China's Leaders Reach Out to Nationalists Online

The Web in China has been seen from the outside as a boon for dissidents—a place to organize and spread their views, with only sluggish harassment from the state in the form of blocked Web sites and occasional arrests.

Yet according to a new paper from Chatham House, a London-based think tank, Beijing—far from being a passive actor—is starting to increase its Internet presence as a means to reinforce its position of power. The Internet, write coauthors Shaun Breslin and Simon Shen, is a “key tool in the authorities’ attempts to convince the Chinese people that it is constructing a fairer, more predictable, and open form of government.” Party forums provide space for citizens to complain constructively on sanctioned topics like low-level corruption or medical malpractice; and leaders host Internet Q&A sessions in an “attempt to rebrand the party as more responsive to the public,” says Breslin.

The state is also encouraging a strongly nationalist dialogue to flourish online. Government sites guide chats toward topics such as territorial integrity or denigrating the Dalai Lama. Online nationalism helps promote the idea that “the state, the leaders and the people are one and the same thing”—that is, criticizing the party (on large-scale policies, at least) is equivalent to criticizing the Chinese people. Yet Netizens can become a little too rabid in their nationalist fervor—for example, youth castigating Beijing for being soft on Japan during a recent diplomatic tussle. Look for the party to now face the difficult challenge of keeping its Netizens on the right side of nationalism.