Maverick official's blogs give life to 'zombie' accounts

Updated: 2013-08-03 07:34

By Bai Ping (China Daily)

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When a vice-governor of Guizhou province called domestic critics "human scumbags" on a popular Chinese micro-blogging platform this week, he immediately drew the fury of Internet users who demanded an apology for his gaffe.

In a heated exchange with other Web users on violence in China and the United States, Vice-Governor Chen Mingming also wrote that "unpatriotic" people should have plastic surgery so they won't be recognized as Chinese and should "go to the US - the faster the better!"

But despite harsh public criticism, the Chinese "micro terror" - during which public figures dropping controversial remarks are often judged and shamed to the cheers of netizens - didn't befall the senior official. Instead, many have called for tolerance and forgiveness for Chen's courage to engage in a public debate and speak his mind, which is something rare in China's ethereal world where official micro-blogging is better known for its pomp and inactivity.

As a way to connect with the public, in recent years, many government departments and officials have set up micro blogs that are considered a powerful tool to break news and gather information. Sina, a major micro-blogging host, now has nearly 80,000 such accounts, including more than 30 owned by officials like Chen who hold powerful positions at provincial or ministerial levels.

However, after the initial fanfare and buzz, most of these accounts have either been used as bulletin boards to post press releases or trumpet government achievements, or have become "zombie" accounts, as they are popularly called. Sina has found that only 15 percent of its micro blogs run by officials have published any "original content".

People suspect many officials open accounts just to prove that they are social media savvy, a requirement of modern leadership. In one oft-cited case, the executive vice-mayor of a city in Shanxi province opened a micro blog and garnered more than 30,000 followers. But he has posted only five tweets - all in one day last November about his city's real estate development - and his account has since become "dormant".

The reason behind the lethargic involvement can probably be attributed to the unwritten rules that dictate the bureaucratic discourse. Researchers have long found that a combination of ancient Chinese political tradition and contemporary reality have motivated office-holders to take cues from the above and avoid being different or controversial while making their positions known.

They're further deterred from speaking out of their own volition by the fact that social media have already become a formidable watchdog in Chinese political and social life. Some have lost their jobs after tweets reporting their faux pas exploded onto the national scene and led to investigations by traditional media.

But Chen is no such "zombie" blogger. He claims he has been updating his micro blogs since launching them four years ago, all by himself, not his assistants. Amid the public uproar, he has apologized for the "inappropriateness" of his remark and welcomed any probe into his personal and family's assets, which touched on another sensitive issue in Chinese politics. This appeases people who resent scripted and detached approaches of government communication.

Sympathizers also believe outspoken mavericks like Chen are worth encouraging because they have provided a rare glimpse into the psyche of the top brass, and have brought a plurality of ideas and arguments into the blogosphere that is currently dominated by the people they govern.

Some challenge "zombies" to resurrect and follow Chen's lead, with a quote from Voltaire: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." The question is how many have guts like Chen to take the offer.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily.

(China Daily 08/03/2013 page5)