Hu makes his Web chat debut

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 June, 2008, 12:00am

Mixed reaction to president's conversation with 'netizen friends'

The carefully scripted exchange of words between President Hu Jintao and mainland internet surfers lasted only a couple of minutes, but the leader's first live webcast yesterday made headlines and stirred up a fuss among netizens.

In the hastily announced online talks at the office of www.people., an offshoot of the Communist Party's mouthpiece People's Daily, Mr Hu told netizens it was impossible for him to surf the internet every day because of a busy schedule, but he still tried to make time to log on for news and public opinion.

Not surprisingly, the president said the Qiangguo forum of was one of the websites he regularly browsed.

His highly publicised foray into webcasting came as the Communist Party under Mr Hu's leadership scrambles to reach out to an increasingly disillusioned public in the online age.

'As information technology develops so rapidly, the internet has become an important conduit for people to acquire information and also a platform for the government to connect with the masses,' Mr Hu said.

Through a typist, he gave three reasons for him to surf the internet, adding: 'I want to understand from the internet what issues netizen friends are concerned about and what their opinions are.

'I hope I can know from the internet what comments and suggestions netizen friends have on the party's work and state affairs.'

Mr Hu's online chat was applauded by many internet surfers on the mainland, with one describing the conversations as 'a major event' in the development of the mainland's political democracy.

'The interaction between the [party's] general secretary and internet surfers is not only a display of his 'people come first' approach but the aspiration of the party to stay with the people shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart,' the person said.

However, others were more cynical, with one complaining the conversations were too short and no serious topics were covered.

Another wanted to know from Mr Hu whether his own postings, if any, had ever been censored.

Huang Yu, a journalism professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the webcast was a symbolic gesture to show the public that the president was with the people in the face of major events such as the earthquake and the upcoming Olympics.

'But the online chat, particularly as it was the first of its kind, was more like a PR exercise because the questions were highly selective,' Professor Huang said.

The internet chat had also served to reinforce the mouthpiece role of official media outlets such as People's Daily, which marks its 60th anniversary this year, Professor Huang said.

Official data shows the mainland had 210 million internet users by the end of last year, and has since surpassed the US as the world's biggest online population.

Zhou Ze , an associate professor in media studies at the China Youth University for Political Sciences, said the attempt to reach out to the public via all means including the internet was crucial for the government.

'But ordinary people don't need the kind of attention that higher-ups show through public exercises. They need to feel they are the masters of the country and not a target for charity,' Professor Zhou said.

Professor Huang said the webcast would have greater significance if it became a regular mechanism, 'shifting it away from being symbolic to something of substance'.

Bridging the digital divide

How Chinese leaders use the internet to communicate with the public

Wen Jiabao:

was previously represented on Facebook, but his office doesn't have an official page on the government information website

Ma Ying-jeou: posts on forums on presidential office websites and also accepts e-mail from the public

Chen Shui-bian: has chatted with netizens on various occasions

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen: posts on a blog on his office's website