Chinese Government Crackdown on Facebook and Twitter is Smart

There are a couple theories of how societal forces influence Chinese foreign policy making. First, Chinese foreign policy making has changed since 1979. Previously, Chinese policy makers neglected many societal forces and took an approach that was highly centralized, free from public opinion, less personalized, radical, ideological, and “central static."

Now, China is decentralizing. In such attempt, societal forces such as media, academia, and public opinion are affecting the way Chinese shapes their policies. They are labeled as “new players” within the field. These forces, which are outside the official realm, contend for influence and crowd the foreign policy making process indirectly or directly. 

One influential social factor is the internet. In 2010, 457 million users in China participated in blogs, chat rooms, and online forums. Online forums were effective for public participation in political discussion because it was a publishing medium, distribution medium, participatory medium, and action-oriented medium. Why would the government allow it? Well, surely, China allows the internet to exist because of economic incentives in allowing such action. Also, the internet is not harmful if it's patriotic. For example, the Strengthening Nation Forum has been created.  In these online forums, many Chinese citizens have voiced their opinions about multilateral subjects – including issues such as U.S.'s bombing the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999. The government is also creating online “E-gov projects” in different ministries. 

Likewise, the role of media also affects Chinese foreign policy in multiple ways.  Over 30 years ago, the government controlled the media. Now, however, the government operates under a market-oriented forum. Under the traditional pattern, the government shaped public opinion about China by sketching a general frame and allowing scholars and government-controlled media to fill in the details. Now, however, the mass media’s concern is the public’s attention. The media tries to appeal to the tasks of its potential audience. Editors make choices about which stories to cover based on their judgments on which stories resonates with the audience the most. This focus creates news that is more passionate and sensational. The media have changed the relationship between leaders and the public regarding foreign policy. Now, media outlets shape leader legislations. The government also tries hard to explain its positions through mass media. The media shape public opinion, which then increases or constrains the policy maneuvering room for the government.

China is cautiously accepting forms of democratization. In the past, societal factors have accommodated the government, but are now pulling in different directions. Netizens and the internet have transformed the way the government and society interact. Although China has some controversial laws, including banning Facebook and real name registrations on Twitter, China is still learning how to regulate the internet. It will be interesting to see whether China will decide to tighten the freedom of speech or not in in the future.

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Michelle Tham

Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network. American University.

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