its inception in 2011, microblogs about government first opened in Beijing, followed by Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hubei and other provinces. The microblog on government and government affairs has covered central and eastern China (Du and Zhang, 2012). The public sphere and public life has been affected and involved. According to the Assessment Report of Microblog on Chinese Government and Public Affairs 2011, by December10, 2011, there were 32,358 microblogs of CPC and government departments authenticated in Sina.com, Tencent.com, people.com.cn and xinhuanet.com; the CPC and government cadres had 18,203. The assessment report drew 1,000 samples from the microblogs of CPC and government departments and those of CPC and government cadres respectively. The statistics showed that in the microblogs of CPC and government departments, the proportion of city government and its subsidiary bodies was largest (58%), provincial government and its subsidiary bodies was next (22%). The microblogs of public security organizations accounted for 47% (the biggest one in CPC and government departments); next was the tourism department ← 348 | 349 → (8%). The proportion of cadres’ microblogs in public security organs ranked first (42%) in the CPC and government cadres, the next was in CPC departments (16%).
The dramatic expansion of microblogs on government and government affairs indicated that people-oriented, service-first ideals have driven the Chinese government to publicize its affairs ceaselessly. This resulted in strengthening the service from the street level, elevating the utility of governance resource and the performance of service via the Internet, and improving the government website from content-oriented to service-oriented. The government’s striving for interactive communication with the public improved political communication and helped democratize the policymaking process.
The appearance of the netizen forum, online spokespeople, task-based meetings to solve common problems posted by netizens, microblogs on government and government affairs, and so on somehow initiated a new communication flow between officials and people. The interaction of government and the public via the Internet has built bidirectional communication and feedback models. This direct contact between the government and the public has elevated the administrative efficiency and governing capabilities and has rationalized the social governance structure. The cadres of government at all levels have noticed how the Internet makes it easier to seek advice from people, and have realized that getting to know the people’ s wishes, to use their wisdom, and to help them were essential aspects for improving the government’s effectiveness and policymaking.
The Process of Internet Combination with Chinese Politics
Government Online (1999-2003)
The construction of Chinese governmental informationization began with the Government Online Project in 1999 and the Leading Group of National Informationization Work that same year.
Government Online means that governments can function well via the Internet, including controlling their image, relating governmental structures and procedures, disseminating information about related policies and industry, and providing proprietary governmental information. The first meeting of Government Online Project held on January 22, 1999, brought together the Chinese Telecommunication, State Economic and Trade Commission and 40 other ministries and institutions. Their goal was to bring more than 60% of state organizations and all governmental levels online in 1999 and to increase that by more than 80% in 2000. Thus the Government Online Project was formally launched and the informa-tionization of Chinese governments entered a new era based on the international Internet infrastructure. Therefore, 1999 was called “the Year of Government Online.”
The Circular of the General Office of the State Council Concerning the Establishment of the Leading Group of National Informationization Work, issued by the ← 349 | 350 → General Office of the State Council of P.R.C on December 23, 1999, announced that the Leading Group of National Informationization Work (chaired by then Chinese vice premier Wu Bangguo) would be in charge of organizing and coordinating the research and development of important information across departments and industries and solving the problems concerned with the informationization project.
Half a year after the start of the Government Online Project, the number of domain names under gov.cn registered by Chinese governments at all levels reached 1,663, which was over three times more than the 561 registered in1998. Among others, over 720 governments set up their websites, as well as 63 central organizations, 174 provincial governments, and 467 prefectural governments. The telecommunication departments opened 198 special broadband lines to serve users. By June 2012, the number of domain names under gov.cn registered by Chinese governments at all levels reached 54,808, 33 times that of 1999. (The 1998 data is from the Second CNNIC Statistics Report on Chinese Internet Development in July 1998; the1999 data is from the Fourth CNNIC Statistics Report on Chinese Internet Development in July 1999; the 2012 data comes from the Thirtieth CNNIC Statistics Report on Chinese Internet Development in July 2012.) In addition, a batch of excellent provincial, municipal, and county government websites sprang up. The cornucopia of typical online application projects has been established, including databases of laws and regulations, databases of cities and counties, governments’ dynamic news, leaders’ email address, real-time traffic monitoring, online declaration and anti-smuggling, electronic taxing, and government online biding. During this period, the application of e-government grew both in form and content and began to rely on the international Internet’s great coverage and powerful interactive capabilities. The e-government project in China has been used to offer convenient service and to elevate the performance of government organizations. It has become the indispensable means for the construction of a service-oriented government.
