It is natural for a more educated populace in a maturing society to want to play a more assertive role in public decision-making. To engender trust and retain legitimacy in these circumstances, a government has to engage with its people in a different way: top-down, one-way communication must evolve into a more reciprocal, two-way engagement between state and society.
Singapore has studied many models of public engagement by governments in developed countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. While these societies share Singapore’s Westminster model of governance, they have a long tradition as liberal democracies with active citizen participation in political discourse.
On the other hand, China’s public engagement approaches are less well understood. Yet, China offers a relevant model for Singapore to examine: there are some common features in the two countries’ governance traditions, including long-term single party rule and a government that has erstwhile dominated public discourse. China, like Singapore, has also witnessed a relatively recent expansion of channels for citizens and civil society to participate in public discourse,along with a proliferation of non-governmental organisations that are becoming more vocal and active. How does the Chinese government communicate with and obtain feedback from its huge and diverse population — rural and urban, vulnerable and affluent, among other disparities — whose needs and demands differ so vastly? How does the Chinese government get its messages across despite the proliferation of voices, often critical, which have been enabled by the internet and social media?
China’s Evolving State-Society Relationship
Western media tends to characterise the state-society relationship in China as akin to that of oppressor and oppressed. Yet this is hardly borne out by the reality of modern China. The internet has opened up new worlds of information to Chinese citizens who previously subsisted on a diet of state-controlled media. It has also satisfied an urgent social need, providing a channel for people to connect and speak up against perceived social injustices. The Chinese government has adapted by shifting the boundaries of acceptable public discourse, and co-opting new technologies to meet its own objectives: to shape its own image, improve service delivery and even monitor local officials. As part of its image-building, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has eschewed depictions of its role as being based on ‘control’ (控制 kòngzhì), in favour of characterisations such as ‘management’ (管理 guǎnlǐ) or ‘guidance’ (指导 zhǐdǎo).1
Indeed, the CCP seems to have succeeded in marketing its style of governance, not only to the older generation or peasant folk, but “even to its large population of globalised, urbanised, ICT-savvy youth”.2
In enacting this shift in stance, China’s ruling CCP has exhibited a sophisticated grasp of political communication and public engagement strategies. While China’s model of public engagement is unique, and the result of an equally unique government responding to its changing political and social environment, it may yet offer instructive lessons as it seeks to engage more effectively with citizens and stakeholders.
Strategies for Communication and Engagement
Use of Social Media as a Means of Outreach
While China maintains tight control over the communication of its ideology and image, including wielding internet restrictions such as the “Great Firewall” that filters out undesirable content, one prominent development in China’s model of public engagement is how the government has embraced the internet and social media. Prompted in part by the strong anti-establishment culture on the internet, the government invested significant effort to develop its online communication capability.
The Chinese government has facilitated the development of alternative platforms such as Weibo and WeChat where it can exercise far greater control over the content and remove unfavourable messages if required.
Chinese President Xi Jinping experimented with crafting his online persona as one who is down-to-earth and sympathetic to the concerns of the average Chinese citizen. When he visited a popular eatery in Beijing, an influential internet commentator “coincidentally” ran into the President and posted, on Weibo, images of Xi Jinping queuing up at the eatery, paying for his food and sitting down to eat with other customers. Within minutes, official media outlets including Xinhua and CCTV reposted on their platforms and the image of China’s top leader personally queuing up at an eatery started spreading on China’s social media. Xi’s publicity campaign generated positive public responses on the Chinese internet.
Various organisations within the Chinese government have also employed social media to enhance their public image. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affair started a Weibo account in 2011 under the user identity of “Foreign Affairs Elves” (外交小灵通 wàijiāo xiǎo língtōng). Within three years, the account had gained 7.5 million fans. Through the use of lively language in its interaction with online followers, it has also improved the ministry’s traditionally stodgy, aloof image.3
In Singapore, public communications have extended to the internet and social media, with most political leaders and agencies using Facebook to provide timely and visual updates on their programmes and activities. Beyond this, government organisations can take a leaf from China’s success stories by humanising communications with the public, by adopting a less officious tone or making the extra effort to show its officials interacting and working with members of the public and other stakeholders.
Encouraging Citizen Participation and Engagement
Facilitating greater civic participation not only provides channels for citizens to contribute their ideas and expertise, but also creates opportunities to build relationships between the government and its stakeholders and people. The Singapore government recognises this: within just five years, it has launched massive engagement efforts including Our Singapore Conversation and SG Future Engagement. These have been useful avenues for participants to share their aspirations and ideas.
