Q & A
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Can the Internet Change China?

Social media has been used by Chinese citizens to expose corruption, but the government maintains tight control on the flow of information and ideas. Foreign Policy’s David Wertime discusses China’s unique internet environment and the global issues at stake.

David Wertime YC ’01 is a senior editor at Foreign Policy and co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation, an online channel of Foreign Policy that uses the country’s internet environment as a lens on its unique political and social dynamics. 

Q: Who has access to the internet in China?

Over half of China's citizenry is connected, around 700 million people, which the Chinese government, justly, views as a huge achievement. Of course, that leaves about 650 million people who are not connected. 

This has been pointed out elsewhere, but it's important: there are plenty of people who are low-wage workers or are not in a major city who are on the internet. It's not just something for Chinese elites. As internet penetration deepens, the people who have access gets less distinctive and more representative of the Chinese population as a whole. 

Q: How does the average Chinese person get his or her news?

It really depends, in particular, on their age and their preexisting view of the world. The people who get their news from the internet do tend to be somewhat younger and wealthier, people in major first-, second-, and third-tier cities, and they have a greater range of media experiences. You get a very different picture of the country if you're getting your news only through television and print media, which by its structure allows the party state, which controls the media apparatus, to speak in a more unified voice.

Q: What about external sources of information? 

Typically, when Chinese students come to the United States to study, their experience of an uncontrolled internet is eye-opening. A small percentage of people within China log on using a VPN, which allows full access to the global internet. It was something on the order of 10 million people who did that. But for the last year and a half or so, the Chinese government has been cracking down on VPNs. 

Beyond that, in the last few years, Beijing has worked quickly to try to carve a sovereign intranet from the global internet. One of the major ways they do it is the so-called Great Firewall, which blocks sites the government deems undesirable. There isn’t a directive that says, “We have decided after much consideration to block Facebook” or Twitter or any other site. They just do it. It happened recently with Time and the Economist after they published covers that were critical of Xi Jinping. There is simply a growing blacklist of sites where, if you try to visit them, you're going to get a 404 page or a request that is never fulfilled. 

As a result, the Chinese internet is a very funky place. Speeds tend to be slower. You may be able to access a Western site but if you click on the Facebook share button, that little piece of the site will show you a 404. It's a pain to use. But, because everyone understands that foreign sites are being blocked you've got a lot of indigenous sites that are very popular and very powerful, including two major social media sites: WeChat, which is mobile focused—and everyone's internet experience is increasingly mobile—and Weibo, which is both desktop and mobile. 

Q: Is social media the best existing forum for real conversations in China? 

It is definitely the most powerful and freest forum in the country, but it's also a shadow of what it was just a few years ago. Social media has taken down a number of corrupt government officials and exposed events the government would have preferred to hide. It's still tremendously powerful in that officials understand they have to be aware that if something is particularly egregious, or someone's particularly disgruntled, there's still the recourse to social media. 

On the other hand, in 2012 when Tea Leaf Nation really started picking up steam, we could go on social sites like Weibo and find two, three, or four newsworthy items out of the ten most popular posts. They weren’t always political but were in some way revealing about the Chinese people or touched on major issues affecting the future of the country. There used to be a few dozen people that I would look to when major news broke. I was interested in their opinions because I knew that millions or tens of millions of people in China were following them. Because of the crackdown, many of them have basically stopped saying anything interesting, and given the consequences, it's hard to blame them. 

There have been crackdowns in particular on human rights lawyers who've been very active on Chinese social media. Their online speech has been criminalized, with prosecutors explicitly citing it as the reason they are bringing a case. Now, I don't expect to see anything on social media sites even when there's big news.  

Q: What are the rules around social media activity?

The government talks about wanting an internet ruled by law, but law is very much a double-edged sword for the party and has been for decades. As soon as they elucidate a clear set of guidelines, people know exactly what they can and can't do. They start to use those rules to push for their own rights. From the government's perspective, the rules are used against them. It has been a strategic choice not to define what's acceptable and what isn't on the Chinese internet. They leave it intentionally ambiguous, and that policy has served them very well. 

Everyone has to be a palace watcher to understand what Chinese authorities are thinking; and that's true for folks within China as well as outside. Sometimes there will be editorials in the People's Daily or Xinhua that appear to be announcements by the government. But it's very much in code. The president will talk about the need for positive energy on the Chinese internet. He'll talk about the need to crack down on rumors. It's not ever completely clear what he means. Is he signaling that another crackdown is ongoing? Is he justifying one that just occurred? Or is he actually announcing what he sees as the value of the internet and simply wants to nudge public opinion? 

Q: The internet is very good at disseminating information. Is the Chinese government effectively controlling the flow of information within the country?

