Skip to main content

Chinese leaders invite citizens into their 'home' to vent

By Steven Jiang, CNN
  • Many flock to new website
  • Netizens are allowed to leave message for China's leaders
  • Some question whether China's top leaders will really see messages from citizens

Beijing, China (CNN) -- In the center of the Chinese capital, next to the Forbidden City, stands a sprawling compound enclosed by tall walls and shrouded in deep secrecy.

Zhongnanhai, once the emperor's backyard with ornate buildings dotting the shores of artificial lakes, now serves as both home and office to China's top leaders.

In the real world, try approaching the red gate with even the slightest suspicion -- lingering just a bit too long or taking a few more photos than a usual tourist -- uniformed and plain-clothed security agents will feel no qualms tackling you with full force and whisking you away in a waiting police van.

In cyberspace, however, the leaders have just become a lot more accessible.

The official Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily, launched an interactive website last week aimed at bridging the communication gap between Chinese people and their leaders.

Log onto the "Directly to Zhongnanhai" home page, an animated graphic of the compound's main entrance greets you with the gate springing open, revealing a famous slogan -- "Serve the People" -- written in the distinctive style of Chairman Mao's calligraphy.

Once inside, visitors are free to browse through recent activities of the most senior Communist Party cadres -- the 27 men and one woman who effectively rule the land -- and leave anonymous messages for any of them, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Chinese netizens have flocked into the virtual leadership compound, leaving thousands of messages on the board within several days.

While there are some light-hearted complaints over losing national sports teams, most posts seek the leaders' attention and help in solving problems affecting people's livelihood. People's posts on the site range from challenges in finding jobs or paying medical insurance, to rampant corruption and soaring housing prices.

Some pleas are personal. "President Hu, I was born in the 1980s but still can't find a wife. I don't dare think about getting married because I can't afford to buy a home," vented a poster signed as "hh."

Others vent their frustrations bluntly. A netizen named "Hauyu" asked: "Corrupt Leader, can you really see these messages?"

State media has hailed "Directly to Zhongnanhai" as another sign of greater political openness, but analysts are more divided on its significance and impact.

"The government has been aware of the power of the internet for some time and it has become a major way for the Party to gauge public opinions," said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of the popular China media website

Goldkorn cited two much-publicized live Internet chat sessions between netizens and Hu and Wen.

"Although politically incorrect messages will surely be censored on this board, there may still be a genuine feedback mechanism even for those posters," Goldkorn said.

Other observers are more skeptical.

Beijing's need to reduce mounting social tensions is unmistakable. By the government's own admission, more than 3 million people were involved in some 60,000 "mass incidents" in 2003 nationwide, the most recent year official data was made available. Many independent observers consider the figure seriously underreported."

"This new website is just a show," said Michael Anti, a prominent political blogger and news commentator. "The leaders won't see the messages and probably don't trust the accuracy of anonymous posts."

"The Party has always relied an internal system of opinion collection," he added. "Even with this site, they will still depend on the traditional gatekeepers -- the People's Daily editors, in this case -- to filter through the information."

China maintains one of the world's most extensive Internet filtering and censorship systems, blocking popular social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.

"Directly to Zhongnanhai" is certainly well protected by the so-called Great Firewall of China. In the Frequently Asked Questions section, the website's administrators promise to vet all messages within 30 minutes during their office hours.

They have also banned 26 categories of comments outright, including "anything that would damage state honor and interests" as well as "rumors that could disrupt social order and stability."