You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

China's New Petitioning Platform: Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom…Online?

BY Rebecca Chao | Wednesday, July 3 2013

Courtyard of Forbidden City (Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday, China’s Communist Party launched an online platform to encourage citizens to post petitions and air their grievances online.

Traditionally, petitioners must make the lengthy travel to Beijing to petition the government in person about forced evictions, pollution, or corruption but persistent complainers are often detained or prevented from coming to Beijing all together. China recently started requiring train stations to print people's real names on their train tickets and for stations to prevent black listed petitioners from getting on a train to Beijing.

The BBC reported that Chinese citizens are expressing via their microblogs that the new online petitioning, which requires users to register their address, will only allow the government to retaliate and better control dissidents. However, a search through Weibo reveals no such complaints, only compliments or neutral comments, most likely because the government has deleted them. WeiboSuite, a new platform built by students at Hong Kong University, tracks censored Weibo tweets and reveals hundreds of deleted and/or censored posts about the new platform. One post, shown below, expresses concern that the petition site is a trick and will enable the government to behave like it did during the Cultural Revolution when Mao encouraged open criticism of the government but pulled a bait and switch.

ABOVE: A censored post on WeiboSuite expresses concern about the new site.

Mao famously said, “The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science.” He eventually jailed those who had spoken up. Then in the late 1970s, during a period referred to as the “Beijing Spring,” the Communist Party launched a “seeking truth from facts” campaign. Concerned citizens, delighted by their new freedom, took to posting large petitions on a brick wall in Beijing that they referred to as the “Democracy Wall.” Many, like longtime activist Wei Jingsheng who penned a famous democratic treatise called the “Fifth Modernization,” were jailed.

At the moment, the Communist Party is still working out kinks on its site, which crashed on the first day of its launch. The website can also only be accessed via Internet Explorer. This echoes similar online systems the government has tried to implement.

ABOVE: A screenshot of the online petitioning site shows you an error message explaining that the site only works on Internet Explorer at this time.

In early 2012, China’s Ministry of Railways spent US$52 million to create a website for citizens to buy railway tickets. During China’s Lunar New Year’s holiday, which occurs some time in the spring, the country is plunged into a massive internal migration – the largest in the world. The country experiences 3.4 billion trips during that short period of time. Migrant workers in particular, who return home only once or twice a year, wait for days at the train stations to make a furious dash to buy only a limited number of tickets.

The online ticketing system was designed to ease the burden of physically waiting at train stations. It was a big failure. It crashed multiple times during its initial launch due to an overload of its site. When the ministry attempted an upgrade later in September of 2012, it created a virtual waiting line but glitches sometimes booted users to the back of the line.

TechinAsia points out that the Communist Party attempted to launch an anti-corruption platform both in 2007 and in 2009 that would allow citizens to tattle on corrupt officials. Apparently that site was only built to handle 1,000 users at a time. It too crashed both times and currently does not work.

Unfortunately, it’s not a matter of can or cannot when China has the technological capacity to build viable websites. But the government has shut down any non-government attempts at building anti-corruption and ticketing sites.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.