power struggles enter cyberspace
By Tian Jing and Feng Liang
HONG KONG - China's power struggles have moved from the corridors of
Zhongnanhai and the pages of influential publications to the Internet.
Censorship is second-nature to Chinese authorities, but surprisingly, at least
two highly critical websites appear to be sanctioned, despite - or because of -
their harsh criticism of official corruption and malfeasance. There is
widespread speculation that reformist President Hu Jintao is encouraging
freedom of speech in cyberspace in order to build public support and consensus
for his views and to discredit his opponents. He has been pushing greater
democracy, accountability and transparency within the Chinese Communist Party
(CCP), and the Internet may well be helping him. His major opponent is former
president Jiang Zemin and his Shanghai Clique who resist the idea of discipline
within the party and prefer traditional Chinese autocracy.
This is reminiscent of the the late 1970s, when reformer Deng Xiaoping - just
rehabilitated but opposed by conservatives - encouraged freedom of speech
briefly at Beijing's "Democracy Wall", where anyone could write "big character
posters" that discredited Deng's hardline Maoist opponents. They frequently
presented petitions for redress of wrongs. When the criticism became too
pointed and writers started demanding democracy and complaining about emperors
in general, however, Deng shut it down. It had served its purpose.
Fast forward 25 years and something similar may be happening now, in
As reported exclusively by Asia Times Online's Chinese-language website, a
mysterious new website entitled "China Petition Network"
(http://www.chinacomplaint.com) has crept into the cyber world and acquired a
public following. It describes itself as a "public sentiment early-warning
mechanism" based on the requirements of the top CCP echelon to be kept informed
of public opinion. It also says that its establishment heralds "a milestone in
the course of democratic supervision". The idea is apparently democratic
supervision of the communist party and its responsiveness to the wishes of the
A similar website is Media Supervision of China ( http://www.yuluncn.com/ ),
arguing that the traditional media watchdogs have failed the people and a new
outlet is necessary via the Internet. (Yulun means "public opinions" in
Chinese themselves and China watchers say that a powerful senior, even
paramount leader, apparently is pulling the cyber strings, allowing the
websites to flourish without censure, sanction or censorship. Websites have
been shut down for far less. There is speculation that it could be President
Hu, who is using the websites to further his agenda for the need for genuine
The new websites and the Asia Times Online report in Chinese last week
apparently have spurred the official vox populi media to pay more
attention to the the concept of popular supervision of officials via the
Internet. A July 13 editorial by the official Xinhua News Agency complained
that a good many governmental websites are nothing more than "Homepage shows",
and it urged them to improve the Internet civil services that they offer. A
second Xinhua story the next day commented on monitoring corruption within
governments via the Internet. On July 15, another party organ, the People's
Daily, created a column in its online homepage in order to publish mild
comments by China's politically energized "netizens".
Jiang stifled online complaints
In a sharp contrast, former Chinese president Jiang Zemin stifled online
complaints and opinions throughout his decade-long tenure from 1993 to 2002.
For instance, Huang Qi and his wife set up a website in 1999 to help locate the
people missing since the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989, when soldiers
opened fire on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators. Later, some visitors to
the site posted harsh messages denouncing official corruption and supporting
the June 4 pro-democracy student movement; Beijing has ruled the peaceful
protest a counterrevolutionary rebellion and riot. On June 3, 2000, the website
owner was arrested, then convicted of sedition 11 months later and sentenced to
five years' imprisonment. That was the Internet in China under Jiang, who still
retains power as head of the party's powerful Central Military Commission. He
is China's commander-in-chief.
Since taking over from Jiang, President Hu has taken a more lenient and
humanitarian stance. Today the political divergence between the two is rumored
to be gaping and getting wider. If Hu is behind the new websites, he may have
learned this masterstroke from Deng Xiaoping, who had supported Hu and elevated
him to political heights.
In the 1970s, Hua Guofeng - then CCP chairman, premier and commander-in-chief -
adhered literally to the nation's founder, Mao Zedong. "We will resolutely
uphold whatever policy decisions chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow
whatever instructions chairman Mao gave," Hua insisted. But Deng, who later led
the country into economic reform and opening-up, stuck to the belief that
practice or pragmatism was the key criterion of truth. "Seek truth from facts,"
Deng said. "Practice is the only standard to test truth." In 1979, Deng put the
popular democratic outpourings to good use and successfully toppled Hua from
the supreme leadership.
However, Deng took a U-turn to tighten speech control later, when leaders of
China's fledgling democracy movement were harassed and jailed, including Wei
Jingsheng who called for democratic reform. It is hoped by China's reformers
that today's democratic forces on the Internet will not suffer the same
In late 2003, charges finally were dropped against Liu Di, a university student
who commented critically about politics online under the name of "stainless
steel rat", and she was allowed to resume her education after more than 12
months' detention. Last June, Du Daobin, a cyber writer, was convicted of
sedition and given a three-year suspended sentence, with a warning that she
could still serve a year in jail. The two surprising judgments are believed to
result from pressure from above, the highest circles of power in Beijing.
Invisible hand behind outspoken websites
These outspoken websites exposing authorities' malpractices or
corruption-related crimes have received considerable public attention.
Surprisingly, despite all the revelations and accusations, they so far have
been spared any ban or known censorship - unusual leniency in China where
freedom of expression is extremely limited.
The China Petition Network (CPN) vows on its homepage to establish an early
warning system alerting leaders to issues involving social stability and
popular opinion. Most important, it says it will "endeavor to supervise
officials at all levels throughout the country and their governance". In China,
the right of the people to govern is guaranteed by the law and granted to every
citizen. Still, the people's supervision of the authorities is considered
offensive by some communist cadres, officially termed "diligent public servants
of the people". This right is often flouted and remains largely on paper.
Despite its bold opinions, access to CPN remains smooth and unrestricted. By
law, any website deemed by the authorities as "harmful" and "posing threats to
the country's stability" can be blocked. And some have been blocked. All of
this gives rise to the belief in an invisible hand protecting these websites.
CPN even reassures petitioners that it can seal all petition and complaint
letters and pass them on to the Committee of Discipline Inspection (CDI) of the
CCP for further investigation. The CDI is the communist party's most
authoritative watchdog agency for officials and party members.
CPN's website lists cases involving egregious official breaches of duty and
corruption. It asserts that China's grass roots, the masses, are aware of those
illegal and unethical practices long before the legal enforcement departments,
whether of the state or the communist party. What these official watchdog
agencies and investigators lack is an effective channel to submit their
findings to the authorities, and consequently investigations are protracted and
many cases never go anywhere. CPN claims that the media's supervision of the
establishment is ineffective, though the traditional media is usually
considered the watchdog by local governments and higher officials. Because of
its failures to represent the people's complaints and bring about justice, CPN
says, the country needs a new channel to report popular concerns to higher
authorities for prompt response, investigation and resolution.
A similar website called Media Supervision of China also became the talk of the
town. Its most controversial report detailed what it called the malfeasance of
Li Xin, vice mayor of Jining City in eastern China's Shangdong province. Li was
accused of corruption, money laundry and retaliation against a woman who
publicized his illegal activities. After the coverage of this website, Li is
believed to have been suspended from office, but the disposition of the case
was not immediately known.
The police in Jining have blocked access to the website a few times, and some
attribute this to the intervention of higher authorities. The country's media
and propaganda sector is still steered by the conservative Li Changchun, member
of the standing committee of the Politburo, the party's most powerful
decision-making body. However, the website has been back online since early
July, leading observers to wonder whether its resumption online since early
July leaves observers to wonder whether this is a sign of the power struggles
(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact
information on our sales and syndication policies.)