Service Online (2003-2008)
In July 2003, Wen Jiabao (then head of the Leading Group of National Informationization Work) pointed out that promoting the informationization vigorously is the important decision of the central committee of CPC. Complying with the trend of progress and the development of the world is the inevitable choice for Chinese industrialization and modernization; is the crucial link in promoting the leaping development of productivity, strengthening comprehensive national power and international competitiveness, and safeguarding national security; and is the strategic initiative in modernization construction. Governments should combine the informationization with improving government administration and transforming government functions. This speech heralded the transition of the e-government ← 350 | 351 → target from massive infrastructure construction to resource integration, application deepening, government transformation, and public service.
The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Electronic Signatures, promulgated on August 28, 2004, was the first-ever formal informationalization legislation in China. This was considered an historical breakthrough in the legal environment of China’s e-government.
The portal site of the central governmental of P. R. China (www.gov.cn) officially opened on January 1, 2006, which ranked number 2 in the popularity index of national government websites around the world, second only to the Canadian federal government’s website. The portal site put the scattered governmental websites of all levels together, became the “joint portal site” of a batch of government websites, and had an important demonstrative effect for other government websites at the same time. The setup of the portal site was regarded as the innovation of Chinese administration and a significant step in the construction of a service-oriented government.
In the October 2007 Report of 17th National Party Congress, General Secretary Hu Jintao recommended that the Chinese government improve its responsibility system and the public service system to promote e-government and to strengthen social management and public service. For the first time, he defined the function of “e-government” as “the urgent means to accelerate the reform of the administrative system and to build a service-oriented government.”
The Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on the Disclosure of Government Information were promulgated and put into force on May 1, 2008. This stipulated that government agencies should take the initiative to reveal government information “on the basis of disclosure, and the exception of not disclosure.” The regulations aimed to safeguard the rights of citizens, corporations, and other organizations to obtain governmental information in accordance with the law and to improve the transparency of government.
In May 2009, the first anniversary of the implementation of the Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on the Disclosure of Government Information, the service platform for Chinese governmental information integration (http://gov-info.nlc.gov.cn) officially opened. It was the first Chinese service portal for the publicity of governmental information built by the national library. The platform was developed to provide a public consulting service and to become a convenient service portal for governmental information.
Governments at all levels kept on opening new ways to communicate with the public in the electronic platform, such as fax, e-mail, BBS, and microblog. Some local governments gradually promoted the level of online social security service, tried to use the intelligent card as the mode of identification authentication, and advocated making the social service and management functions (such as social insurance, employment, civil affairs, medical and health care, housing accumulation fund system, household registration management information, etc.) more ← 351 | 352 → accessible via the Internet. Some government websites provided public channels for online consulting and complaining; others used communication vehicles (such as the Call Center and the telephone) with high penetration rates to eliminate the difficulties for people who had no Internet connections and thus no access to government service. The Call Center offers people most online public services such as information, consultation, complaints, help, and feedback. The “Government Service Hotline” opened in some cities are the specific application of the Call Center.
During the period of “service online,” the construction of e-government entered the complete implementation stage. With “one station, two nets, four databases, and twelve operating systems,” the main content of e-government started. The fields related to e-government (such as information security, electronic signature, the development and utility of information resources) developed vigorously. In these five years, the construction of e-government in most Chinese areas (especially the economically developed regions) has benefitted from the investment in constructing the massive infrastructure and acquiring the necessary hardware. Now the focus shifts to the “application” stage, characterized by interconnection and resource-sharing.
