By Zuo Yuanfeng, Ding Yimin
BEIJING, Jan. 7 (Xinhua) -- On his salary, public servant Zhou Jiugeng couldn't afford the expensive cigarettes and a Vacheron Constantin watch he was seen with in an Internet photo in 2007.
Moral outrage from web surfers on Zhou's extravagance triggered an official investigation which finally ruined the district real estate administrator's career at the end of December, 2008.
For a populous country keeping up with the information age, the Internet has become a new way for people to express their opinions.
On June 20 of last year, President Hu Jintao visited a news portal. For the first time he chatted with netizens during the Qiangguo Forum at people.com.cn about issues which sometimes aroused heated debate.
"I try to know through the Internet what people are concerned about and what they think (on a wide range of topics)," Hu said during the visit. "I'm willing to get an idea on people's complaints of and proposals to the work of our Party and the government."
Hu's stance for openness and transparency was echoed by the extraordinarily active publicity of various levels of governments. The central and provincial governments in 2008 hosted 1,587 press conferences, up 179 year on year. That was the most number in the country's history.
The welcome policy of the Chinese government towards journalists from around the world was announced in October. As long as interviewees are willing to, foreign journalists could freely discuss any topics with them. Official approval was no longer needed.
While presenting itself to the world as honest and reasonable, China became more confident of accepting diversified opinions from various channels.
Li Ou, vice mayor of Siping in the northeastern Jilin Province, has been hailed by netizens as the most active mayor in China. He uses his real name to debate with netizens on social affairs. His blog was even selected as one of the "top 10 most popular blogs of2008" in a poll conducted by the People's Daily.
The Internet was also a tool for soliciting a huge number of opinions on and even in opposition against public policies or draft laws.
According to the Yangcheng Evening News on Oct. 18, more than 30 law experts from south China's Guangdong province voluntarily gathered to discuss the seventh draft amendment of the Criminal Law. They sent 12 suggestions to the National People's Congress (NPC), raising issues like personal information protection and the definition of pyramid selling.
The latest draft amendment of the Criminal Law, which focuses on hot issues like anti-corruption, economic crimes and punishment for violating citizen rights, drew so much attention that about 400 suggestions were submitted online to the NPC in the first four days of opinion solicitation.
The open-minded attitude and tolerance towards dissenting opinions showcases China's confidence of bettering its governance.
However, a regular and effective system linking governance to new media is yet to come. Convenient as it seems, the Internet, like newspapers and television, is no more than a medium. When netizens' outcry indicate possible problems like corruption, there is no formal system in place to have those concerns investigated.
The country needs formal procedures to monitor online information and carry out investigations accordingly.
Progress towards more transparent governance was an encouraging, although discreet, step for China as it makes strides on the long path towards democracy.