Editor note: below is a translation of Beijing News' interview with Hu Yong, a Beijing University Professor, on the potential of micro-blogging in political engagement in China.
The potential of Microblogging to become a milestone
If the BBS was the first milestone, then microblogging certainly has the potential to become the second. The meaning behind the microblog becoming a milestone, is in the way it spreads information.
BJ News: You have long been concerned about the development of the Internet; how do you view this emerging microblogging communication tool?
Hu Yong: Microblogging is a new form of communication, with four characteristics, I believe.
First it is speed-oriented. This represents a new trend of Internet development. Traditional media have the issue of "news cycles", for example, newspapers go by the day; while microblogging is almost without the limit of a cycle. It is a real-time network. In the amount of information, transmission speed, etc., traditional media cannot compare.
The second is fragmentation. This is a big impact on the thinking; in the past, mass media disseminated information from the centre and outwards; for example, say a certain unexpected event occurs, the media need to send reporters to investigate and then publish the information in the newspapers, which is then reproduced on the network, followed by online reproduction by peers. In this case, the initial media is the "centre". But now, there might happen to be microbloggers at the scene of many unexpected events, who can instantly transmit information. Perhaps they were previously unknown, insignificant citizens, but suddenly they may become the hub of information, resulting in the greatest impact in an instant.
The third is directness. That there is no intermediary makes it very direct. For example, a person becomes a fan of his or her favorite star; they want to receive more information about the star, even hoping to have dialogue with the star, but before the birth of the microblog, the existence of mediators such as celebrity agents and the like made it difficult to achieve. Microblogging makes it all become possible. Another example is expression in traditional media; originally there are layers of intermediaries, but now microbloggers can go straight into the topic. Those who set up microblog accounts should also mentally prepare themselves for the flurry of uncensored challenges.
Fourthly, micro-power. In my view, micro-power is not anything else, but that everyone should take responsibility. Micro- is every ordinary citizen. Power - refers to nothing else, but rather that regardless of the thousands of language in this world, the only thing that can change the world is action. Driven by "micro-information" and "micro-exchanges", "micro-power" will have a healthy impact on China's social development.
BJ News: The 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia directly pushed the inception of the People's Daily Online's "Forum on Making the Country Prosperous", even called the "first milestone" of Internet development by "People's Daily former deputy chief editor Zhou Ruijin. During the Two Sessions, the use of microblogging in politics is called the "second milestone" by some. How do you see it?
Hu Yong: If the BBS was the first milestone, microblogging has of course the potential to become a second milestone. Though this milestone may not necessarily be an accurate statement; in fact, before microblogging there was the blog, video sharing and other major developments on the Internet.
The "milestone" potential I speak of here, mainly refers to the level of information dissemination. However, the issue cannot be absolute. Similarly, an Internet chronicle written by different people will produce different results; written with different values, the results will not be the same either.
From the Two Sessions, you can see the microblog budding and raising some new questions on the political civilization process. For example, representatives opening microblog accounts; in truth, only dozens of individuals were active users, yet the "two sessions" is on a scale of thousands, putting it out of proportion.
The Power of Microblogging to nurture citizens of new thought
The Two Sessions should be the concern of all citizens. Not just hoping that it does well and receives flowers and applause, but there is a need to try and understand and accept challenges, so that the people are no longer only watching it as an outsider, but rather as an active participant in politics.
BJ News: During this Two Sessions, microblogging sprang up like mushrooms after the rain, rapidly developing (from the one hosted by Sina to more than ten microblogging sites). Four new features emerged: as a new way for representatives to perform their duties (offering public proposals as well as behind-the-scenes trivia); as a new form of news dissemination for the news media (opening official microblogs, establishing microblog columns and layout in newspapers); as a new platform for citizen participation in politics (virtual proposals were submitted; interaction with council members); and a new interactive way for the press to investigate stories (setting topics to get user comments). How do you see this?
Hu Yong: Microblogging was of great significance in the Two Sessions. You just summed up the meaning of it in the four characteristics quite precisely. Lets say, as committee representatives and the media were both using microblogs to discuss the Two Sessions, microblogs became the gauge of public opinion evaluation, one the one hand collecting social data and public sentiments, and on the other, also observing the trend of public opinion.
