A Bird Out of Cage

The Chinese government has been notorious for its strict control over the press for a long time. The recent ban on coverage of the bullet high-speed collision in all press except the Xinhua News Agency, a propaganda department of the government de facto, inflamed the nation-wide discontent. In response, most of the civil media replaced their headlines with blank or advertisements in order to protest against the manipulation silently.

However, the information about the accident does not remain under the table as the government wished. The government control does restrain all press from releasing “politically incorrect” reports but not the social networks. The micro-blog, functioning as a platform for personal and social information exchange and expression of public opinion, irritates the government again this time and plays the role of a watch-dog of public interests which is normally taken by traditional media in the western countries. The government made efforts to restrict the spread of information on micro-blog but the speed of the spread and the public repugnance against the government turn the efforts in vain.

Ironically, the government had planned on closing down the micro-blog three months ago but also failed. Out of its expectation, the information leaked out before it could make any sudden announcement of the decision and the public reacted vehemently. The government was then compelled to abandon the plan.

Now it becomes even a tougher task for the government to take its grip on the micro-blog for the number of the users is expanding in an explosive fashion. What gives the government a headache is that the micro-blog is unlike any of the traditional media which is constituted by manageable organizations and entities. The micro-blog sphere comprises of individual actions. Thus, no clear target is in sight for the government to effectively regulate. In addition, the government dares not to simply shut the micro-blog down since it could not risk the potential massive protest that comes along. Therefore, the micro-blog becomes a thorn in flesh.

The flourishing micro-blog makes up the absence of a public supervisory power of the society. Owing to unprecedented popular support, the micro-blog seems resilient enough to government repression which has made supervisory traditional media never really exist persistently in China. Undoubtedly, the relationship between this supervisory power and the government would be a soured one like it is in any other democracies. What Chinese government would do to deal with the relationship is essential then.

There is a possibility that micro-blog sphere would evolve into an initial stage of free press atmosphere where a new type of unrestricted internet media could later sprout out if the current development of micro-blog keeps going. Learning from how free press worked in the Watergate Scandal and Vietnam War, the supervisory power protects the public against authoritative rule and manipulation regardless of the nature of states. Ergo, the pressure on the Chinese government would be enormous for it keeps the tradition of covering up the truth, fabricating of facts and autocratic ruling to maintain the stability of both the political arena and society it promotes.

The growth of the micro-blog is rapid and by so far, free press is approaching in fast pace. Hence, the Chinese government is unlikely to quickly get over this sort of media affliction as it did before. However, things may not be so pathetic for the Chinese government since there is an easy relief by its hand. That’s acceptance and reform.

If the Chinese government acknowledges the effects of the micro-blog working as a supervisory power over state actions, it will help the government to win back the public trust because it indicates an open attitude to comments and suggestions that the public has long been demanding from the government, repairing its previous broken image. As long as Chinese government would later turn the hope it gives to the public into audacity to conduct a real reform, the public would be satisfied and a benign cycle will be established as the supervisory power consistently gives momentum to the improvement of government actions.

Besides, acceptance and reform also could streamline the influence of what the Chinese government has an anxiety for, the rumors on the internet. Among all the reports of the bullet train collision, fake reports accounted for an unneglectable number. The backlash and trust crisis that they brought about entrapped the government down in the Tacitus dilemma where excessive suspicion of the government prevails. Consequently, the effectiveness and efficiency of all kinds of government operation was undermined, including the part is, in reality, beneficial to the public.

The reason why rumors could spread so rampantly on the micro-blog is due to the individuality of the blog-sphere. Any individual could post and transmit any information without serious consideration of his social responsibilities and possible impact on the society. Meanwhile it is infeasible for the government seize every individual who spread rumors of different levels of damage to the society. Therefore, no efficacious solution is in the government reach under the current circumstance where a supervisory role of the micro-blog is denied.

If the government admits the status of the micro-blog as a loyal watchdog of the public interests, as the micro-blog gradually grows into a kind of new free press, some liable information resources preferred by the majority will occur on the micro-blog as the spontaneous war against the rumors among the media builds up a natural selection process. Those credited resources could be regarded as new forms of social media. Automatically, they would shoulder the responsibility to ensure the truth of information they released and fulfill their role of guarding the social justice and public interests to live up to the public trust.

The regulation of rumors would then be much an easier job as a result since there are clear targets in sight this time. Moreover, the credibility of those resources naturally cuts down the negative influence of rumors. Nonetheless, the government should never step over the boundaries to over-control those information resources again. What the government is supposed to do is to ensure the loyalty of those resources to the public. With the individuality of the micro-blog, the voices talking to the government would be more diverse and the communication is more transparent for its content is accessible to the public. All in all, the measure removes the two crucial elements for rumors to breed, intransparency and incredibility.

To Chinese government, what needs to be understood is that loosening control does not necessarily lead to the revolt of the public. On the contrary, it possibly would help to gain the imperative public trust. Sometimes, let the bird fly out of the cage is not a bad thing. It probably would make the public believe in the notion of “of the people, by the people, for the people” and bring back a piece of good news.

Wenxiong Zhang, a reporter (intern), at the 4th Media

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