Governance Online (2008-)
General Secretary of CPC Central Committee Hu Jintao communicated with netizens online and listened to public opinions through the Forum of Powerful Nation in People’s Daily Online on June 20, 2008. Hu pointed out that the Internet is an important medium to do things, to make decisions, to get to know the condition of people, and to pool the people’s wisdom. And Hu himself has paid close attention to netizens’ advice and opinions (Tang, 2008). Governors used the Internet as the distribution center for ideological and cultural information and as the amplifier of public opinion, thereby promoting the transition of governing ideas effectively, the main value of Governance Online.
The rapid development of Governance Online in China benefited from the tremendous power of online public opinion offered via the online community, blogs, News posts, BBS, and online signature. (Now, the important BBSes in China are the Forum of Powerful Nation in People’s Daily Online, the Forum of Development in Xinhuanet, and other forums in Sina, Sohu, and other portal websites.) In addition, plenty of senior leaders, deputies to NPC, and members of CPPCC were invited to be guests on the Internet so they could exchange ideas and discuss issues of public concern.
One important aspect of Governance Online is online supervision. China faced major problems in 2008 (such as the snowstorm in January, the Tibet riots in March, the earthquakes that hit Wenchuan in Sichuan Province and Yushu in Qinghai Province in May, the Weng’an event in June, the Beijing Olympic Games in August, the tainted milk scandal in September and the Longnan incident in ← 352 | 353 → Gansu Province in November). The Internet played a vital role in delivering information and supervising government. A great number of corrupt and degenerate officials were reported through the Internet; therefore, 2008 was named The Year of Internet Supervision. The Chinese government attached great importance to the Internet’s role in supervision and actively created conditions for the citizens to supervise the government. CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the Ministry of Supervision set up the informant websites as a new channel of reporting (www.12388.gov.cn) on October 28, 2009. The website also is used to receive reports from the public about and accusations of CPC members, CPC organs, and those who violated Party and government discipline. The website also seeks opinions and suggestions about party conduct and anti-corruption efforts. A series of episodes concerned with online anticorruption fully reflect the strengthening of “online civic consciousness.” Chinese netizens used the Internet to safeguard their rights, to supervise and participate in the public issues, and to express their demands and needs. The social survey center of China Youth Daily conducted an online survey via www.minyi.net.com and www.qq.com. There were 1,983 respondents, including 75.5% who chose to take part in anticorruption via “exposure online” (which touched a much bigger proportion than other channels) by reports, exposure by traditional mass media, information disclosure, letters and calls, and audits (Huang, 2009).
The 2009 report of Analysis on Internet Public Opinion in China conducted by Internet Public Opinion Monitoring Room of People’s Daily Online analyzed 77 influential social events; the result showed that 23 of the 77 events were exposed by netizens via Internet. That is, one-third of the public opinions were spread by the Internet, which has become one of the independent sources of news and public opinion. The 77 events involved the safeguard of civil rights, supervision of public power, maintenance of public order, and the upholding of public morality. Furthermore, along with the swift expansion of mobile media (especially mobile phone), the combination of the Internet with wireless terminals (mobile phones) has become an emerging mighty force. Mobile phones have facilitated information dissemination since the mobile media not only disseminate words, but also upload the pictures and videos on location and send a “live broadcast” for any emergency event. Governments were under great pressure to respond in a timely fashion and to maintain legitimacy.
