How an arcane democratic term became more popular online than the moon landing.
Much ink has been spilled over the Chinese government's crackdown on online speech. Since September 2013, Chinese authorities have arrested or detained hundreds of microbloggers, some of whom had become famous for posting comments critical of the government on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. More recently, research from East China Normal University in Shanghai, commissioned by U.K. paper the Telegraph, showed that Weibo activity dropped precipitously in early 2013, and has not yet recovered. The Telegraph report described Weibo as "neutered" if not "killed off" entirely, "in the wake of an aggressive campaign by the Communist party to intimidate influential users."
The reality, however, is more complicated. On some sensitive issues, government authorities are surprisingly incapable of guiding the online conversation. A particularly telling example is constitutionalism -- the belief that the ruling Communist party's power derives from, and should be limited by, the country's constitution. A vaguely defined term that's popular among Chinese liberals, constitutionalism often also embodies the desire for a broader set of norms aggrieved citizens feel they have been denied by a sometimes arbitrary and unresponsive government. (Adopted in its current form in 1982, China's constitution nominally protects rights like the freedom of speech and assembly, although in practice it does not check party authority.)
Using a service provided by Crimson Hexagon, a social media monitoring company founded by Harvard researchers, this author located 490,000 Chinese social media posts between Jan. 1, 2013 and Feb. 1, 2014, mentioning "constitutionalism," "anti-constitutionalism," or "socialist constitutionalism." The sample included censored posts because the platform receives content downloaded soon after posting, while most censorship on Chinese social media takes at least a few minutes. (Approximately 13 percent of all posts are censored, according to research by Harvard political science professor Gary King; censorship of posts on politically sensitive topics like constitutionalism probably ranges from 16 to 24 percent.) The posts were from publicly available Chinese sites, most prominently Sina Weibo, and did not include the highly popular Chinese mobile messaging app WeChat. The findings make one thing clear: Online sentiment toward democratic constitutionalism was overwhelmingly positive, with 84 percent of the comments in the collected sample evincing a pro-constitutionalism view.
A surge of online discussion about constitutionalism occurred in early January 2013, when the public learned about censorship of a New Year's editorial calling for constitutional governance in the popular magazine Southern Weekend. During that flurry, many forwarded the original Southern Weekend New Year's message and expressed shock that it was even controversial. As the discussion evolved, users responded to the official media's message that constitutionalism, for a number of reasons, was not worth pursuing. One post encapsulated the counter-narrative that emerged online: "Some 'fifty centers,'" slang for pro-government users, perhaps writing on the government payroll, "thoughtlessly say adopting liberal democracy will bring about great chaos." But, the user added, "It is precisely because China lacks constitutionalism, democracy, freedom and the rule of law, that China has become as chaotic as it is today." Another echoed that theme, exclaiming: "The most dangerous anti-China forces are the ones opposing democratic constitutionalism!" (Netizens tend to be more well off, more urban, and more educated than the Chinese population at large; 2012 Pew survey data shows democratic ideals have strong appeal among this demographic.)
In April 2013 the General Office, a top party body, issued Document No. 9, an intra-party communiqué, which listed "Western constitutional democracy" as first among seven "perils" against which all party and state organs should exercise vigilance. Chinese state media made sure people knew that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who endorsed the document, was serious: An Aug. 1, 2013 editorial in the party-run paper Global Times declared constitutionalism would lead China into "chaos" and "even greater tragedy than the former Soviet Union," while an Aug. 6, 2013 editorial in party mouthpiece People's Daily reminded readers that "U.S.-style" constitutionalism is "not all it's cracked up to be." In the face of this official campaign, social media analytics show that a robust pro-constitutionalism discussion persisted in Chinese cyberspace, providing a stubborn counter-narrative to the party line.
The week of the Southern Weekend Incident, Chinese netizens wrote 19,307 posts saying positive things about constitutionalism. The high water mark of online chatter praising constitutionalism occurred the week of Aug. 4 to 10 with 32,599 posts in favor, correlating with chatter surrounding the upcoming trial of fallen Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and other incidents of official abuse and excess. Compare that with the chatter around China's historic -- and far more hyped -- moon landing, which peaked with a total of 12,559 posts the week of Dec. 12 to 18. Or compare it to April 2013's Hainan Sanya Rendezvous, which caused a stir with the news that celebrities and billionaires had turned a four-day trade event into a massive sex party. That scandal was a top trend on Weibo with 40,241 posts the week of April 4 to 10. In other words, sex and money beat out the abstract political concept of constitutionalism -- but not by much.
There are at least two discernable reasons that support for constitutionalism ran so deep. The first is the perceived success of China's Asian neighbors. Twenty six percent of the total sample of posts cited foreign examples of "successful" constitutionalism like Taiwan, South Korea, and even Japan. "Some people say democratic constitutionalism is not appropriate for China," according to one user whose original account was deleted but now has reappeared. But democracy "is deeply rooted in the hearts of people in Japan and South Korea," the user wrote, adding "our own Taiwan and Hong Kong have practiced it for decades, and it has not led to chaos." "What I really don't understand are those sanctimonious people of learning, who fret all the time about China's undergoing 'wholesale Westernization,'" tweeted a netizen writer. "What about Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan? They all adhere to constitutionalism." Another added, "Japan has a constitutional system, and it has preserved its distinctive national character. How does China compare?"
The second reason is that users felt that constitutionalism would provide a check to the deep-rooted problem of corruption -- 20 percent of the posts raised that issue. "'If we do not oppose corruption it will destroy the Party and the country,'" wrote one poster, quoting Xi. "But if he really wanted to act decisively against corruption, he would implement a system of constitutionalism," as well as of general elections and official asset disclosure, this poster wrote. A lawyer in Shanghai complained that citizens had hoped the Xi administration would clean up the party by "sweeping away corruption" but instead it appeared to be doing exactly the opposite by "sweeping away constitutionalism." Another person put it like this: "A corrupt country is firstly a country of special privileges" for government officials; to which a respondent added, "and you can't expect to have constitutionalism in a country of special privileges."
Of course, the analysis also showed Marxist and nationalist strands of sentiment, opposing constitutionalism and political liberalization. Some scholars and intellectuals, such as Qiu Feng of the Beijing-based research center the Unirule Institute of Economics, have advocated a "Chinese Way" of constitutionalism, based upon the principles of order espoused in the Confucian cannon. But these type of messages netted only 16 percent of the total conversation on social media.
Chinese authorities may continue to try to keep independent voices in check. But the Chinese Internet is likely to remain an attractive space in part because it offers Chinese citizens access to conversations that government authorities can neither predict nor fully contain. And the lively discussions surrounding constitutionalism demonstrate that the rumors of Weibo's death have been greatly exaggerated.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images