Markets and Democracy Briefs are published by CFR’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy initiative. They are designed to offer readers a concise snapshot of current thinking on critical issues surrounding democracy and economic development in the world today.
As uprisings spread throughout the Middle East during the early months of 2011, a small band of Chinese citizens and expatriates began to call for their own Jasmine Revolution. Like their African and Middle Eastern counterparts, these activists used the Internet to urge people to gather in support of political change. However, unlike in Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya, security forces in China quickly locked down the proposed demonstration sites and arrested anyone thought to be a potential source of unrest. The demonstrations proved ephemeral, with many more police than protesters. It was a massive deployment of China’s public security forces that signaled not only the power of the country’s security apparatus but also the enormous insecurity of the country’s leaders and their concern about the organizing power of the Internet.
While the Internet may not have produced a revolution in China’s political system, it most certainly is producing an evolution. The Internet has become a virtual political system, providing an almost unprecedented level of transparency, rule of law, and official accountability. With over 450 million Chinese Internet users—and the number is increasing daily—information crosses gender, age, professional, and provincial boundaries in ways that Beijing often considers threatening. News of government corruption and cover-ups go viral in a matter of minutes, forcing the government to think quickly and flexibly and react decisively—not traditionally strengths of China’s political system.
Netizens Demand Change
What do the Chinese people want? Nothing unusual. They want their concerns heard and addressed. Chinese nationalists, for example, often rally support for their causes via the Internet. Anti-Japanese sentiment, in particular, has been a recurring theme among online Chinese nationalists. Periodically, Chinese nationalists have taken to the Internet and the street—often in very large numbers—to protest historical inaccuracies in Japanese textbooks and to call for retribution. Nationalists have also initiated anti-Japanese protests after recent territorial disputes in the South China Sea, perhaps encouraging the government to adopt a tougher stance in its negotiations with Japan.
Yet online activism in China is the domain not only of the nationalist but also of the political reformer. Much of what transpires on the Web in China is bringing transparency to the political system. In late 2010, Chinese netizens contradicted official reports by covering a significant environmental disaster in Jilin province, where thousands of barrels of pollutants were dumped into a water source by a local chemical plant. In the ten days that it took Chinese officials to admit to the disaster, thousands of citizens were informed of the cover-up via the Internet. They responded by purchasing a massive amount of bottled water and angrily denouncing the government’s inaction. It was only after citizens refused to believe the official stories that the government finally acknowledged the disaster and handed out free bottles of water to those in the afflicted areas. Similarly, a year earlier in Guangzhou, online transparency had caused a reversal in local government policy. Middle-class-led protests over a planned incinerator were picked up by young online netizens, who then spread the news through social media websites. Even though the activists, themselves, were not affected by the plans, they wanted the word to get out. Once enough citizens became involved, the government agreed to halt the project until a full environmental assessment was completed.1
The Internet has also become a means of holding officials accountable. In a now-famous case, in October 2010, Li Qiming, the son of a local deputy police chief. Li Gang, ran over two Hebei University students in his car while drunk—fatally injuring one and breaking the other’s leg. As he tried to escape the scene, he yelled out, “Sue me if you dare. My father is Li Gang!” Communist officials attempted to suppress information about the event but failed, as netizens from all over the country latched onto Li Qiming’s threat. Despite official reports alleging that the victim’s families were content with the government’s handling of the situation and with public apologies from both father and son, the online activists demanded (and got) more: Li Qiming was sentenced to six years in prison, his family was forced to pay over $70,000 to the families of the two students, and much of China’s online population has adopted the phrase “My father is Li Gang” as a shorthand for the widely held belief that the powerful and politically connected do not have to face the consequences of their actions.
In this way, online activism can also promote a form of the rule of law—albeit one that often resembles vigilante justice. During the summer of 2010, for example, Chinese reporter Qiu Ziming was forced into hiding after police placed him on a wanted list for writing critical stories about a local business. Qiu took his case to his blog, and a poll on Chinese website Sina.com recorded that of the more than thirty thousand people polled, 86 percent opposed the police pursuit of Qiu.2 Bowing to public pressure, the government rescinded the order of arrest and ordered the police to apologize to the reporter.
Microblogs such as Twitter and Weibo, despite being heavily censored or even blocked, have become particularly politicized Internet venues, especially among middle-class urban youth. According to the popular netizen Michael Anti, microblogs are the most important political organizing force in China today. Anti notes that through Twitter, over 1.4 million yuan were raised for the Open Constitution Initiative (Gongmeng), an NGO of rights defense lawyers. He also points to the uncensored discussion held between the Dalai Lama and Chinese citizens in May 2010 as an example of the political influence that Twitter can exert. According to Anti, the people who participated stopped referring to the Dalai Lama as Dalai and now call him by the more respectful Dalai Lama.3 With over 120 million microblogs in China, censors haven’t yet discovered a viable long-term response and are generally reduced to attempting stop-gap measures to block certain news from going viral.4
The Party’s Response: Nailing Tofu to the Wall
Despite the inherent challenge of “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall,” as former president Bill Clinton once characterized China’s attempts to regulate cyberspace, China’s leaders are committed to controlling this evolving virtual political system. While they see the advantage of the Internet as a medium for better understanding the views of the Chinese people, their overwhelming objective is to prevent the Internet from contributing to a broad-based call for political change. To this end, Beijing has deployed both Internet police to monitor traffic and insert government opinion and the full range of technical solutions to shut down websites or blogs that the party views as particularly destabilizing.
Beijing has also sought to use the Internet to engage with the populace as a transmission vehicle from the party to the people. In what is now commonly referred to as “AstroTurf advocacy,” Internet police often add favorable opinions of the government to various social media websites under the guise of grassroots support by anonymous citizens. The party has also had its top leaders participate in Internet chats in a bid to show its engagement with the growing online community. Both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have engaged in online chats, with the latter receiving almost ninety thousand questions from a massive online audience in only two hours. However, efforts to make such Internet engagement a permanent feature of Beijing’s interaction with the Chinese people have faltered in the face of often politically sensitive questions from the Internet public.
For China’s leaders, who are already confronting over one hundred thousand protests annually,5 the Internet adds another layer of uncertainty in their bid to manage an increasingly restive society. While Beijing haltingly pushes greater transparency, the rule of law, and official accountability within the political system, the Internet forces it upon them. In the end, political evolution via the Internet may produce its own form of system revolution.