The result of the big sample survey about “Governance Online” conducted by People’s Daily Online, China National School of Administration, and Renmin University of China has showed that, among the 48,591 survey respondents, almost 70% of netizens were looking forward to “Governance Online” and 69% of respondents considered “Governance Online” as an effective way for CPC and government officials to gage public opinions. The replies of officials to netizens’ messages and online posts were the most popular ways citizens use “Governance Online.” According to 74% of netizens, the Internet could become a new way to ← 353 | 354 → prevent corruption. All these data prove that “Governance Online” had become an important feature of Chinese democratic politics in 2009 and would gradually increase. Although people have attached more importance to Governance Online and some local governments have used it as an index of official evaluations, not all officials approved of this experience; some officials saw it as a way to pretend that there was progress, others only went through the motions of using Governance Online and to quickly respond to netizens’ opinions. Some Chinese officials saw Governance Online as something they were “not willing to use, not dare to use and not capable to use.” At present, Governance Online in China limits netizens’ communications from bottom to top, but does not allow government’s affirmative actions from above to below.
Since the inception of e-government by the Government Online Project in 1999, the combination of the Internet with Chinese politics has improved China’s administrative capacity and its ability to make decisions more efficiently, respond to public service demands, and deal with emergency events of central and local governments and party committees. It has had a positive impact on improving administrative efficiency, promoting information disclosure, transforming government functions, and raising the government’s image. Despite these great achievements of e-government, it still has imperfections, such as “isolated islands of information,” lack of service, and incomplete performance evaluation mechanisms which directly affect the low overall level of e-government. An obvious example is the UN E-government Survey 2012 released by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affair (UNDESA) and Division for Public Economics and Public Administration. In this survey, Chinese e-government ranks 78th in the world, drops 6 places in the ranking from the previous year, and appears overall as a downward trend (see Table3).
Table 3: Development index and ranking of Chinese E-government in the world
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The Internet’s Impact on Chinese Politics
The Perspective of Western Scholars
Since the first Internet node opened in China in 1994, Western scholars have turned to the new technology. The relevant research topics covered the course of Chinese informationization, the government’s supervision of the Internet, and the impacts of the Internet on Chinese politics. Western scholars are especially interested in the influence of the Internet on the liberalization and democratization of Chinese politics from the perspective of the relationship between state and society.
Because of the characteristics of the Internet, the advent of the technology has excited a core of democratization transformation advocates, who connected the expansion of the “free technology” (Sussman, 1989; Tobey, 1996) with Chinese political democratization. Lots of scholars convinced people that the development of the Internet had a direct impact on and implications for political institutions and ruling techniques and the Internet and democracy were symbiotic entities. Other researchers asserted that government could not control the Internet just like they control traditional mass media. The Internet broke the government’s information monopoly and brought about a huge transformation in the press (Damm and Simona, 2006). In the Internet era, everybody became an information collector and informant, which virtually freed citizens from the bonds of hierarchy and undermined the government’s authority. Chinese government used the Internet to obtain economic and political benefits and controlled the technology to minimize its political risk at the same time, but this was of no avail. On the contrary, the government itself might be transformed during the process (Chang, 2001). Furthermore, the Chinese government would not overly curb the Internet because any containment policy would not only impede foreign investment, but also hinder the full application of the Internet (Bi, 2001; Taubman, 1998). For optimists, the development of the Internet in China thus would be an inexorable catalyst of social and political transition.
With the growing evidence that China could control the Internet successfully and continue its opening policy, the belief that the Internet would inevitably promote Chinese political transition had aroused more suspicion. The Chinese democratization brought by the Internet seemed to be just a rosy picture painted by technocrats, but it was not a realistic portrayal (Pan, 2011). With the popularity of the Internet, little individual freedom and political progress might arise, but a more likely scenario is the consolidation of CPC’s leadership and expansion of nationalism. Quite a few scholars concluded that CPC had taken advantage of the Internet functions in commercial activities and at the same time effectively controlled the negative political influence by multiple means (Banerjee, 2003; Harwit and Clark, 2001; Qiu, 2000; Shie, 2004). Even though the Chinese government is unlikely to prevent harmful information totally, it still could deter violations and irregularities by punishing those who visit illegal websites (Yin, ← 355 | 356 → 2009). The expansion of the Internet contributed to CPC’s weakening control of information, but fundamentally the promise by optimists was a fiasco. CPC held back the trial of political transition promoted by the Internet by using the high-tech Internet Control System known as the “Chinese National Firewall.” With the Chinese National Firewall, the Chinese government can use more developed technology than individuals and NGOs. Those who expected to use the Internet to advance China’s political transition have to deal with both the information censorship as well as this technological obstruction. Basically, the Internet will not fundamentally transform Chinese politics, but it might support China’s gradual transition to increasing diversity and accepting the fledgling democratization (Chase and Mulvenon, 2002).
