January: a Moment of Reflection


The advantage of blogging is the flexibility to revisit and revise what has been written before. I started this blog slightly less than a year ago. In the process I have made observations, ventured hypotheses and passed judgments on events that defined the contour of Chinese public opinion in 2015. My intention is to be as rigorous as possible by staying vigilant about hasty conclusions and logic gaps. But the limitation of publicly available information dictates that what I can see is always just the tip of the iceberg. My mental image of that part underneath is subject to all kinds of distortion.

The only antidote to intellectual hubris, a false sense of mastery of truth, is time.  Things change, new information emerges, and situations evolve. Sometimes they require a correction of original views, sometimes they clear up the mist hung over facts like the north wind that blows away Beijing’s notorious smog.

In February 2015, when Chai Jing’s groundbreaking documentary “Under the Dome” swept across China, I considered it a stress test of the Chinese society’s environmental consensus. The result, I believed at that time, was good: the consensus was largely sound despite some pressure on the left. A major sign of that consensus was the seemingly strong endorsement from the authority. The official People’s Daily website was among the first sites to carry it. The newly appointed Environment Minister openly congratulated her. What happened to the documentary later proved that there were plenty of tensions between the public narrative about smog and the official tolerance for participation. The documentary was abruptly and thoroughly purged from the Internet days after its wildly popular debut. Chai Jing was removed from public sight. The “endorsement” turned out to be a mirage: it was probably just a bunch of progressives within the propaganda apparatus that engineered the documentary’s initially “legit” appearance, which gave an impression of governmental acceptance, a pre-condition for its light speed spread on the Internet. The backlash against Chai, both from the authority and from the conservative left, indicates that the Chinese society’s current stand on air pollution should better be understood as an equilibrium than a consensus. Even though on surface the result may look the same: society is moving slowly towards addressing pollution, the concept of an equilibrium better captures the tensions involved. While the authority has to maintain a reasonable level of supply for clean air actions, the public’s ability to demand more has also been severely curtailed with social media platforms heavily policed and key opinion leaders suppressed since 2013. The energy needed to break that equilibrium from both sides is non-existent at the moment, which prompted observers to bemoan the pathetic stalemate in the middle of December’s Airpocalypse episodes.

If the fate of Chai Jing’s documentary looks intriguing, the Qing’an gunshot incident is almost mystical. At its most confusing moment, no one understood why a simple gunshot case inside a tiny train station lounge could not be resolved once and for all. When I wrote my blog post on this incident, I opined that the force field of dominant narratives tended to bend the ballistic trajectory of truth. What I did not know at that time was that the “dominant narrative” of injustice and suppression was to a large extent intentionally fed to the public by activists whose motivations remained opaque until now. It was the dramatic crackdown on rights lawyers a few months later that brought the activists’ involvement in the controversy to public knowledge. Official stigmatization notwithstanding, why would activists choose to concentrate the full force of national wrath on a victim who seemed to have little immediate grievance and an incident that by all means looks uncomplicated? If anything, the case serves as a caution for future interpretations of the eruption of societal anger as spontaneous. Insomuch as the state has the interest to mold public opinion, the resistance has the same.

At times my depiction of that resistance’s power is probably too optimistic. The public outcry against the Tianjin chemical blast and the intensity of media probing rekindled hope that a daring, professional press corp might lead to changes otherwise elusive to this country. But five months have passed and the highly anticipated investigation by the State Council is yet to be unveiled. Media inquiry into later man-made tragedies, such as the December landslide in Shenzhen, quickly relapsed into the good old mode of shock and oblivion.

It is also in this area that inconsistency emerges. As a tragedy of the same magnitude as the Tianjin blast, the sinking of the Yangtze River cruiser “Oriental Star” manifests the authority’s well-honed ability to shape media agenda and channel public mood to “desirable directions”. But only months later that ability seemed to have completely evaporated in Tianjin. Does this warrant a reassessment of the Party’s grip over domestic public opinion? If you buy into the assessment that the past three years were all about the state winning back its once lost battleground in social media, the Tianjin incident, where the authority seemed to have blundered in this regard, should be seen as a setback rather than a reversal. Even so, it is still worth asking what combination of factors in Tianjin managed to catch a formidable force of propagandists and “Internet patrols” off guard, whether it’s the sheer magnitude of the accident or it’s the structural lack of coordination among relevant authorities in that particular situation.

After a year of blogging about Chinese public opinion, I realize that the biggest challenge, besides the limitations of available information and the constantly evolving situation, is to assess its actual impact. Just how consequential is the collective airing of certain sentiments or viewpoints?  As a recent WeChat post perfectly summarizes the dilemma: “On the one hand, members of the public constantly discount the importance of their own opinions, seeing them as nothing more than useless ‘words’ that seldom translate into real world actions. On the other, authorities treat such ‘words’ with all sincerity and try to block them at every turn. ” So as observers, do we take the public’s pessimistic views about their own power, or do we value it based on the authority’s (over)reaction?

I think this is something I need to keep in mind and grapple with while blogging in 2016. The new year began with a spectacular stock market plunge and a public outcry against China’s largest search engine Baidu. It does not bode well for the Chinese economy but should prove fertile for a blogger. I am grateful to all of you who were patient with me in the past year. Life got a bit busy for me lately. But I promise this blog will regain its rhythm very soon. Stay tuned!