Anyone wondering what Chinese people think about
as he is about to ascend to a precedent-breaking third term in power will have a hard time finding clues.
In China, where independent opinion polls are virtually nonexistent, social media has been a way to gauge people’s opinions, even under censorship. But in the lead-up to a Communist Party congress starting Sunday, it is essentially impossible to search for viewpoints about Mr. Xi or other senior politicians that don’t offer unstinting praise.
Even searches for public sentiment about Mr. Xi’s famous wife, folk singer
yield nothing on most platforms.
It is, in fact, easier to find views on President Biden or U.S. Secretary of State
with opinions running the gamut from acclaim to criticism, than anything about the men who run China.
This social-media scrubbing highlights how difficult it is to discuss a burning question at the heart of the country’s politics: How popular is China’s most forceful leader since Mao Zedong?
While discussions of China’s leaders have always been constrained, Mr. Xi has presided over an expansion in censorship that has muzzled online debate in entirely new ways. Chinese authorities have cracked down on influencers with dissenting views, introduced laws limiting speech on the web and fined companies for not adequately policing internet content.
Some of the country’s most popular social-media platforms return blank pages in response to searches for the seven leaders who form the apex of power in China, the Politburo Standing Committee, which includes Mr. Xi and Premier
Others provide links to state-media reports promoting a tightly controlled narrative.
popular online discussion forum Tieba, there are more than 184,000 posts about Mr. Biden. Meanwhile, a search for Mr. Xi’s name returns the message, “Sorry, according to related laws and government regulations, the following results cannot be shown.”
The only content related to Mr. Xi shown on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok run by TikTok’s parent ByteDance Ltd., is that generated by state media or party entities. For all the app’s freewheeling videos, it is near-impossible to find ones of ordinary Chinese expressing opinions about their leader.
On China’s ubiquitous social-media platform
and the Quora-like question-and-answer site
com, discussions about the Chinese leader similarly involve only media sources related to the state or the party.
One Zhihu post on a speech by Mr. Xi to a branch of the People’s Liberation Army in which he called for “the motherland to be unified”—a reference to taking control of Taiwan—appeared to have attracted almost 220 comments. None of them could be viewed; a message displayed said the comments section was closed.
platform allows searches for Mr. Xi’s name only by users in China, who must register with a Chinese cellphone number linked to their identity card and log in to see search results. Again, results are almost all articles or videos in some way linked to state media or government agencies.
Baidu, ByteDance, Zhihu, Weibo and WeChat owner Tencent Holdings Ltd. didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment.
Because China has blocked out a lot of foreign news websites and information sources, there is little to balance the steady stream of state-television anchors or Foreign Ministry spokespeople waxing lyrical about Mr. Xi, or footage of him being cheered by crowds on visits to state-owned enterprises, party exhibitions or provinces across China.
During most of Mr. Xi’s tenure, marked by campaigns targeting corruption or poverty and assertive rhetoric to raise China’s profile on the global stage, he has appeared to enjoy high popularity among ordinary Chinese. That is backed up by the few available polls by independent researchers, usually with a comparatively small sample.
Tang Wenfang, a Shenzhen-based scholar on Chinese public opinion at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that to gauge how ordinary Chinese feel about the country’s leaders, his team relies on face-to-face surveys. In the latest, in 2018, more than 50% of the 3,000 respondents said they supported a “strong leader who didn’t have to bother with elections,” up from 37% in 2002.
More recent small-scale online polls by the University of California, San Diego, the latest in March 2022, indicate public trust in the central government has remained high, although it has weakened slightly since July 2021. The academics built their data set by asking about 1,000 urban respondents a series of questions over several surveys, and cautioned that since their most recent survey, the country has experienced large-scale Covid-19 lockdowns and an accelerating deterioration in the economy that they said might have deepened discontent.
Researchers say the precedent-breaking nature of Mr. Xi’s third term as China’s top leader is part of the reason expressions of public opinion have been more restricted than usual. He is essentially eliminating a term limit in place since the death of Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic.
assistant dean at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said leaders know Mr. Xi’s third term is likely to stir debate online. “He is nervous,” Mr. Wu said.
an analyst with the censorship-focused news website China Digital Times, said the scrubbing of internet posts about Chinese leaders was patchy before 2012, the year Mr. Xi took over.
Mr. Liu, who himself worked as a censor for Weibo between 2011 and 2013, said that back then, social-media censorship still followed a “whack-a-mole” strategy—comments deemed offensive were taken down only once human censors or software spotted them. Now, he said, Chinese internet companies maintain a list of terms for Mr. Xi and use a combination of artificial intelligence and human censors to block posts containing them from reaching the web.
China Digital Times recently published a leaked memo showing that over two months in 2020, the Instagram-like platform Xiaohongshu added 564 “sensitive terms” to a list of nicknames for the Chinese president. They included xijingping, a homophone of Mr. Xi’s name that means “thin-necked bottle,” “Adolf Xi-tler,” and “Winnie the Poo”—not Pooh—after his supposed resemblance to the yellow bear. The Wall Street Journal couldn’t independently verify the authenticity of the memo.
In Washington-based Freedom House’s annual ranking of online freedom in 70 countries globally, China’s internet was ranked the least free in 2021. In 2011, the year before Mr. Xi took power, it ranked as freer than Cuba, Myanmar and Iran.
Discussions about the Communist Party heads of all 31 of China’s autonomous regions and provinces—the equivalent of governors in the U.S.—are heavily censored on social media as well. The names of regional party chiefs weren’t considered sensitive terms online in 2011, Mr. Liu recalled; that July a senior politician endured a barrage of public criticism on Weibo after a deadly high-speed rail collision in Wenzhou city.
Researchers say the censoring of social media could backfire by obscuring Chinese leaders’ understanding of citizens’ needs and gripes, particularly in the absence of democratic institutions such as a free press.
Censored or not, social media isn’t a good representation of Chinese society, said public-opinion researcher Mr. Tang, because its users are mostly younger, educated white-collar professionals. He will conduct his next face-to-face survey next year.
“Many Chinese still can, and do, express their opinions in private, such as over a dinner,” he said.
Write to Liza Lin at [email protected]
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