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China’s communist party launches online forum to tap into public opinion

October 6, 2010

Turning a young 61, on October 1st, Chinese National Day, Beijing has decided to merge propaganda with the public relations techniques of the internet age. Roughly a year from ousting Google to building and boosting their own browsers, search engines, e-commerce sites and social networking platforms, the Communist party of China has launched an online bulletin board where citizens can leave messages to their top political leaders.

A forum for citizens to ask, ponder, exclaim and applaud their leaders, the Communist Party in China finally seems to be giving its people a voice. Although monitored, controlled and supervised as to who is discussing what, Beijing has finally found a way to put their finger on the pulse of a dynamic, expressive and vibrant young generation that has seen drastic change and wants to fathom it.

“Direct Line to Zhongnanhai” – referring to the compound housing the party leadership’s offices and homes in central Beijing – features a box where users can type in messages and click on the name of Hu Jintao, the party chief, or any other members of the politburo inner circle, to send it to.

“The site appears to be an effort to persuade people who the leadership is listening to their very personal concerns and not just developing grand strategies for the country,” said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst. “It is clearly designed to demonstrate that the leadership is attentive and sensitive.”

But the Communist party, which runs a parallel political universe behind the government institutions and holds the real power, has in the past held the public at arm’s length. It was only last year that the party started to appoint spokespeople for several of its departments, and only in June this year that it introduced most of them to the press.

“The party used to be a mystery, very inaccessible,” said Dong Guanpeng, a professor of media and politics at the State Council’s national school of administration, who trains officials in how to deal with the media. “This whole effort of becoming more transparent, more responsive, started in the government and it is now beginning to take root in the party,” he added.

What worries most though is that will the purpose of the forum be served? Most common Chinese citizens having never addressed the CCP leaders have no idea what to say to them or how to approach them. Citizens are also weary of interacting with the politibureau members and bringing up sensitive topics for fear of being caught or out under surveillance. Nobody expects Hu Jintao to respond personally too, so what really is the point the forum for citizens? Will the forum just serve as a one way channel for sanitized sociopolitical discussions? Will anyone ever hear what the citizens are saying or will it be monitored to prevent a upheaveal or unrest? Hu Jintao’s version of public opinion guidance?

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