Hu Yong Explores Ramifications of Yuqing and Public Opinion in China

November 23, 2016

In a public lecture on November 21 hosted by CMDS, Peking University Professor Hu Yong explored the evolution of public opinion in modern China. “The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was skilled at creating government information management systems before the internet,” said Hu. “The question now is how will they respond in the internet age.”

Taking a look at the development of yulun (“public opinion”) in China, Hu emphasized that it is “a concept of political function rather than a collection of individual opinions.” Using a definition from the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, Hu studies yulun as an “enlightened outcome of common and public reflection on foundations of social order.”

Hu argued that Chinese public opinion in the late Qing dynasty fit Habermas’ definition and “symbolized people’s morale” in the country. During the Chinese civil war and the emergence of the CCP, public opinion became a political propaganda tool and served as an ideological weapon. Mao Zedong, the founding father of today’s People’s Republic of China, stressed the “uniformity of public opinion,” an ideal in conflict with Western conceptions of the diversity of public opinion. Mao’s stance still prevails in the CPP with recent leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao speaking of the “guidance” and “channeling” of public opinion towards a correct viewpoint. “Chinese-style public opinion does not emerge from civil society, but from government-run media,” said Hu.

In the internet age, the government has been forced to adapt to technological shifts including the establishment of major online news portals, forums, microblogs, and mobile app discussion rooms. Using the reaction to the SARS epidemic in 2003 as an example, Hu highlighted how the public was able to influence the government. It was public outcry at the mishandling of the epidemic that forced the mayor of Beijing and the minister of public health to resign. “Social incidents led to strong currents of public opinion,” noted Hu, “and traditional, state-run media and the government had to respond.”

As public opinion has become increasingly evident on the internet, the CCP’s “persistent habit of generating public opinion” through mainstream media platforms has had to evolve. The government, in a desire to “open up the passage between the two fields of public opinion,” has taken several steps to regain control of public opinion. These efforts include new legislation, technical barriers such as firewalls, re-centralization of media distribution networks, and the “contamination of public opinion fields” through the production of “Chinese-style public opinion.”

In order to mass produce “Chinese-style public opinion,” the government has created an internet information system that adds, suppresses, and deletes comments online in response to public opinion trends. This has given rise to the yuqing (loosely translated as “public intelligence”) industry. Yuqing organizations collect data on online public opinion and can signal when a local crisis is developing. Such organizations can be found within the CCP and government departments, the party’s flagship media outlets like the People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency, and university research bodies.

“There’s a great paradox in yuqing monitoring, though,” highlighted Hu. When yuqing organizations share information on localized public opinion crises, governmental departments interfere immediately by suppressing negative opinion. By removing these opinions, the “healthy ecology of online public opinion is destroyed,” and a “habitual silence of speech and an enhanced sense of self-censorship” are nurtured. When the “seemingly objective and scientific” yuqing researchers analyze the data again, they see a “clear and bright cyberspace” since negative opinions were previously suppressed.

“In this way, yuqing (“public intelligence”) wipes out yulun (“public opinion”),” argued Hu. “The yuqing industry has transformed data gathering into the manipulation of public opinion.” While China is slowly developing a public sphere with internet public opinion taking shape, mainstream media promote another kind of public opinion sanctioned by the state. “With two public opinion fields developing in parallel, we see how yuqing reflects the paradox of China’s internet management regime,” concluded Hu.