Russell Leigh Moses is a Beijing-based analyst and professor who writes on Chinese politics. He is writing a book on the changing role of power in the Chinese political system. Here comes the hard line again. Back from their working break at the summer resort of Beidaihe—and with no major decisions about the economy materializing in the wake of the those meetings–the Chinese Communist Party leadership has evidently decided that it’s high time to reaffirm its control over society. And this time, there’s a new target: the social media. After weeks of taking jabs to the chin from an angry microblogging public, leading forces in the Party have decided to punch back. Politburo member Liu Qi visited the Beijing offices of Sina.com’s popular microblogging service Weibo earlier this week and impressed upon the staff there the need for “the Internet’s healthy development”—code words for staying away from topics which attack the rule of the Communist Party or hold officials up for public ridicule. It’s not clear why the Party leadership took so long to issue this warning to Weibo. If there were previously any doubts in Beijing about the threat the service poses to the government’s ability to control public discourse, they would have been eviscerated weeks ago with the unprecedented outpouring of rage on the site over the July 23 high-speed train collision near the city of Wenzhou. Of course, the Wenzhou accident illustrated how Weibo functions as a safety valve for some in society, and so refraining from interfering might have been seen as the smart choice, lest outrage at further media controls spill from cyberspace into the streets. Weibo also provides Party overseers with a good sense of what netizens are dissatisfied about—a pulse-taking when the conversation gets political. The most likely explanation, however, is that the upper echelons simply could not agree on how to manage a situation where indignation at the authorities appeared so forcefully. Bogged down in Beidaihe trying to sort out a consensus on economic matters, leaders were probably wavering then over what could and should be done in the wake of the Wenzhou train tragedy. Liu’s strong-arm visit follows a series of admonitions in the Party media, warning journalists to get back into the government fold and to play the role of conveying to a skeptical society that cadres care ( in Chinese ). The hardline view, expressed in a recent article posted in the “People’s Forum” run by the official People’s Daily ( in Chinese ), is that microblogging is best confronted, not by embracing it as a way for the public to supervise the Party, but by the Party’s “use [of] the mass media to tell the truth.” Indeed, many officials here think the social media is a slippery slope to the wrong type of reform. If there is going to be any sort of shift in securing Party legitimacy, the consensus seems to be focusing on the people’s interest—specifically, their “happiness.” This emphasis on “happiness” is a swing towards the approach of Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang, who has strongly promoted the notion of “a happiness index” to measure Party achievements and evaluate cadre performance. It’s an emphasis that’s getting some political traction and high-level attention. Recently, General Secretary Hu Jintao glided into Guangzhou to praise Wang. There, Hu referred to the needs of people for both economic development and popular satisfaction, and said that “the use of material civilization and spiritual civilization [would] make a pair of bumper double harvests” for the Party and its legitimacy. Still, this is happiness with a hardline, with the military, not microblogging, to assist in the undertaking. In Guangzhou, Hu underscored the need for social stability by meeting with security troops and tasking them with the ungentle assignment of “weeding out the old to make new contributions” — a phrase denoting more confrontation than cooperation. So even this effort to put a smile in people’s faces comes with some teeth. The leadership’s ability of the years to bounce back and confront whatever threat emerges has been impressive. But how this new hardline helps with handling the economy — for example, the lending binge which keeps local officials happy but worries bank regulators — is not at all clear. It seems far easier at present for cadres to agree on social control, and to postpone making the hard choices on the economy. It’s a good strategy–if the economic challenges ease in the coming months and the political transition continues apace. But if economic troubles mount in the absence of serious focus, then this attention to stifling the social media is going to seem off-target.
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China’s Hardliners Take Aim at a New Target