People’s daily and other state news sources have been pointing to the influence of Weibo as a sign of China’s shift toward democracy (here and here), but is social media really creating a more just China?
Note: Weibo is a Chinese networking site, something like a combination of Twitter, Facebook and a blog. It is also carefully monitored by gov’t censors (a.k.a. internet police) for stories on sensitive topics, and imposes keyword bans.
One way that Weibo is contributing to the development of democracy in China, is that it has helped introduce the idea that the gov’t should actually listen to its people. Weibo has accomplished this largely because it has given common people a way of airing grievances in a public forum.
In the past people had to appear in person to submit a petition if there was corruption or abuse in their local gov’t. Petitioners were, and still are, regularly arrested by extra-judicial police and held in black jails. So while Weibo is not a place of completely free speech, it could be called a free-er speech zone (a man was sentenced to a year of labor for insulting a gov’t official).
There have also been dozens, and possibly hundreds, of cases brought to light by Weibo that would have otherwise been completely covered up by local governments.
A typical example of how this works, can be seen in one recent disturbing case. A woman was raped by a local official, and on reporting this crime to the police she was told that it was not rape because “he was wearing a condom.” Nearly a month passed after the incident, and the police made no effort to correct this disgusting decision. However only a few days after the story spread across Weibo, the man was arrested, and “justice” was done.
This too is being heralded as one of the achievements of Weibo, but this is not true justice, it is what I will call “Viral Justice”. I chose this term because not every injustice is remedied by Weibo, only the most sensational crimes actually become widely known enough to avoid the censors wrath.
From what I have seen stories from Weibo can end up in one of four results:
- The story quickly becomes so popular that the national gov’t/local gov’t is forced to take some kind of action to remedy the problem. (e.g. the rape case I discussed earlier)
- The story starts to become popular, but after 1 or 2 days censors delete all posts before it becomes widely known to require action. (e.g. a collective complaint against a large manufacturer)
- The story is so sensitive, that despite being widely known it is completely blocked. (e.g. the Wenzhou train crash, Sichuan earthquake)
- The story is not sensational enough to draw the critical mass of attention required for action or censorship, and quietly fades away. (e.g. home demolitions are so common that they no longer cause much of a stir on Weibo)
Recently there has been strong enough popular opinion in a few trials, that somewhat questionable verdicts have been reached.
For example the college student who murdered a woman after he hit her with his car. The boy’s parents were supposedly very rich, which was evident when a psychologist testified that the stabbing motion he used was related to him being forced to practice piano, and a “jury” was assembled that consisted almost entirely of his classmates. Public opinion though turned so strongly against the boy though, that he was sentenced to death. While it was a heinous crime, I do not believe that the punishment fit the crime.
So with Weibo we have the start of something new and potentially wonderful, but for now its main “value” seems to be mob rule.
Tomorrow we’ll be looking briefly at China’s justice system, and Chinese ideas of “Justice”.