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Outlook Weekly’s Series of Articles on Mass Internet Incidents in China

The term “Mass Internet Incident” is used by the Chinese government to refer to an event developed over the Internet. It may start as a physical event, which is then exposed/reported on the Internet, further causing a large number of people to express their dissatisfaction against the authorities over the Internet. It can also lead to a large physical event such as protest.

On June 1, 2009, Xinhua News Agency’s Outlook Weekly magazine published three articles entitled, “The Growing Trend of Mass Incidents both Online and Offline,” “Dealing with the ‘Rising Issue of Mass Internet Incidents,’” and “Preventing Internet Public Opinion from Triggering a Media Trial.” In recent years, many incidents in China have become a focal point on the Internet. Internet users’ opinions, to a certain extent, guide society’s opinions, causing the Chinese government concern. Outlook Weekly’s three published articles show that the authorities in Beijing are looking for a solution and are also stepping up surveillance of the Internet. The following are partial translations of the 3 articles. 

 “The Growing Trend of Mass Incidents both Online and Offline” [1]

Some experts have suggested that special attention should be paid to preventing two types of incidents. One type is an incident related to a direct conflict of interest involving the masses, such as elderly insurance reform in enterprises, which involves the interest of a large group. Improper handling might induce a large-scale group event. Mass events reported on the Internet would be especially prominent.

The other type of incident involves a direct conflict of interest triggering mass indirect interest. An example is the Chizhou City incident in Anhui Province a few years ago. A child scratched a boss’s car and the boss beat the child. This was a common dispute, but because one side was a boss, the incident angered many people not directly related to the incident. It eventually escalated to the point that people protested to the government and a police car was smashed and burned. In recent years many important mass incidents have had this nature, i.e. society’s masses bring the discontent accumulated during daily life into a specific incident, which leads to a greater mass incident.

Some experts who study social contradictions believe that real mass incidents and mass Internet incidents all have some direct trigger, but the escalation of these incidents is usually due to accumulated social anger. At present, to address this issue it is necessary to deal with two mindsets and three moods.

Dr. Zhang Haibo of The Social Risk and Public Management Research Center of Nanjing University said that a mass event has two main psychological characteristics. One is “Big events attract (government) attention,” particularly those related to demolition, land acquisition, village management, corporate restructuring, etc. The second is the psychology of “enthusiasm about exposing to the public,” particularly in relation to the opposition between government officials and people, conflicts between the police and the people, and differences between the rich and poor. This type of mentality will make people strive for publicity on the Internet.

At the same time, the government should prepare to deal with three kinds of social emotions: first, for the public’s dissatisfaction with corruption, the government should use system building and increased anti-corruption efforts to respond to the public’s new expectations. For instance, a better solution must be sought to deal with government official’s spending, personal use of public cars, abuse of power, etc. Second, for the public’s dissatisfaction with monopolies, the government should reform and monitor monopoly enterprise’s pay distributions and benefits. This is a high priority task. Third, for the public’s discontent with the appointment of officials, the government should improve credibility when appointing officials, using an open, transparent system to select good officials who people trust.

“Dealing with the ‘Rising Issue of Mass Internet Incidents’” [2]

Some experts analyzed over a dozen mass Internet incidents over the past several years and found those incidents have three types. They demonstrate the nature of the mutual linkage of online and offline mass events.

The first type is “mass Internet incidents with both real and virtual perspectives.” An example is the taxi drivers’ strike in Chongqing City, Sanya City, and other areas. At first, it was a small-scale taxi driver protest. At the same time someone posted the related information online, attracting more attention. Afterwards, two larger scale mass incidents occurred. All the taxi drivers in the whole city went on strike in the real world, and there was mass discussion on the Internet about the taxi drivers. Those two incidents affected each other, worsening the confrontation related to the incident.

The second type is “mass Internet incidents triggered by real incidents,” the “Zhou Jiugeng incident” is an example. The direct trigger was a speech given by Zhou Jiugeng, former director of the Jiangning District Real Estate Bureau of Nanjing City. During a meeting, he made a speech opposing real estate developers paying lower housing prices. He also smoked cigarettes with very expensive brand name. His speech triggered continuous discussions on the Internet, focusing on the government officials’ spending. In reality, there was no mass incident, but the Internet users expressed very strong opinions against it.

The third type is “mass Internet incidents triggered by real incidents and further developed to real mass incidents.” An example occurred during the Olympic torch relay overseas. A Qingdao student, who held up a Tibetan independence banner, was condemned on the Internet. A large-scale protest on the Internet gradually escalated to a “human flesh search” [Editor’s Note: it refers to gathering all possible private information about a person and posting them on the Internet]. When people found out the residence of this student’s parents in Qingdao, some Internet users gathered there to protest. Only after various types of persuasion did it gradually subside.

Multiple grass roots officials in Anhui Province who were interviewed believe the consequences of such "mass Internet incidents" could, in a very short time, result in a large number of people fundamentally changing their view of the party committee and the government.

