Propaganda players lost the plot a bit this week

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2012, 3:03pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 4:12pm

Perhaps borrowing from American-style televised town hall meetings, mainland authorities have repackaged what some call networked authoritarianism for television audiences – with programming that aims to give viewers an impression of greater government transparency.

Initiated in Hubei province in 2010 and later copied by networks in provinces in central and southern China, the new televised "public supervision" programmes, approved by the likes of party and government mouthpieces like the People's Daily newspaper and Xinhua news agency, involves bringing government and Communist Party officials on stage to answer "detailed and sensitive questions" from the audience.

"Many officials looked embarrassed or surprised," according to this description of one Hubei show, which incorporates undercover investigations and 'gotcha'-style questioning, and "[f]acing the public directly allows not a scrap of negligence," said one cast member, the deputy party secretary of a city in Anhui province, as all government shortcomings magically disappeared.

Reading this, though, one can't help but think that while bringing officials on TV to be publicly embarrassed and make promises to do better satisfies a certain public itch, de facto televised transparency would involve camera crews following officials for months on end as mundane bureaucracies bring results at a glacial pace and ratings bleed down to zero.

Episodes of that show have been broadcast over radio and online, where cynical internet users still pose the greatest challenge to official efforts to guide public opinion, but also now seem to be relied upon to supervise authorities in lieu of internal mechanisms to avoid malfeasance – mechanisms which themselves are rarely brought under public scrutiny.
And in the words of CCTV news anchor Bai Yansong: luxury watches can easily disappear from officials' wrists during public events, and it's silly to look to citizens to fight corruption using their microblogs.

As the line between common sense and propaganda grows more blurred, the roles of state, censor, media and citizen also become harder to define.

One example can be found in the controversy surrounding the alleged assault last week of a China Southern Airlines flight attendant by a high-ranking military officer in Guangzhou which was brought to public attention after the flight attendant turned to the 'human flesh search engine' skills of Sina Weibo users, who immediately identified her alleged assailant and his positions in Guangzhou.

Propaganda authorities jumped in and declared the man, Fang Daguo, innocent of the assault allegation, although numerous media reports published since then quote an African exchange student who was aboard the flight and whose eyewitness account contradicts the official line.

On Friday, the alleged victim wrote on her Sina microblog that Fang had apologised to her and both sides consider the matter closed. However, the People's Daily now finds itself in the unusual role of having openly challenged the propaganda authorities in one district in Guangzhou – through its Sina Weibo microblog account, no less, where the party mouthpiece last night also announced that Fang has been suspended from both his civilian and military posts pending an investigation by the Communist Party's Organisation Department (and don't be surprised if the results are published first on the People's Daily microblog).

In other words, in the new world of Weibo, microbloggers are the best hope in the fight against corruption, the People's Daily exposes the truth, nameless Communist Party censors publish their own news, and government officials now play themselves on TV.