Will China's Communist Party prove James Madison wrong? Unlikely.
Ruling in China used to be like hammering a nail into wood. Now it is much more like balancing on a slippery egg. Whether the authorities can sustain their present balancing act seems doubtful.
James Madison famously remarked that a popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy.Skip to next paragraph
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The present government of the People’s Republic of China has set out to disprove this rule. Rejecting talk of farce and tragedy, its rulers claim their authority is rooted within a new and higher form of popular government, a “post-democratic” way of handling power, which delivers goods and services, promotes social harmony, and roots out “harmful behavior” using state-of-the-art information-control methods more complex and much craftier than Madison could ever have imagined.
How do these “post-democratic” methods work? The governing strategies of the Chinese authorities confirm the paradoxical rule that authoritarian regimes are much more sensitive to popular resistance than those of democracies. Information flows in China are not simply blocked, firewalled, censored. The authorities instead treat unfettered online citizen communication as an early warning device, even as a virtual steam valve for venting grievances in their favor.
Repressive tolerance of this kind resembles riding a wild tiger. Co-optation requires a vast labyrinth of surveillance that depends on a well-organized, 40,000-strong Internet police force. Skilled at snooping on Wi-Fi users in cyber cafes and hotels, it uses sophisticated “data-mining” software that tracks down keywords on search engines such as Baidu, along the way issuing warnings to web hosts to amend or delete content considered unproductive of “harmony.”
Government officials working in “situation centers” meanwhile watch for signs of brewing unrest or angry public reactions. Reports are passed to local propaganda departments, where action is taken. So-called “rumor refutation” departments, staffed by censors, pitch in. They scan posts for forbidden topics and issue knock-down rebuttals. A pivotal role is played by licensed Internet companies. Bound by constant reminders that safety valves can turn into explosive devices, they use filtering techniques to delete or amend “sensitive” content.
Within the China labyrinth, much cleverer tactics are in use, including efforts by the authorities to draw citizens into a cat’s cradle of suspicion, praise, denunciation, and control.
Citizens are encouraged to report anti-government conversations, or recruited as hirelings known as “50-cent bloggers.” Netizens are routinely urged to become “Internet debaters.” There are experiments (as in Guangdong province) with virtual petition offices, online webcast forums where citizens can raise complaints, and then watch and hear officials handle them.
Q&A sessions, organized “chats” between the authorities and citizens, are flourishing. All these methods – “authoritarian deliberation” is the phrase used by some scholars – come packaged in official assurances about the need to encourage “transparency” and to “balance” online opinions for the sake of harmoniously “guiding public opinion” (yulung daoxiang).