Some grass-roots officials’ analyses, show that some of the recent “mass Internet incidents” reflect that the impact of the financial crisis has been gradually spreading. The entire social frame of mind has been quietly changing. The Internet users’ behavior has changed, too:

“From talk to action,” Internet users have really started to do something about officials’ illegal activities. In the past, Internet users repeatedly exposed some party officials’ illegal activities, but most of them just “talked about it.” Recently, however, the Internet users have demonstrated the attitude that “they will not let it go until those government officials are dealt with.”

Political awareness and participation are growing. For example, when the list of expenses for some officials traveling overseas was disclosed, some people took action. Afterward, some Internet users actively disclosed lists of names, one after another. The process of “exposure investigation-dismissal” has greatly increased the Internet users’ awareness, and initiative.

The interviewed grass-roots officials have summarized the lack of means to deal with “mass Internet incidents” as “three no access” (to the Internet users). The grass-roots party organizations have “no access,” the ideological and political workers have “no access,” and the police, armed forces and other national forces have “no access.”

More importantly, some grass-roots officials have found that partial grass-roots party committees and governments still believe that the current “mass Internet incidents” are only people chatting in their spare time. They are not aware of its psychological impact, which could further lead to political impact on people’s opinions about the government.

This has led to the spread of some negative news or even false news that has Internet users fired up. The local party committee and the government can only rely on the public security Internet police and local propaganda departments to deal with the issue.

However, the above two mentioned departments are very constrained when dealing with mass Internet incidents. The forces of the public security Internet police are limited by existing institutional and technical restrictions. A network police supervisor in Anhui Province said there is no territorial division of the network; yet in reality, the management of public security in each territory follows the principle of territoriality. When mass Internet incidents occur, it is often Internet users throughout the country gathering on the Internet for an event at one location. So far there is no good solution on how to integrate our limited Internet means so that during an emergency we can rapidly give a joint response and effectively deal with the event.

As for the local propaganda department, it lacks the legal means. At present, every day 3,000 new websites are added, of which 90% are commercial web sites outside the state-owned-enterprise system. If they reprint or disseminate false information, they should be managed in accordance with the law. However, at present, we lack the appropriate laws and regulations. In addition, a large number of foreign capitalists have invested in key Internet enterprises in China; since many key Internet sites are funded by foreign investments, they are clearly influenced by the foreign investors.

During the research on the Internet, experts have pointed out that there exist two media markets controlling the power of Internet public opinion. One is the top-down “governmental Internet media market,” from the party and government at all levels to release information via authorities’ releases and interpretations, etc.; newspapers, television, radio and other traditional media are the main source of information. Networking and other new media are just spreading vehicles. Another market is the “civil Internet media market,” formed from the bottom-up by Internet users’ postings, comments, and refining information. The grass-roots users and forum owners are the major source of this information transmission.

Experts believe that, currently, the focus and writing styles of these two markets have an obvious difference. In practice, the “governmental Internet media market” plays a dominant role on topics related to important national policies, etc. Internet users, meanwhile, more easily accept the “civil internet media market” on the topics that people are concerned about, such as corruption, the gap between rich and poor, social security, and the gap between urban and rural areas. Another important task during the Internet age is to manage the two media markets so that the party and the government’s voice can be transmitted in a way that everyday people can more easily understand and accept.

“Preventing Internet Public Opinion from Triggering a Media Trial” [3]

With respect to this, the dominant voices of public opinion are full of doubts, criticism, and accusations. When a case is under investigation (or supplementary investigation), the court has not yet opened a case, but the "media trial" seems have already pronounced the verdict. Some media reports and online user comments echo each other freely using qualitative terms, and using strong emotional language to describe the case or the parties, thus imposing a kind of invisible pressure on the judges and the jury. Thus those that should not become the media norm have now become the norm. For example, Liang Li is innocent. Hu Bin should be severely punished. Deng Yujiao acted in self-defense, and Luo Caixia’s educational rights should be protected. Some critics have even used “everyone is the judge” to describe this near mania as a media “feast.”

Looking at the reported comments of some of these cases, its main characteristics are:

Reporting the case sensationally, intentionally highlighting certain facts, only listening to and believing one side, only providing an opportunity for one party to give a statement of the facts and to express their point of view from a legal perspective; selectively choosing the interview material to support their own viewpoint; taking things out of context, and even distorting the original intent of those who were interviewed; speculating on the outcome of the trial; and, without trial, putting a qualitative statement on the case, or convicting the defendant.

Those reports and comments are contrary to the spirit of law, yet they seem to represent a growing trend. They have generated consequences that cannot be ignored, and they have brought a certain threat to justice.

It is a special form of democratic supervision in our country to have the media carry out media supervision of the judicial department. Now supervision by those not in a position of responsibility for some event or phenomenon has become a prominent problem in practicing media supervision. We need to respect the judiciary system, and safeguard the seriousness for media to perform its supervision. It is important to have complete media coverage on all aspects and avoid a “media trial.”

[1] Outlook Weekly, June 1, 2009
[2] Outlook Weekly, June 1, 2009
[3] Outlook Weekly, June 1, 2009