Home > COM580 > China’s Citizen ‘Democracy’ – powered by the Internet

China’s Citizen ‘Democracy’ – powered by the Internet

One recent morning from within China, two frantic messages were posted to Twitter at 5 a.m.:
“Pls help me, I grasp the phone during police sleep.”
“I have been arrested by Mawei police, sos.”

This cry for help was quickly “retweeted” by hundreds of people in China and around the world. Then, everything went silent from the sender.

Over the next few days, the people in the sender’s Twitter network who knew his real identity followed up with his family and friends in the city of Mawei. News quickly spread around Twitter that the police had taken their friend from his office the previous afternoon and that he was able to tweet once while they slept. He was arrested along with several other bloggers on trumped up charges that enraging an entire community of Chinese netizens.

One blogger organized a campaign in which hundreds of people mailed postcards to the Fuzhou detention center where their friend was being held with the simple message:

Peter, your mother wants you home for dinner.”

Other people organized a fund-raising drive to pay for his defense. After 16 days in detention, Peter and two other bloggers arrested around the same time were released. “I used Twitter to save myself,” he wrote on his blog. The massive online reaction, he believes, helped to free him.

Had this happened just a few years ago no one outside of China and very few inside China would have ever heard about it. Our victim in this real life story would most certainly still be serving time. This represents a profound change. There is a social revolution going on in China and it is powered by new media technologies.

Connected Netizens--The Quiet Revolution

Cyberspace is the new battlefield in the struggle between the Chinese government and foreign and domestic critics of its censorship policies. China has nearly 400 million netizens, far more than any other country in the world. Despite the constant filtering by way of the Great Firewall and the repeated bans of social media platforms, many experts are arguing that the Internet is dramatically shifting power to the Chinese people by allowing them to organize and by channeling uncensored information from outside, especially about democracy and human rights. To be sure, the Internet has further degraded the regime’s ability to control the flow of information, both within China and across its borders.

China’s recent knee-jerk reactions to immediately sever mobile communications and Internet access at the first sign of unrest speaks to the threat, or at least perceived threat, that social media poses to authoritarian regimes. Political developments in Moldova and Iran have annointed Twitter and Facebook the social networks of choice for revolutionary political movements, allowing like-minded people to organize virtually before taking to the streets. Can social networking ultimately open up the flow of free information to the point authoritarianism is unsustainable?

Indignation, says human history, can rarely be extinguished once it’s fires are fueled. China is being democratized from within by its own citizenry and the government is at a loss as to how to stop it. All one has to do is witness the persistence of tech-savvy, Chinese citizens who constantly find ways to circumvent state controls.The sleeping giant of human cooperation is being awakened by new media technologies and innovation.

A new book by Guobin Yang

In recent years increased participation and communication, two basic aspects of transparency, have taken place on the new media platforms in China. Guobin Yang, in his new book, “The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online,” reports that the primary form of netizen participation is online protest and dissent, most commonly in the form of replying in comment and forum threads.

China, despite its consistent and oppressive political tactics, is experiencing a very active netizen revolt. There are times that online activities are accompanied by offline activities. Relying on the online community platform, these kinds of activities are spontaneous and loosely organized, but they can have influence not only on online discourse, but also on offline public discourse and government policies. Social problems such as the widening divide between the rich and the poor; corruption; environmental pollution; changes in cultural values, etc. are all now reflected in these online discussions. The rise of an urban middle class is particularly important in the new online activism. The urban middle class is more confident culturally and has more confidence in both domestic and international media than the working class.

Yang’s book explores and expands our very limited understanding of the use of the Internet in China. Western media likes to depict China’s uses of the Internet as immature and only in two dimensions: onethat the government totally controls everything and two, that netizens only use the Internet to play games. Instead, Yang’s many years of studies and reporting from inside China reveals a very different story. Yang witnesses an unstoppable explosion of online activism:

“I show how Chinese people have created a world of carnival, community and contention in and through cyberspace and how in this process they have transformed personhood, society and politics. This book is about people’s power in the Internet age.”
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