By Sun Liping (孙立平), Professor of Sociology at Tsinghua University
Issue 583, August 27, 2012
Observer, page 42
Translated by Tang Xiangyang
Original article: [Chinese]
When a notorious criminal was gunned down in the streets of Chongqing earlier this month, it didn't take long for a whole host of doubts to emerge. Most of the suspicions centered around whether the man who had been killed was really the who authorities said it was. Various conflicting versions of what took place began to circulate online.
In response to this turn of events, there were some who said - the scepticism with which people approached the facts of the shooting had already become more dangerous than the criminal himself.
This is an indicator of how weak the government's credibility really has become, because no matter what the goverment comes out and says, the first reaction of people is not to believe it. Some even say that if the government were to announce that "the sun rises in the east," given the lack of trust out there, no one will believe them.
Most people would agree that one of the most basic foundations of life in modern societies is that people can trust in an authoritative information provider. This is especially true when an accident or emergency occurs or society is dealing with some kind of crisis, the presence of reliable information will often play a defining role in determining the severity of the eventual outcome.
When thinking about the killing of Zhou Kehua (周克华) - the name of the criminal referred to above - I can't help but be reminded of a series of similar incidents that have taken place over the past couple of years and the hidden social malaise that it lays bare.
As early as the Qian Yunhui case (钱云会案), people began to say that the real facts of a case might never be known - that the truth in some instances might remain an "unfinished project."
That's not to say that the facts of a case could never be known or that someone was intentionally trying to hide the truth, but rather that the process of trying to inform the public and having this version of events accepted by a large swathe of society, had already become very difficult.
Recently there have been a series of similar incidents, the truth of which remain "unfinished projects."
For example, what really happened in Shifang (什邡) and Qidong (启东)?
Are any of the various reports true?
I'm sure that everyone that followed either of these incidents is totally confused about what actually happened.
What happened in Shenyang the other week - will we ever know why all those stores pulled down their shutters and ceased doing business?
Were arbitary fines really being handed out to businesses as some have claimed? Even the most basic of facts about the case are still unclear.
We need to understand, that in a society like ours in which information is so developed, any local incident can quickly spread and become of national importance. The impact of such incidents on the broader society depends not only on the truth of the matter but also on to what degree it is believed by society as a whole.
It's against this background that a dearth of public credibility is becoming an increasingly severe social malaise. We can go as far to say that people are not only beginning to lose trust in official information, but our society's ability to present truth to itself is gradually disappearing.
But why? There are three possible explanations.
The first possibility is that the relevant government departments are intentionally hiding the truth from the public. As unsavoury as this would be if true, it's not that frightening, as we can be confident that the truth will eventually be revealed sooner or later.
The second possible explanation is that the government just isn't doing a very good job at releasing information and that the public is confused due to this incompetence.
For example, when a large number of stores in Shenyang shut-up shop, the local government's announcements were vague and contradictory; when the scandalous "orgy" photos starring officials from Anhui spread across the internet, the local government arbitrarily claimed they had been manipulated using Photoshop.
If the problem is caused by this kind of incompetence, it can also easily be fixed by providing training to government officials about how to better handle these kinds of situations.
The third possible explanation is that people are simply refusing to believe - and this is the scariest of all the three possibilities because it indicates the society has already lost the ability to present truth to itself.
If a society has already become unable to present the truth to itself, it says that something is wrong with one of its basic mechanisms. In this situation, we will be hard pressed to even think of a possible solution to the problem.
Then comes the question: how can we re-build the credibility of the government?
This has aroused wide concern in recent years. But the suggested solutions seem to go no further than simply urging officials to tell the truth.
But as the above analysis makes clear, though it's important for officials to tell truth (indeed we can't have trust in the official version of events without it), if that is simply all that we do, it won't be enough to solve the problem.
I think sometimes some government departments must feel very frustrated because the officials know they aren't trying to hide anything and are telling the truth - yet no-one believes them.
The crucial problem that we face is with the mechanism for presenting truth to society.
There are two important mechanisms for conveying the truth to the public.
The first is to have an authoritative agency that releases official information which people can and are willing to trust. It takes time to establish such authority and trust. However, in present-day China, these agencies have continously proven to be unreliable.
The second mechanism is to allow multiple sources of information, so that people may weigh for themselves the competing claims to truth.
This second mechanism is the one that can form the most reliable basis for credibility.
Shortly after Zhou Kehua was shot dead, I posted the following to my Weibo account:
"Though people have raised a lot of questions in relation to the photos of Zhou Kehua's dead body, to the point that some are questioning whether the corpse is actually that of a plain-clothes policeman, I'm still inclinded to believe that it was Zhou Kehua who was shot dead.
Why? Firstly, in a society where it's already become routine to block access to some information, I am inclinded to believe a photo that has been released by the authorities if the suspicious elements are so obvious. Secondly, as posts questioning the authenticity of the photo are not being deleted from the Internet, I'm even more willing to believe. Thirdly, I still have some doubts but if the government were to release more information in order to clarify the situation, I would believe them even more. All in all, I'm inclined to believe information that is open and doesn't reject any questioning."
This post was not so much my conclusion about the case but more an indication of my attitude.
Later I explained that, when I didn't have the specialist knowledge required to pass judgement on the information, I would pay even more attention to the way in which the information was communicated.
However, if there was no way of getting this information or if access to information had been blocked, I think it's logical for people to have doubts about its reliability.
If people are told that they are not allowed to have doubts, this makes people even more suspicious about the information that the government has provided.
To put it more directly, in modern society, the government's credibility can only be based on a reliable and standardised mechanism.
People are willing to believe and perhaps will ONLY believe a message that was first announced by government, then doubted by media, then these suspicions are investigated by the media and shown to be either true or false.
This is a mechanism.
It's not a question of what was said or who said it or how it was said. The quality of information has been weakened after years of monopoly control. The blocking of information has caused people to even doubt the reliability of the real facts.
Only by establishing a mechanism that allows information from multiple sources to flow and that is open to doubt, will we be able to re-build the credibility of government.
We can see progress in the way the authorities have handled the Zhou Kehua case. The incident has aroused many doubts - indeed, just one photo was enough to produce so many suspicions. Analysis from different angles seemingly shows that there is some reason to be suspicious of the photo.
But the photo was officially released; the government didn't censor the circulation of doubts about the image; officials even tried to offer explanations in response to some of the doubts.
It was these three points that strengthened peoples willingness to accept the official version of events.
By choosing to deal with the situation in this manner, will not only be more effective in helping people understand what really happened, it will also help the government to reestablish its credibility.
Links and Sources
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