However, we cannot blindly exaggerate the use and meaning of the microblog in the Two Sessions. After all, there have been individual officials using the Internet to put on a big political show, raising the possibility that microblogs could just become the next big show. For example, senior officials become concerned about the network, and the next day all units set up their own websites; senior officials become concerned about the blog, and the next day their official blogs are given red flags all over the Internet; now whether the same will happen with microblogs, it is hard to say.
BJ News: You mentioned earlier a new term, "micro-power"?
Hu Yong: Why is "micro-power" important? In the past, a few highly motivated people working with a mass with almost no passion, often led to frustrating results. The passionate folk do not understand why the public is not more concerned, and the public does not understand why these obsessed activists cannot shut up.
Today, those with a high degree of enthusiasm should be committed to reducing the threshold of action, so that the people who care a little can take a little part, and all efforts put together will be a strong one. This represents the citizens' new way of thinking.
Beijing News: Your talk about new thinking citizens has given people a lot of inspiration.
Hu Yong: The Two Sessions is a serious political event; previously, participation of the people was limited, but in fact, the Two Sessions should be the concern of all citizens. Not just hoping that it will receive flowers and applause, but to be able to understand and accept challenges, so that the people are no longer an observing outsider, but active participants in politics.
Broadly speaking, government departments have to face Internet opinions, cope with what they can, and for that which they do not know how to respond to, they still cannot avoid it. For instance, in last year's "Two Sessions", Shaanxi kept being questioned about the "Tiger Zhou incident" (about doctored photos of the near-extinct South China Tiger), Deputy Director of Propaganda Department Wu Hao was repeatedly asked about the "Hide and Seek" incident" (about the truth behind a detainee's death). These network hot spots have to be dealt with candidly, as they are but online manifestations of real-life problems.
"Microblogging in politics" needs to be tested with time
Only when the majority of representatives and officials are using this tool of microblogging, and when they are used to the operations of the microblog, the ways of thinking and the rules of the game, will the era of microblogging in politics truly arrive.
BJ News: In any case, in an occasion like the Two Sessions, the microblog was still fired up. If you say the "Two Sessions influence China", then can you say, "the microblog influences the Two Sessions"?
Hu Yong: If the majority of representatives used microblogs, we can say, "the microblog influenced the Two Sessions". This time, the microblog became a hot topic in the Two Sessions, it was mainly in this specific period of time -- during the Two Sessions, with a specific group of people -- a small number of Two Sessions representatives, using it first.
The discussions and suggestions towards the Two Sessions made by netizens through the microblog should be highlighted. I'm afraid future Two Sessions will have to get used to the public eye.
BJ News: One of the highlights of this year's Two Sessions was that many of the media talked about "microblog political discussions", or "microblog in politics", is this accurate?
Hu Yong: Talking about the microblog in politics, or microblog political discussions, involves a range of issues, such as who is discussing politics, who is being discussed, and how it is discussed. After all, the discussion of views, the expression of public opinion, are not "democracy" in the political sense of the word. After all, the collection of online public opinion does not make for a democratic system.
The microblog is just a microcosm of social reality; in order to solve the issues mentioned in microblogs, more needs to be done in real life. To rely on the system's pathway to push for the realisation of democracy, that is the real "microblog in politics", the real use of microblogging to promote the process of political civilization.
BJ News: In other words, when we talk about this point, we need to import some considerations of political science?
Hu Yong: Yes, we need to quantify the political discussion, it requires scientific assessment.
For example, the "virtual proposals" offered on microblogs, or the recommendations made to representatives, need to be followed up and explored; whether they turn into proposals and motions supported by the representatives, whether they can be transformed into final results, whether they will withstand the test of time.
BJ News: Why?
Hu Yong: Because the microblog is a public platform, which can effectively cultivate civic spirit, highlight the "four powers" (ie, safeguard the people's right to information, participation, expression and right to supervise), allow for participation in politics, or at least can be used make some sound; otherwise, people may only be marginalized to a bystander's role.
BJ News: What is your ideal "microblog in politics" like?
Hu Yong: Only when the majority of representatives and officials are using the microblog as a tool, and get used to its mode of operation, ways of thinking and rules of the game, will the era of microblog in politics truly arrive.
One way to test it, is to see if those active representatives and official media will stop using microblogs after the Two Sessions; it may become abandoned just as blogs were, or even become the dust of history like some government websites that are never updated.