Mav­er­ick offi cial’s blogs give life to ‘ zom­bie’ ac­counts

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT - BAI PING

When a vice-gover­nor of Guizhou prov­ince called do­mes­tic crit­ics “hu­man scum­bags” on a pop­u­lar Chi­nese mi­cro-blog­ging plat­form this week, he im­me­di­ately drew the fury of In­ter­net users who de­manded an apol­ogy for his gaffe.

In a heated ex­change with other Web users on vi­o­lence in China and the United States, Vice­Gov­er­nor Chen Ming­ming also wrote that “un­pa­tri­otic” peo­ple should have plas­tic surgery so they won’t be rec­og­nized as Chi­nese and should “go to the US — the faster the bet­ter!”

But de­spite harsh pub­lic crit­i­cism, the Chi­nese “mi­cro ter­ror” — dur­ing which pub­lic fig­ures drop­ping con­tro­ver­sial re­marks are of­ten judged and shamed to the cheers of ne­ti­zens — didn’t be­fall the se­nior of­fi­cial. In­stead, many have called for tol­er­ance and for­give­ness for Chen’s courage to en­gage in a pub­lic de­bate and speak his mind, which is some­thing rare in China’s ethe­real world where of­fi­cial mi­cro-blog­ging is bet­ter known for its pomp and in­ac­tiv­ity.

As a way to con­nect with the pub­lic, in re­cent years, many govern­ment de­part­ments and of­fi­cials have set up mi­cro blogs that are con­sid­ered a pow­er­ful tool to break news and gather in­for­ma­tion. Sina, a ma­jor mi­cro-blog­ging host, now has nearly 80,000 such ac­counts, in­clud­ing more than 30 owned by of­fi­cials like Chen who hold pow­er­ful po­si­tions at provin­cial or min­is­te­rial lev­els.

How­ever, af­ter the ini­tial fan­fare and buzz, most of th­ese ac­counts have ei­ther been used as bul­letin boards to post press re­leases or trum­pet govern­ment achieve­ments, or have be­come “zom­bie” ac­counts, as they are pop­u­larly called. Sina has found that only 15 per­cent of its mi­cro blogs run by of­fi­cials have pub­lished any “orig­i­nal con­tent”.

Peo­ple sus­pect many of­fi­cials open ac­counts just to prove that they are so­cial me­dia savvy, a re­quire­ment of mod­ern lead­er­ship. In one oft-cited case, the ex­ec­u­tive vice-mayor of a city in Shanxi prov­ince opened a mi­cro blog and gar­nered more than 30,000 fol­low­ers. But he has posted only five tweets — all in one day last Novem­ber about his city’s real es­tate de­vel­op­ment — and his ac­count has since be­come “dor­mant”.

The rea­son be­hind the lethar­gic in­volve­ment can prob­a­bly be at­trib­uted to the un­writ­ten rules that dic­tate the bu­reau­cratic dis­course. Re­searchers have long found that a com­bi­na­tion of an­cient Chi­nese po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion and con­tem­po­rary re­al­ity have mo­ti­vated of­fice-hold­ers to take cues from the above and avoid be­ing dif­fer­ent or con­tro­ver­sial while mak­ing their po­si­tions known.

They’re fur­ther de­terred from speak­ing out of their own vo­li­tion by the fact that so­cial me­dia have al­ready be­come a for­mi­da­ble watch­dog in Chi­nese po­lit­i­cal and so­cial life. Some have lost their jobs af­ter tweets re­port­ing their faux pas ex­ploded onto the national scene and led to in­ves­ti­ga­tions by tra­di­tional me­dia.

But Chen is no such “zom­bie” blog­ger. He claims he has been up­dat­ing his mi­cro blogs since launch­ing them four years ago, all by him­self, not his as­sis­tants. Amid the pub­lic up­roar, he has apol­o­gized for the “in­ap­pro­pri­ate­ness” of his re­mark and wel­comed any probe into his per­sonal and fam­ily’s as­sets, which touched on an­other sen­si­tive is­sue in Chi­nese pol­i­tics. This ap­peases peo­ple who re­sent scripted and detached ap­proaches of govern­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Sym­pa­thiz­ers also be­lieve out­spo­ken mav­er­icks like Chen are worth en­cour­ag­ing be­cause they have pro­vided a rare glimpse into the psy­che of the top brass, and have brought a plu­ral­ity of ideas and ar­gu­ments into the bl­o­go­sphere that is cur­rently dom­i­nated by the peo­ple they gov­ern.

Some chal­lenge “zom­bies” to res­ur­rect and fol­low Chen’s lead, with a quote from Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll de­fend to the death your right to say it.” The ques­tion is how many have guts like Chen to take the of­fer. The writer is edi­tor-at-large of China Daily. dr.baip­ing@gmail.com

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