Most Western scholars who do research on Chinese Internet politics recognize that the Internet contents are under strict censorship in China’s authoritarian political system (K. Yang, 2007; Hong and Li, 2005; Lau, et al., 2011; Fairbrother, 2011). In their opinion, China’s efforts to regulate the Internet echoed their traditional ideological methods, which considered the mass media as the “CPC’s mouthpiece.” By strictly regulating the Internet’s contents, CPC made the Internet an effective vehicle for social control.
Consequently, the Chinese government is not opposed to the Internet. It constructed the Internet infrastructure to develop their e-government and used the Internet to improve its transparency and responsibility, to boost economic growth, to accelerate the construction of New Countryside, (Ting and Yi, 2012) and to consolidate CPC’s leadership (Kalathil and Boas, 2003; Kluver and Qiu, 2003; Shie, 2004; Zheng and Wu, 2005; Bertot, et al. 2010). As far as social structure is concerned, the demographic “digital divide” (between rural and urban China and among regions) reduced the possibility of e-democracy and might exacerbate existing social conflict (Hartford, 2000). All in all, the Internet facilitated citizens’ political expression, but it is not the determining factor in Chinese political democratization.
For a long time, the assertions of Western researchers about the Chinese Internet differed essentially from the opinions of Chinese scholars. The Internet’s potential for democratization depends on how we understand “democracy.” If we cannot clarify the meaning of “democracy,” it is hard to say whether the Internet is getting closer to it or not. As Barber (1998) said, the existence and development of democracy don’t rely on the quality and characteristics of technology, but the quality of the institution and the characteristics of citizens. Technology can’t determine everything. The Internet can speed up the process of democratization and can maintain the non-democratic system. How the technology is used and in what kind of environment the technology exists has an effect on readiness for e-government (Khalil, 2011). ← 356 | 357 →
The Perspective of Chinese Scholars
Compared to the research of Western scholars, the studies of Chinese academia on the political issues influenced by the Internet are gradually becoming more comprehensive. On the basis of the literature review about Chinese Internet politics, the studies of cyber politics in China have been divided into three stages (Chen and Luo, 2011). During the initial stage (1994-1998), displaying both curiousity and caution, Chinese scholars mainly introduced and reviewed the construction of Internet abroad. In the growth stage (1999-2005), when the government online project began, the research focused on two aspects: the introduction of e-government and Internet security. The former included the environment, the basic models, current difficulties, and the social impact of e-government construction; the latter focused on the increasing number of Internet hackers, online fraud, and cyber infringement. At the same time, because of the need to maintain order on the Internet, the emphasis of both government and researchers switched to ideological education and Internet regulation. With the development of the idea of service-oriented government construction, Chinese scholars paid more attention on the exterior functions, including service online and interactive communication. With the “Governance Online” stage, most studies dealt with online public opinion, online supervision, online civil society, and so on. The researchers primarily focused on online political participation in the development stage (after 2006).
Chinese scholars had two different attitudes toward the emerging information and communication technology (ICT) and the Internet. Some upheld the concept of “instrumentalism” and insisted that (compared to the direct impact of historical traditions, development logistics, and institutional changes to the efficiency, service, and democratization of government activities) the impact of the Internet and ICT on the three aspects of government activities is only functional and indirect. Others considered ICT a “revolutionary” power and claimed that (compared to the traditional bureaucratic system) e-government was not only an innovative administrative tool, but would also bring about a brand new governance pattern. For them, the essence of e-government is how the government transforms and reengineers itself in the face of the ICT challenge and thus builds a new pattern of government that meets the needs of the information society and achieves good governance. Professor Yang Fengchun (2007) from Peking University said: “the arrival of the inevitable Internet era, will not the disaster of existent politics system, but the fortune for the people and government.”
