Regulation must not stifle creativity
Earlier this month tens of millions of mainland bloggers paid tribute to the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs for the difference he made to their lives with innovation that revolutionised access to information, communication and entertainment. Last week the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee ended its annual plenary session with a pledge to strengthen cultural security among an increasingly independent-minded population to reinforce socialist principles - which is being seen as code for controlling the activities that Jobs liberated.
The leadership and Chinese internet users do not appear to be on the same page. Further evidence of this was to be found in another recent news item. State media reported that in order to rein in internet rumour mongering and clean up content, Beijing would continue expanding the real-name registration system, marshal an online scrutiny and establish a mechanism to regulate the spreading of information. Rumour mongering smacks of the loose definition of state secrets, which gives the authorities wide discretion in applying the law against revealing them. All this comes amid anxiety among mainland leaders over the growing use of robust social media in discussion of political issues and pressure to rein it in.
The central committee also pledged to boost the country's soft power through strengthening China's cultural profile overseas. That is a natural step to take as the country further develops. It should be the subject of open debate. Anything that broadens understanding between peoples makes the world a better place. Domestic measures to shore up the cultural security of the state, however, raise concerns about cultural development and freedom. Given the tight control of print and television media, online discussion platforms are one of the few vibrant places of debate that enable citizens to air grievances and provide an outlet for public opinion. Indeed, popular causes have been known to prompt officials to tackle injustice and maladministration.
Professor Zhu Dake, a cultural critic at Shanghai's Togji University, says the party is misguided if it thinks it can manage culture itself as well as the cultural industry. He rightly says that cultural creativity needs freedom and an open-market environment.
The devil will be in the detail of more regulation of the internet not revealed by the communique. The top leadership's concern with the spreading of microblogs is understandable. But as China grows richer and its people lead more fulfilling lives, the state can no longer play its old role as an arbiter of culture. As a result the country's growing status and power in the world is not reflected in its culture. Microblogs and online discussion have filled a void. The authorities must strike a delicate balance if regulation is not to stifle creativity.