How Beijing Embraces Public Opinion to Govern and Control

Puzzled by “authoritarian resilience” in China after the “third wave” of democratization in the late 20th century, scholars began to delve deeper into how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) fortified its power by tolerating limited public participation in politics. In this vein, the CCP came to embrace the internet as a tool to both improve governance and enhance control, particularly through the collection and analysis of online public opinion.

A fast-growing but under-studied case of this phenomenon is the Message Board for Local Leaders (MBLL, difang lingdao liuyanban). Run by People’s Daily Online (PDO) and also accessible via a dedicated app and through WeChat, the MBLL lets netizens leave public messages for provincial, city, and county governments, which can either ignore the message or respond publicly (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Screenshot of the Message Board for Local Leaders

local leaders - How Beijing Embraces Public Opinion to Govern and Control Source: People’s Daily Online, May 1, 2019.

PDO says the platform aligns with Xi Jinping’s call in April 2016 that cadres “must learn to follow the mass line through the internet…understand what the masses think and hope, collect good ideas and good suggestions, and actively respond to netizens’ concerns…” Xi issued this “order to get online” (shangwang ling) because, as he put it, “public opinion is online.”

Established in 2006, the MBLL had published a total of 1,737,962 messages by the end of April 2019, of which 66.4% had received public replies from local governments. Interest in the site appears to have surged recently, with the total number of official responses so far in 2019 already 50,000 more than for all of 2018. From January to April this year, the 384,631 messages posted by netizens garnered a response rate of 78.2%, up from 57.6% in April 2016.

The MBLL is surprisingly transparent, allowing any viewer to see all the messages and responses for each local government. In aggregate these data point toward a positive correlation between response rate and message volume, implying a virtuous cycle of interaction between the government and the governed. The five provinces that account for over half of all messages and replies—Henan, Sichuan, Anhui, Gansu, and Shaanxi—also have five of the seven best response rates nationwide (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Provinicial MBLL Response Rates as of May 1, 2019
Note: Darker color connotes higher value. Hover over province for more detail.
Source: People’s Daily Online.

 

The types of messages also vary (see Figure 3). Issues such as wage arrears, dilapidated neighborhoods, and forced land seizures (chaiqian) are fairly common on the MBLL, as a “sizeable share” of messages come from rural farmers and lower-income suburbanites. Research suggests that official responses are more likely if the message was from a local resident, expressed collectively, focused on a single issue, and closely related to economic growth.

Figure 3. Types and Topics of MBLL Messages

Types of MBLL Messages, 2010-2016Topics of MBLL Messages, Feb 2019

Sources: The People Online, People’s Daily Online.

 

The MBLL may have empowered Chinese citizens to voice their problems, but has it actually improved the performance of local governments? A recent study in the journal Governance found that, from 2008 to 2013, city governments with a higher number of MBLL messages were not only inclined to devote significantly more space to social welfare in their annual work reports but also tended to substantively improve coverage of the dibao, a welfare program that functions like a universal basic income with Chinese characteristics, within their jurisdictions.

This finding suggests that the MBLL does help to improve local governance and to improve citizens’ perception of the government. PDO claims that in 2018 over 50% of MBLL users were “satisfied” with the reply they received. Such effects may explain why 26 provincial governments have established official procedures for collating, analyzing, and responding to MBLL messages.

Figure 4. Most Common Keywords in MBLL Messages in 2018
word cloud chinese - How Beijing Embraces Public Opinion to Govern and Controlwordcloud4 - How Beijing Embraces Public Opinion to Govern and Control
Source: People’s Daily Online. English graphic by Holly He.

 

The MBLL’s effectiveness and its efficient user interface are likely key reasons why it is more popular than other online channels for citizen feedback. One such alternative is another PDO-operated site called “Conversations with Official Microblogs,” which since July 2014 has recorded official responses to citizen complaints made to these microblogs. That site has registered a total of only 51,800 netizen inquiries and 4,601 replies, for an abysmal response rate of 8.9%. While other “e-participation” initiatives have been popular—40% of petitions (xinfang) were filed online in 2016—the MBLL is the only public, nationwide platform of its kind.

There are limits to the MBLL, of course, as it is subject to the same censorship redlines that apply to the rest of the Chinese internet. PDO deletes “forbidden content,” although staff told researchers that MBLL censorship targets “politically charged” messages but not those about “personal matters” or “local policy issues.” Thus, because PDO is a central agency and not captive to local interests, local governments are more likely to respond to complaints made public on the MBLL than those received via the non-public online feedback portals that many localities now operate.

If the MBLL becomes an increasingly effective means to resolve low-level policy issues, then its user base will likely continue to grow, and the platform (or others like it) could well become an important fixture of Chinese governance in an age when 800 million Chinese are already online.

The MBLL shows that technology can both liberate and oppress. On the one hand, the platform enables Chinese netizens to interact directly with local governments to address real-life problems. On the other hand, the platform allows an authoritarian government to solidify its control over society by “resolving grassroots conflicts and promoting social stability.”


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