The Impact of the Internet on Politics: Gift or Curse?
Some scholars and politicians regard the Internet as a gift for China’s political development because they think it can improve the Chinese political system by: ← 357 | 358 →
• Expanding civic participation. In China, the Internet is called the “Direct Train for Public Opinion.” It alleviates the problems of traditional civic participation such as blocked participation channels, incomplete related laws and regulations, and limited willingness and ways to express political opinions.
• Promoting democratic policy-making. The Internet can change the traditional government-dominated “policy agenda-media agenda-public agenda” to “online public opinion- government policymaking.” It also changes the passive subordinate status of the public and media in traditional society and helps them to actively influence the government’s agenda.
• Boosting political transparency. This is viewed as a new effective democratic supervision pattern. On the one hand, the Internet expands the scope and depth of supervision. Via the Internet, some social issues can be raised and debated between government departments and the public. On the other hand, online supervision makes the Internet a multi-dimensional open platform for government information disclosure. The daily administrative activities (such as making and implementing policies) can be presented to the public via the Internet.
• Evolving the level of democratic service. Cyber politics affects democratic politics and services. The Internet environment increases citizens’ awareness of all possible services in the areas of policies, society, economy, culture, education and healthcare. The public can access relevant government documents or deliver relevant information, demands, and appeals to the government via the Internet. Meanwhile, government can exchange opinions with the public at any time to discuss social issues and eventually reach a unanimous decision.
• Speeding up the process of political socialization. The Internet has become the important medium of political socialization. It plays a crucial role in influencing political culture, educating citizens, shaping political beliefs and political consciousness, and consolidating political rulings. Online political participation upgrades Chinese citizens’ political knowledge and skills and develops more mature and stable political personalities (Xiong, 2008; Du and Zhang, 2012).
Some see the Internet as a political disaster because of its negative effects on the political life of China:
• Corroding political stability. The concealment, decentralization, openness, and immediacy of online political participation influences political stability negatively. For example, it is easy to spread false information from persons or organizations with ulterior motives via the Internet; this could confuse people’s judgments and may lead to social unrest (Zheng and Wu 2005). From the civil rights perspective, the irrational and non-institutionalized cyber political participation may trigger group polarization which could threaten social stability, infringe on citizens’ legitimate rights and interests, and seriously affect people’s daily life (for example, the phenomenon of Internet Mass Hunting). ← 358 | 359 →
• Challenging government administration. The Internet differs from the authoritative mass media which is top-down style and dominated by centralized government. It poses a tough test for the traditional bureaucratic administrative pattern.
• Widening the digital gap. China’s digital gap limits the information provided to people who do not have Internet access. This results in unbalanced political participation. The Internet’s regional (urban versus rural) and personal (education, socio-economic, and age differences) imbalances limit online participation and cannot guarantee that all classes are heard. While cyber democracy provides various political participation channels and the gaps will undoubtedly narrow, Internet usage gives more access to the well-to-do, highly educated, and the more ideologically driven people.
• Jeopardizing state security. Online terrorism heavily undermines the authority of the government. Computer hackers target the national information center of political, economic, and military departments. This jeopardizes state security and violates civil rights and democratic institutions.
