What the people think of their leadership and government will be increasingly reflected not in the traditional print and TV media, but in the digital media and in the blogs and micro-blogs of the digital world. The digital image of China in the international net community will increasingly influence governmental and non-governmental perceptions of China. Future prejudices of China will be born not in the columns of the print media and in the radio and TV reports, but in the mushrooming blogs and micro-blogs of the digital world. It is important for leaders and policy-makers to pay attention to what is being discussed in the digital world and to be able to interact with the digital world. Future stability will depend not only on what happens in the real world, but also on what happens in the digital world.
2. These are some of the features of the world of the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) being highlighted by the analysts of the prelude to the Congress which is starting at Beijing on November 8,2012. An article by Dennis Pamlin of 21st New Frontiers, a consultancy organization in Sweden, carried by the “China Daily” on November 2,2012, says:
“In the coming years China's image will be increasingly shaped in a connected world, a world in which people will not only be passive consumers of information, many of them will be active providers of information through different social media. In a connected world people will trust their social networks more than traditional media, and the social networks with the most trust will create a virtual image of China.
“This digital image of China will be determined by the images, stories, comments, blogs and videos posted online, rather than through the print media, television and radio. So China must pay attention to its "digital twin".
“In a connected world it is no longer enough to do good things and tell people about them, it is also necessary to engage in dialogue with people around the world. If China does not engage in these dialogues, its digital twin will end up distorted.
“We are rapidly moving into a hyper-connected society where transparency and enormous amounts of information are creating new opportunities and new challenges. In order to overcome the challenges and seize the opportunities it is important that China, and those with an understanding of China, explore new ways to encourage dialogue so that its digital twin is not shaped to suit others' agendas.”
3. According to the “China Daily”, on November 1,2012, many party functionaries opened their own micro-blogs in their real names and started interacting directly with party cadres and people. One of those who has thus started interacting is Yu Zhengsheng, Secretary of the Shanfghai Municipal Committee of the CPC and a member of the CPC Politbureau, who is being tipped to join the new Standing Committee of the Politbureau as one of its seven members.
4. In a message posted on his micro-blog, he said: "It is the responsibility, instead of the power, that the official position gives to us. We're not special. We cannot be above the law. Assuming the responsibility of serving the people is the key of an official's work.” According to the “China Daily”, this is not the first time he is directly interacting through the web with party cadres and the general public. He has been doing it before.
5.Zhang Qingli, secretary of the Hebei Provincial Committee of the CPC, said in his microblog: "We should provide a chance for people who have a desire to work, a stage for people with working capabilities, and important posts for those who have had achievements before. What we should do is to encourage diligent officials, criticize the ones who can only deliver lip service, and deal with those who create disorder on our team. We cannot arrange idle positions and feed idlers. The key is to implement what we say in conferences and write on documents."
6.Zhang Baoshun, secretary of the Anhui Provincial Committee of the CPC, microblogged: “Officials at all levels should be modest and close to the public. Our posts and power are not for showing off. We'd better have more closeness to residents and avoid bureaucracy. As for fact-finding trips to grassroots areas, high-level officials should not ask people to accompany them. Instead, we should dispense with all unnecessary formalities, and not burden and disturb local people."
7. The China Daily has quoted Zhou Xiaopeng, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Sina, an online microblogging service, as saying that though many Chinese officials and governmental departments began to use micro blogs to interact with netizens two years ago, "it is only now that so many high-level officials interact with Web users via a popular online platform.”
8. In addition to encouraging the party functionaries and officials to use the social media sites for direct and continuous interactions with party cadres and the public, the Chinese Government has also been closely monitoring the use of these sites by foreign embassies in Beijing for digital interactions with the people in order to influence their perceptions.
9.The “China Daily” reported on November 3,2012:
“ The micro blogs have become an important platform for foreign governments to promote public diplomacy in China and pose an increasing influence on China's Internet, said the first research report on foreign governments' micro blogs in China, which was released on Friday. ( November 2)
“According to the report, the number of foreign government micro blogs surged in 2011, bringing the total by the end of June to 165 on the top four micro-blogging sites - Sina, Tencent, Netease and Sohu. Those of the United States and Britain were the most influential, said the report. "These micro blogs have cast enormous influence on the Chinese public, especially the Chinese netizen. The foreign governments promote not only their culture, education and tourism resources through the micro blogs, but also forge close interaction with Chinese netizens and opinion leaders on ideology," said Zhang Zhi'an, associate professor of the School of Communication and Design under Sun Yat-sen University. "Social media evokes public passion to talk about some serious issues which we don't often talk about in our daily life, and that's the way these foreign governments' micro blogs influence Chinese netizens in a subtle way that they didn't even notice," said Zhang, who led the research.
10.A t\rigidly-controlled State like China has realised the importance of direct interactions between policy-makers and social media users for perception management, for identifying and addressing the grievances of the people and for creating a greater level of trust and comfort between the people and the leadership. Because of our over-cautious and conservative policies relating to the use of social media networks for direct and active interaction with the people, we in India continue to treat them more as a source of danger than as an asset for building public confidence in the leadership and the policy-makers. There is an urgent need for a change in our attitudes and policies. ( 4-11-12)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @SORBONNE75)