China's netizens demand to be heard

Discussion in 'China' started by Yusuf, Aug 5, 2012.

  1. Yusuf

    Yusuf GUARDIAN Administrator

    Mar 24, 2009
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    Chairman Mao famously said, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." This week the powerful Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) that Mao created celebrated its 85th anniversary with pomp and splendour. Next week, meanwhile, weibo - China's version of Twitter - will mark its third anniversary more quietly, with netizens tapping out messages on their computers and mobile phones. Despite their differing circumstances, both weibo and the PLA represent sources of power in modern China.

    In its three years, weibo has grown from barely five million subscribers to over 300 million. The emergent influence of this young public forum has already resulted in the resignation of ministers, local government reshuffles and the scuttling of unpopular projects. Weibo cannot challenge the power of the party or the PLA, but in a short period it has changed governance in China.

    Sina, an internet company, created weibo in 2009 after the Chinese government banned Twitter. This Chinese language microblog is in some ways even more powerful than Twitter, allowing its users to instantly transmit images and video. In the hands of resourceful bloggers who have figured out ways to bypass the many filters, weibo has wrought unprecedented results. Last year, it was weibo that reported a high-speed train crash that killed more than 40 people and raised questions of malfeasance. The outrage that followed eventually led investigators to unearth corruption and resulted in resignations of senior officials and even an apology from the prime minister.

    A similar situation played out last December, when villagers in Guangdong province protested illegal land grabs by driving corrupt official out of Wukan. Weibo brought the story to China's public. Under the glare of scrutiny, the party replaced the local government and invited protesters into village administration.

    In April, weibo reporting broke open the scandal about powerful politburo member Bo Xilai and his wife. Since then, Bo has been sacked and his wife charged with murdering a foreign businessman, but the full impact of these revelations is yet to play out.

    China has spent millions to set up automatic filters to block messages containing undesirable words, and in December tightened rules for posting. Yet, these rules have not discouraged increasingly courageous bloggers from repeatedly posting critical messages using various subterfuges. Following a vigorous weibo campaign against the construction of a $1.6 billion copper plant in Shifang in Sichuan province in early July, thousands of people took to the streets to demand the cancellation of the project on public health grounds. The government was forced to give in.

    The ability of bloggers to transmit sensitive news or criticism of the government may not be due only to their own ingenuity. In the absence of a free media, 100 million postings a day by weibo members offer the party a glimpse into citizen grievances. Gary King, a Harvard professor who has studied Chinese censors' handling of the microblogs, observes that critical blogs are not always automatically removed. Instead, censors are interested in preventing collective action "by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilisation".

    The Communist Party's grip on power has been based on its appeals to nationalism, developing prosperity and uniting the people. While it has been a great success in the first two missions it has a failing grade in the third. The growing economic gap between party elites, state-supported capitalists and average citizens has created discontent, exacerbated by pervasive corruption and high-handed rule. The results of this discontent are evident in the soaring numbers of what the Chinese government calls "mass incidents" - some 1,80,000 in 2010. These mostly small and isolated episodes of protest in rural areas are mainly addressed through a combination of force and concession. Outside the national limelight, they are a nuisance but pose no threat to the party's authority.

    For the first time, the pervasiveness and popularity of weibo have created awareness about issues troubling the people at a national level. It has also helped to create a community feeling. Even if fleeting, a sense of solidarity outside the party network is not welcome. Beijing's 85-year-old army will be watching closely to see how the three-year-old weibo behaves in the coming year.

    The Times of India on Mobile
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