Statistics supplied by the National Computer Virus Emergency Response Center show that 72.16% of respondents had Internet security incidents in 2012. These incidents included maliciously tampering with the web page (75.08%), spam (73.65%), and Internet theft and phishing (64.87%). Moreover, the monitoring data from the National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team Coordination Center of China (CNCERT) showed that the overall evaluation of Internet security was medium in June 2011 when 8.15 million (76% higher than the previous month) Chinese computers were infected by viruses; 3,164 websites were tampered with, including 333 government websites. China National Vulnerability Database (CNVD) collected 447 system vulnerabilities, including 250 high-risk ones and 406 which could be attacked long distance. The software/hardware manufacturers affected were Adobe, Apple, Cisco, Google, IBM, Linux, Microsoft, Mozilla, Novell, and so on. The Chinese Internet security system is still weak in its ability to predict, respond to, prevent, and recover from threats. During China’s social transition different factions used the Internet to further their values and political demands and to jockey for dominance. If the mainstream ideology cannot control the Internet, revolution could occur.
The Future of Cyber-politics in China
Enhance the Performance of E-government
E-government is called a “top leadership project” because the government plays a leading role in its planning and implementation. Chinese e-government aims to reshape the government structure, to make the government process transparent, and to develop an innovative administrative pattern. However, it is restricted by the ← 359 | 360 → bureaucracy’s lack of commitment to live by the rule of law. There is also redundancy within the government’s functional division, ingrained hierarchical control habits, and entrenched civil service policies that hinders the e-government’s administration and discourages its growth. Therefore, to help e-government transform administrative patterns, the Chinese government must improve the bureaucratic structure, lower hardware restrictions, raise the level of bureaucratic software, and move it forward. To promote e-government’s performance requires reforming the administrative system to meet citizens’ basic requirements, making a commitment to complete every project, and expanding successful applications.
Expand Orderly Civil Online Participation
The Internet has become the new channel for Chinese citizens’ political participation. One netizen of People’s Daily Online insisted that every ordinary netizen can express their opinions and offer suggestions for CPC and government via posting and blogging. And a netizen from Xinhuanet.com left the message that the directness, interactive features, and immediacy of the Internet is a great convenience for Chinese citizens who want to express their views online. Much like a double-edged sword, online participation has both a positive and negative effect. The Internet also allows for disorderly, imbalanced, and emotional participation that negatively affects the evolution of Chinese cyber democracy. Since the Internet does not possess judgment skills, Chinese leaders need to standardize online behavior, to encourage rational and civil online participation, and to promote a harmonious and stable political order.
Establish E-governance for Social Harmony
Different from e-government, e-governance attaches importance to government informationization and the construction of a service platform; it pays more attention to informational interaction between the subject and object of public administration and the related virtual political and social structure and its interrelationship. To improve the performance and service orientation of e-government requires interaction among government, citizens, and NGOs. The traditional bureaucratic system stresses the top-down hierarchical management style, while e-governance (a new governance pattern in the information society) emphasizes people-centering, civic participation, information transparency and disclosure, interaction between the government and the public, and collaboration between government and NGOs. E-governance monitors the process of government administration, uplifts administrative efficiency, and increases transparency to build a clean and honest administration. Although currently e-governance in China is confined to supplementary functions of traditional government administration, it aims to become an online consulting service and offer innovations to encourage civic participation and eventually to construct the e-government. ← 360 | 361 →
Since the mid 1990s, especially as the technology has advanced, e-government is progressing in China. The emergence of cyber politics gives citizens convenient and cheap paths to participate in government and to benefit from its services. Cyber politics enhances citizens’ ability to communicate and participate in the political process, improves political socialization, and shapes political beliefs and consciousness. But it also balances the power structure between state and society, strengthening the power of Chinese civil society. The positive influences of the rise of cyber politics on the development of Chinese politics are multifaceted. The Chinese government needs to take the initiative to adopt this trend and make cyber politics a new form of socialist democratic politics with Chinese characteristics. Of course, there are also negative effects. The inequality of online participation, the disorderly online participation process, the manipulation of online public opinion all constitute obstacles to Chinese political development in this period. Therefore, the Internet era is not the curse for existing politics, but rather a gift for the people and the government. The Internet expands the scope of orderly civic participation. E-governance is based on the active participation of netizens’ and their ideological education and regard for the laws of China.
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