What the Weibots are saying about the Chinese congress

What the Weibots are saying about the Chinese congress

This is a guest post from Liz Carter, a DC-based author and translator of several Chinese textbooks:

China’s 18th Party Congress began yesterday; delegates from across the country gathered in Beijing, ostensibly to make important policy decisions and determine the make-up of the top leadership ranks for the next five years or more.

China’s chattering classes, on the other hand, tend to analyze the significance of the meetings from their carriage and appearance, that is, when they’re not mocking it. Delegates’ expensive clothing and accessories are recurring hot topics: delegate Yang Lan, a Chinese talk show host, was spotted carrying a Marc Jacobs handbag and wearing a Giorgio Armani jacket at a less important Congress earlier this year. Yesterday, as in sessions past, netizens also saw the apathy of delegates as yet more proof of the meetings’ meaninglessness. Pictures of a bored and yawning former President Jiang Zemin went viral before disappearing from Chinese social media.

Attempts by authorities to reinforce the legitimacy and security of these meetings – of which the party congress is arguably the most important – have backfired; the recent ban on the sale of kitchen knives in Beijing led to widespread mockery of officials’ paranoia. Well-known Weibo (Chinese for microblog) user Zuoyeben, reposted an image – since deleted – to his more than four million followers: of a sign warning the reader not to open a window during the party congress "or else." The writer Tian You simply remarked "Absurd."    

With the dawn of the Weibo era, in which social media often serves as a watchdog for China’s officialdom, it is harder to control public opinion and easier to be controlled by it than ever before. Still, this has not stopped China’s censors from influencing online discussion of political events. Several previously prevalent homonyms for the 18th party congress, including "Sparta," have been blocked as search terms on Weibo and commentary about the sessions had been scrubbed.

With control so tight, many see disruption as the only opportunity for meaningful action. Chinese Twitter user and signer of pro-democracy petition Charter 8 Dai Xindong wrote  "I’d like to pay my respects, in advance, to the first journalist at the 18th party press conference who is brave enough to ask where the funding for these sessions came from."

Analysts, journalists, and China watchers have put forth a variety of theories about how to interpret the congress’s official pronouncements – the Hong Kong-based China Media Project even ran a series of articles analyzing the official language used in the party congress reports that postulated what the appearance and frequency of certain political buzzwords like "Mao Zedong Thought" might mean. Still, foreign and Chinese onlookers alike have acknowledged that the paucity of actual information is ridiculous. On Weibo, many users commented, "I agree!" and "Long live the Communist Party!", but with many internet users paid to guide public opinion, it is impossible to determine how much of that is genuine.

It may be that only the powerful know what they powerful are doing. CEO of the investment bank China eCapital and Weibo celebrity Wang Ran remarked, "A colleague of mine said, ‘In China, if you do business but don’t pay attention to the 18th party congress reports, it just shows that your business must not be very big.’" One netizen agreed that, "that’s just how state capitalism is," while another said: "If you’re really doing a lot of business, you would have already picked up on everything before the party congress. If you’re doing alright, you’re paying attention during the party congress. Everybody else should just read the tabloids." But ultimately, Chinese and China-watchers continue to watch the congress, not because its informative, but because of the lack of information available elsewhere; in a one party state it’s the best show in town.