Propaganda chiefs spin Web in their own image
With the mainland's economy facing its biggest challenge in more than a decade, and the internet an increasingly potent vehicle for spreading unwelcome news and guiding public opinion, the Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department has never been under more pressure. Its response has been to co-opt the Net for its own devices. The annual meeting of the National People's Congress has provided a golden opportunity to use it to manipulate attitudes.
First came a well-publicised online survey, organised by Xinhua, the People's Daily, CCTV and Sina.com, designed to find out what issues the public would like to see raised at the NPC. But as the NPC's only role is to rubber-stamp decisions already made at State Council level, the 63,000 people who took part in the survey had no chance of their responses inspiring any action.
Equally facile was Premier Wen Jiabao's webchat the weekend before the congress started. As Mr Wen is the most popular of the mainland's leaders, making him available to netizens for the first time must have seemed like a masterstroke to the propaganda officials. Sure enough, his two-hour chat was mostly taken up with such anodyne topics as his cooking skills and the recent shoe-throwing incident at Cambridge University, rather than more sticky subjects such as the rising jobless rate.
Mainland media have been spinning the party's new-found passion for internet interaction as a breakthrough in public participation in government. They point to such innovations as a so-called 'online interview room' for the NPC, which allows netizens to comment on proceedings. But typing a question to an unelected official, who is only available to answer it once a year, is hardly progress towards democracy.
The reality is that the embrace of the internet is more about pacifying public opinion than doing anything about the grievances people hold. Nevertheless, the propaganda officials will be delighted by the results of their experiment, because discussion of the environment by netizens has been conspicuously absent during the NPC.
That has also been the case at the congress itself. Since the financial crisis started to unfold, environmental issues have slipped off Beijing's agenda. Not only has the 'green GDP' project, which was supposed to measure the cost of environmental damage to the economy, been quietly abandoned, the government's determination to spend its way out of the recession is also an ominous sign.
Under the much-touted 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.54 trillion) stimulus package, spending on the car and petrochemical sectors, as well as other heavy industries, will be boosted. More cars and chemical plants is hardly a recipe for cutting energy use and pollution. The residents of Yancheng in Jiangsu province can testify to that; water to the city was cut off last month after it was contaminated with carbolic acid following a spillage from one of the 317 chemical plants that line the banks of a nearby river.
Despite such glaring evidence of environmental degradation as the drought in the north, which has been caused partially by incompetent water-management policies, it is clear Beijing still places a far higher priority on development than addressing the consequences of long-term pollution. Officials argue the economy is the priority now. But creating short-term jobs for migrant workers, while destroying the country they live in, won't solve either problem.
More worrying, though, is that the public seems not to care about this. Instead, netizens remain obsessed with chasing down corrupt officials via the internet. That's all well and good. But Beijing wouldn't be so willing to put environmental issues on the backburner if it was being pressured by the online community. The propaganda department would much rather see the downfall of a few minor officials than answer awkward questions about the environment the next time government figures are available to netizens.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist