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Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Fear of Chinese Government Officials

Hyperlink to source text in Chinese: 中国官员们的恐惧
Translated, proofread by @krizcpec

I read a report on the Internet that said many officials have anxiety about the Internet. Though there was no statistics provided, I found that report believable. Why?

Throughout history, [until the age of the Internet,] Chinese government officials had never been under genuine supervision and restriction. The saying “people's eyes are sharp” is but another way of saying that people are blind selectively. When the authorities need your eyes to be sharp, your eyes have to be sharp; when the authorities need you to turn a blind eye to something, you would have to do as you are told. In other words, the masses are used by government officials as puppets, and they can do nothing about it. On top of these, the populace sees the officials' unlawful actions, corruption and has no channel to air their discontent: the media, controlled by the government, would certainly not cover news stories that make officials look bad [simply because the public is dissatisfied]. Those disclosed corruption cases may be real, but their disclosures were not the result of effective supervision by the people, but rather the political struggle at top levels; or they could also mean those politicians had lost their backing. These disclosures have nothing to do with democratic and free supervision or victory of the common people; anti-corruption is but a pretext with which different political figures or factions fought against each other.

Officials in general think they have what it takes to find backing from their superiors: bribery and corruption are basic knowledge for people working as officials in China. They know perfectly well in the event that one of superiors is doomed, they still have others to rely on: they would not put all their eggs into one basket, a basic knowledge of investment that they put to use almost instinctively. That means if one of their superiors is doomed, they themselves are not likely to share the same fate. They would not fall victim to political struggle at the top either: they have no way to get close to those at the top to be connected with them; and they are not significant enough to be victimized in such power struggle. That said, what low level officials fear the most then is the relatively free Internet, which technical features make it difficult for total eradication of information detrimental to their career. And information comes so swift and from sources so diverse that many officials feel it hard to keep track. They have done too many evil deeds, of which there is plenty of evidence. Therefore they fear exposure, they want to do all they can to block news sources, to eliminate freedom of speech. Some officials would use protection of privacy to cover up their evil acts of corruption, having apparently no idea that much information about government officials do not fall in the category of privacy.

Confusing criticism of the government with subversion of the state, sending critics to prison for what they spoke or wrote; classifying facts that the public should know as state secrets, for example the student death toll in 2008 Sichuan earthquake – these are why the officials want to restrict free speech on the Internet [so that their negligence, or more importantly, governing legitimacy, won’t be questioned].

At the same time, they repeatedly issue the old-fashioned charges of spreading rumors. Even if someone really did spread rumors, the root cause lay with the government’s withholding of the truth and its noncompliance with the Regulation of the People's Republic of China on the Disclosure of Government Information. Instead of meting out punishment for those criminal actions of withholding the facts, the authorities penalized only those spreading rumors. Let's not forget that rumors can exist because the truth is not disclosed. How would the public be convinced when the culprit can walk free while those trivial offenders are punished? Moreover, without disclosure of the truth, the authorities' repeated statement that “rumors stop at the wise” is just a typical saying to fool the public. Rumors would only be stopped by disclosure of information, revelation of the truth, and freedom of speech. In a society where the truth is kept secret, to expect rumors to stop at the wise would be both ridiculous and impossible because that would need the entire society to consist only of the wise. No society is like that. In societies where few or no rumors exist, there are always channels for the truth that the public should know to be exposed [without additional requirements].

Netizens have to register their identity before they publish any blog posts or reply to any threads. This would soon be a new Internet regulation in Hangzhou. To comply with the principle that one should not make statements that are not supported by evidence, this article should perhaps entitle “The fear of Hangzhou government officials”. But the problem is, nowadays the Chinese government often make clever use of tentative approaches to implement measures that would attract much objection from the people. They would adopt such measures in a smaller scale, at certain locations first. Just like this time, the authorities implemented first in Hangzhou these regulations so as to test the waters. If this triggers no massive opposition from the people, stir up no criticism across the Internet, and result in no lawsuit of violation of freedom of speech, then it is very likely that the authorities would implement those local measures across the country, there by stepping up nationwide control of speech and the Internet. Because of information asymmetry, and control of free speech, we might speculate on [what follows] this experiment of tightening control of the Internet, commissioned to China Internet Association and the local government by officials at higher levels.

In fact, which local government in this country would not be interested to impose measures similar to that in Hangzhou, and tighten control of the relatively free speech on the Internet? If all local governments share this desire, then why are they not introducing these? That’s because the highest authorities are afraid that if such measures are implemented all at once everywhere, there will be repercussions. And in fact it is not necessary for each local government to separately introduce measures that are about to be in place in Hangzhou, if there aren’t a noticeable public outcry to stop it. A more authoritative and economical way to make such regulations nationwide would be for the Chinese Rubber Stamp Association, the NPC, to pass a new law based on the one introduced in Hangzhou. We should refrain from speculating the motives of other individuals; but as for a government that does not disclose information – or even if it does – we have the rights to find out its malice intent. Because the government may change its policies or take measures to its own advantage any time. What happens now to netizens in Hangzhou may happen to us tomorrow, for this reason we should not sit and watch; we should rationally express our dissatisfaction in every possible way and show our support for them and for freedom of speech. Otherwise if the central government spread nationwide “the advanced experience of Hangzhou”, the network of this country would end up become a genuine prison.

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