Thursday, August 30, 2012

Social Media and Government

President Obama's question and answer session on the popular website has drawn media attention for his ability to utilize technology to get closer to the average citizen. But as the President was performing his ask-me-anything (AMA) on Reddit, Yang Dacai, Provincial Work Safety Administration of Shaanxi Province took to the Chinese internet to do a live chat concerning images circulating of him smiling at the scene of a tragic bus accident, and to refute claims that corruption is to thank for the various expensive watches he's been shown to wear.

Before I post the details of his live chat, the larger picture at play is the government's use of the internet and online technologies to reach the average citizen. Especially on the Chinese internet, political voices have been known to fuel rumors, bring down corrupt officials, and sway judges to amend sentencing. And in recent years, Chinese officials have been taking to the internet to gauge support.

In early 2009, Chinese President Hu Jintao urged local officials to improve their internet literacy in an effort to improve leadership. By doing so, he argued, the Party would be able to get a better gauge of the political climate. This outlook was followed up by a web chat hosted by Premier Wen Jiabao's in February 2009. The chat left a strong influence on the Premier, who later said he “perceived confidence and strength from people’s suggestions online.” In June 2009, President Hu himself logged into a web forum hosted by the People's Daily where he chatted with the public. However, the chat only last for four minutes. But what's clear is that the Chinese government hopes these online sessions with government officials will provide the people with a sense of transparency in the inner-workings of the Communist Party. My prior research delves a bit deeper into the underlying motives and questions concerning the role of government online - to read, please click here (begins on page 15).

In keeping up with this trend, Yang Dacai decided that the best way to refute rumors was to take to the internet himself. Live-chatting from Weibo, Yang answered 12 out of over 6,000 questions posed.

In defense of his questionable smile that has been circulating the Chinese blogosphere since Monday, Yang responded, “Everyone was wound up. Some comrades’ accents were very strong, and some of what they were saying I couldn’t quite get. I was trying to get them to relax a little, so maybe, in an unguarded moment, I got a little too relaxed myself. When I think about it now, I’m filled with regret.” (WSJ - China Real Time Report)

Responding to claims that he could not possible afford so many luxury watches, Yang defended himself saying that he bought the watches using his salary of the past ten years. However, this answer did not go over well with netizens who continued to argue that the modest salary of an official at his rank would not be able to support such luxuries.

In recent years Chinese have taken to the web to battle perceived corruption in their government, a move that has been met with much success. Yang himself applauds these actions saying that for the people to monitor officials in such a way is “reasonable and normal.” A sentiment that would surely have been shared with the ideology of Mao Zedong.

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