Bill Clinton famously said China controlling the internet was like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. They haven't controlled the internet—no one can—but they have managed public opinion more forcefully than I would have thought possible. And I think the notion that more internet penetration will inevitably lead China to become more pro-Western or more democratic—which are different things—seems less likely now. 

They have a range of tools, from very soft measures like the president saying he wants to see positive energy, to slightly tougher measures like censoring someone's comment or making a website inaccessible, to much more forceful measures like bringing an individual in for questioning or putting them in jail. And we've seen the entire suite of options being used simultaneously.

A few years ago, the Beijing News reported there were two million people employed at, not necessarily censoring, but monitoring internet activity. The government is clever enough to know that social media is a really rich vein for them to tap. 

Weibo is a platform that allows public conversations which can take on a national life of their own. That is scary for the party. WeChat is for private conversations. Because it’s ostensibly private—we can assume the government has ways to listen in—I think people feel free to be a little bit more frank, and the government, although they might not like the criticism, is not going to criminalize the conversations because they aren’t going to go national. They'd rather you say it and then they know where they stand. 

Complaining about the government is quite unlikely to get you arrested on its own. Though other things that we would also consider innocent—a meeting among a few scholars to discuss what happened in 1989, starting a new political party or a new organization—could get you arrested. 

Q: For a typical Chinese citizen, what are the issues they're most concerned about?

Mostly, it's things that we would recognize instantly. They want their child—and it's usually singular—to go to a good school, get a good job, and have a better life than they have. They'd like to be able to buy a few nice things, maybe go on vacation this year. 

There are concerns about environmental pollution and wealth inequality. There's a consensus in China that the spoils from the last few decades have been highly unequally distributed—a few people have been massively enriched, a middle  class of a couple hundred million has done pretty well, and everyone else is essentially left to watch in envy. 

Corruption, particularly at the local level, is something people really care about. There are so many ways that corruption can put sand in the gears and cause a great deal of resentment. If people can't get a driver's license or medical care because someone is demanding a bribe that they can't afford, if they can't get a permit that they need for their business, if they can't get the documentation that they need so they can apply for a visa to go to the United States, those sorts of personal impacts really hit hard. 

Xi Jinping is conscious of that, and it’s one reason why his anti-corruption crackdown has been popular. I think he views corruption as an existential threat to the party, and he refuses to be the guy in charge when the whole thing crumbles. I think every major communist ruler in China since the fall of the Soviet Union has been terrified of being a Chinese Gorbachev.

Q: In the West, the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 remain a powerful image of brutal crackdown on democratic protests in China. How are those events perceived within the country?

It’s a minority of people born post 1989 who actually know the symbolic significance of Tiananmen Square as a site of major demonstrations. A reporter named Louisa Lim, who now teaches at the University of Michigan, did an informal experiment where she showed students at the University of Beijing the “Tank Man” photo. About 15 students out of 100 recognized the image. I think the government has been very successful with that process of forgetting. They've enforced it, and it has worked.

With social media, the government is particularly vigilant on or around the anniversary of Tiananmen. Symbols, words, or images that appear related to what happened in Tiananmen can become popular quickly, but are also quickly squashed. 

The internet is an archive in a number of ways. It creates an online record of what you have said. I think for some young people, that understanding actually chills their speech. They're not going to fire off a bunch of Tiananmen-related posts hoping that one spreads, because they know that that record is going to be associated with their name. It will follow them. The government doesn't necessarily forget about those things.

Q: Are there detrimental impacts from squeezing down on the free flow of information?

The Chinese government has repeatedly emphasized the need to become a more innovative, services-based, internet-based economy, which of course is correct. There's not a company that will be founded in 10 years that won't be an internet company in some fashion, if that's not true already. So the question is, can China transition to a 21st-century economy when its internet is not only heavily censored, but also just slow and not user friendly as a result of all the blockades that they have put up? It’s a big risk they're taking.

While the evidence from the last few years of crackdown shows that the existence of the internet doesn't necessarily compel the type of political change we'd like to see, it’s possible that more prosaic aspects of the internet—the frictionlessness, the ease of ordering goods, sending information, or exchanging ideas—may become an overriding imperative for the country if it wants to continue to grow economically. 

Q: Are there things outsiders will learn from what's happened with the Chinese internet? 

I have no doubt that many businesses are watching Chinese internet firms to see what they can learn. Whatever else you think of the company that owns WeChat or the environment in which it exists, it is an impressive product. 

But I'm also sure governments, in particular authoritarian governments, are looking at what China has done and see a model for how to manage the internet. For that reason, I think the story of the Chinese internet is really important, not just as it relates to China, but for whether we as a global society are able to achieve the initial promise of the open flow of information. It partly depends on where this uncontrolled experiment in China goes.

Senior Editor, Foreign Policy Magazine