This article also appears in ChinaFile, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
With China’s new leadership now set, Chinese Web users have turned their attention to answering the key question: “What’s next?” In concert with the 18th Party Congress, the website of Communist Party-sanctioned Peoples’s Daily hosted an online poll asking Web users about their hopes for future development. The poll asked users to vote for the topics they cared about most, picking one from a menu which included “Democracy,” “economic development,” “national defense,” “cultural prosperity,” “peace and unity,” “building the Communist Party,” and “international relations.”
The winner? Democracy, in a landslide. Out of a healthy 187,000-plus votes cast, Democracy ranked first with over 61,000. This was followed by anti-corruption, which garnered over 38,000 votes, then “social livelihood” with more than 33,000. Although economic development has been the focus of much of China’s policy-making in recent years, that concern ranked a distant fourth.
Of course, this was far from a scientific survey. Determined users could vote for the same option multiple times; nonetheless, in the absence of more traditional democratic means, the poll is a powerful gauge of public opinion. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that this poll was help by a news organization traditionally known to hew to the Party line, and the poll’s affiliation with the 18thParty Congress was emblazoned in bold red across the top of the screen.
It’s a bold move by the Party-controlled media, although it only displays the poll results and voter comments are few and far between. But the poll’s results were widely shared on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. When famous investor and commentator Kai-Fu Lee, (@李开复) posted the results, they attracted over 800 comments, serving as an ad hoc discussion platform about China’s future.
Some users were surprised by how far the poll went, especially because it was hosted by a state media outlet (albeit one that has a more liberal online persona than its print counterpart). @空气凤梨飘 commented: “[This post is] Surprisingly open and transparent; astonished.” @纯洁的纯洁哥 wrote, “Hoho, can’t believe it’s people.com.” @YY的记事本 joked: “It’s truly from People.com; now [it’s] safe to repost.”
Some worried aloud whether the poll’s seemingly clear results would ever reach decision-makers. @公子钟 wrote, “I voted for democracy too, hopefully the Big Seven [China’s Politburo Standing Committee] will hear the people’s voice”. @Di帝cue joked bitterly: “Chairman Xi is too busy to surf online, or to check Weibo. Just drop the idea, folks.”
Others were more hopeful that new leader Xi Jinping and his colleagues might take the results to heart. @嗨嗨殷诗睿卡米萨玛 commented, “Mr. Xi, it’s your turn now”; @就是老花眼 adds: “The new leader is standing at a crossroads; a middling approach is no longer an option for him”. Another commentator boldly wrote, “With globalization deepening, American-style democracy will lead human development in the 22nd century. … Obama’s passionate [victory] speech [which resonated deeply in China’s blogosphere] has stirred public emotions. Chairman Xi, you have been pushed to the cusp.”
But Web users seemed largely aware that even if Xi were to step across the Rubicon separating democracy from one-party rule, he would have to tread carefully. @Enzo谦信 commented: “Political reforms cannot come in a rush. Step by step. A bit of carelessness would draw us back to the historical cycle practiced by so many Dynasties in the past 5000 years.” @时光爬过窗台 agreed wholeheartedly: “The sequence for problem solving should be exactly reversed. While carefree social elites are chatting about democracy, 800 million people at the bottom barely able to cover food and clothing need economic development.”
People’s Daily’s decision to run this poll, obviously sanctioned by Chinese authorities, is a bold move. But it does not occur in isolation; recently, Weibo posts have flooded in with expectations for China’s new leadership. Liberal intellectuals, who often set the tone for certain quarters of public opinion, have been vocal and their posts have been widely shared. This trend perhaps began with Liu Shengjun (@刘胜军改革), an economist and columnist for FTChinese and Caixin. On November 15, he posted on Weibo his “ten biggest wishes for the next ten years.” They included “not having to buy infant milk powder abroad,” an end to worsening environmental pollution, an end to the emigration of rich officials and rich entrepreneurs, and the hope that “the stock market is transformed from a money misappropriation machine to a value-creating arena.
Power bloggers Li Chengpeng (@李承鹏) and Xue Manzi (@薛蛮子) soon followed suit with their own posts to help set the online agenda. Many Weibo users have applauded these efforts, but some question their feasibility. @A-deepin exhorted: “Wake up! Wake up!” @琪琪儿QIU wrote, “Hope is plump but reality is skinny…to achieve all these…is really hard.”
Such posts are part and parcel of the resurgence of Internet liberals following China’s leadership transition, although a separate online debate has also recently heated up between Chinese liberals and conservatives. Ultimately, however, history will only record the real impacts of such arguments. It still not clear if Sina Weibo is in fact pushing the limits of free speech, or just functioning as an outlet for reformists (or worse, a false front for free speech to quell public anger). As Li Chengpeng concluded upon his return after being silenced during the leadership transition:
“Back to Weibo; so excited to make wishes for the next ten years: lower prices, less corrupted officials, more social benefits, narrower wealth gap, more opportunities for the youth… just realized that new governments have said all these; back to decade, two decades ago, these have also be promised. So my message for the next ten years: Realize the promises made during the meeting. Even if only two of them come to fruition, we would be very happy.”