However, where civic advocacy pertains to issues that require difficult trade-offs, the result of the government’s engagement efforts has not been an unequivocal success. In recent years, there have been active lobbying for environmental and heritage conservation in Chek Jawa and Bukit Brown, as well as advocacy of animal rights and migrant worker rights. Such civic activism is on the rise, and is a reflection of the Singaporean public’s greater assertiveness. In such instances, China’s model of Deliberative Polling offers useful lessons.
Deliberative Polling involves recruiting a representative sample of participants (demographically, as well as those representing different sides of the debate),early provision of information, and facilitated sessions for the group to come together to discuss different points of view. When well designed and implemented, as in the case of the annual budgetary discussion at Wenling City in Zhejiang Province, participants stand to gain knowledge about the policy choices and issues at hand, while allowing them and the wider public witnessing the process to see beyond each group’s narrow interests. More importantly, it also allows the government to show its responsiveness to public interests, and enables citizens to voice their views in a context of mutual respect.
Recalibrating the State-Society Relationship
Today, the Chinese government blocks popular foreign websites such as Google, YouTube and Facebook, and routinely shuts down Virtual Private Network services to prevent people from circumventing these controls.In their place, the Chinese government has facilitated the development of alternative platforms such as Weibo and WeChat where it can exercise far greater control over the content and remove unfavourable messages if required. Singapore, whose economic success rests on being an open global city, cannot afford to take such measures, nor does Singapore have the population size to support the development of domestic social media alternatives.
Yet even as the Chinese government adopts tight monitoring and interventionist measures, including the routine filtering of internet content to discourage certain discussion threads, it knows that netizens are becoming increasingly sophisticated and creative at getting around such measures, for example using homonyms in place of phrases that might be filtered by the authorities. While the government has been resolute in quelling discussions that directly challenge its legitimacy or that incite social disturbances, it has been relatively tolerant of criticisms of the government or its policies, which abound on the internet and social media.
Both state and society use the internet as a tool to expand their respective spheres of influence; the Chinese government realises that this is not a zero-sum game.
The government realises that the internet can be harnessed in its favour, to better understand the people’s sentiments in order to meet their legitimate needs. They have been open to suggestions to improve public administration and have been keen to demonstrate responsiveness on issues at the top of people’s minds, for example, corruption, environmental pollution, and food safety. Paradoxically, the unfettered voicing of public opinion has the potential to undermine the stability of the Party’s rule, and the CCP does not hesitate to deal with these in a heavy-handed way when its security is threatened.
There is realisation though that suppression of internet voices will ultimately be unhelpful as this would not only undermine its image and credibility, but also cause the government to lose an important channel to understand public sentiment. In gist, both state and society use the internet as a tool to expand their respective spheres of influence; the Chinese government realises that this is not a zero-sum game.
Singapore has likewise become more sophisticated in our attitude towards, and use of, the internet. Singapore has been using technology to conduct sentiment analyses of internet and social media content to understand people’s responses to various policies and programmes. This allows the government to gauge understanding (or lack thereof) of national issues, and respond accordingly. At the same time, the internet occasionally becomes a forum for vitriol, rumours and untruths to spread. While regulation is one possible response, it may eventually be more effective and sustainable to encourage the development of a more civil and responsible internet space that allows for meaningful dialogue to take place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tan Li San is Deputy Secretary, Industry & Information, Ministry of Communication and Information. She has previously served in the Ministry of Manpower, Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, Ministry of Finance, Public Service Division, and the Civil Service College.
Lim Chee Kia is Researcher, Institute of Governance and Policy, Civil Service College. His research focus is primarily on China, particularly on defence and geo-political issues.
This article was adapted from a research paper produced in the course of Ms Tan’s participation in the Lien Ying Chow Legacy Fellowship with the Nanyang Technological University. The views expressed are the authors’ own and may not reflect those of their respective organisations.
- Such a stance, however, is possible only if the Party feels secure, which in turn is derived from a feeling that the government has achieved legitimacy. A state that is insecure is more wont to adopt draconian measures.
- Anne-Marie Brady, ed., China’s Thought Management (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012).
- Zhou Zhaocheng, “The Role of Social Media in China’s Political Communication”, in China’s Socio-Political Reforms: Evolutionary or Revolutionary? (Singapore: Civil Service College, 2015): 95–111.