April 9, 2013 – Keith Richburg, Fellow at the Institute of Politics and China correspondent for The Washington Post from 2009-2013, recalled his first trip to China in 1985 and said that the biggest difference between China then and now is the Internet. "The Internet has really changed everything," he said at a Shorenstein Center event on Tuesday, "particularly the relationship between the Chinese government and the Chinese people."
China has over 500 million Internet users, and 300 million users on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform similar to Twitter, Richburg said. He listed several areas where he has observed Weibo and the Internet making an impact in Chinese society. For example, online fundraising sites have grown in popularity as people have become more trusting of private collection funds rather than official organizations or government programs.
The Internet has also been instrumental in exposing and even bringing down corrupt officials, said Richburg. Certain websites have investigated corruption in the Chinese government and presented their findings. As a result, Richburg said, the secret dealings of public servants is “no longer in the shadows – their faces and cases are now put out there in front of the public.”
The Chinese government’s response has been both repression and acceptance, Richburg said. It has attempted to repress online activism by requiring real-name registration for Weibo, which means that anything that is posted on social media can be traced back to the user. Authorities have also censored certain search terms, like “Bird Flu.” Their most drastic attempt to repress online action is to arrest and detain bloggers for what they post. The final step in total repression, Richburg said, would be to shut down Weibo entirely, but he said the government fears the backlash such extreme action would create, since social networking is so universally used.
On the other hand, the government has accepted the pervasive reality of Weibo, and has begun to participate as a way of controlling the messages that go out. Police, ministries and other government departments have their own Weibo accounts that send out messages and propaganda to counteract any negativity that exists about them.
Richburg concluded by stating that the Internet has “made government more accountable and effective,” and has made public opinion more valuable. “It remains to be seen whether, on a higher level, it will change policy.”
Article and photo by Janell Sims, Shorenstein Center.