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Weibo – Chinese Democracy or Mob Rule?

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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. The story is so sensitive, that despite being widely known it is completely blocked. (e.g. the Wenzhou train crash, Sichuan earthquake)
  4. 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”.


18 Comments

  1. Yaxue C. says:

    The fact that Weibo is playing the role of “justice” is precisely due to China’s lack of a proper, credible justice system. Weibo certainly is not the one to blame for this lacking and for somehow twisting the real justice. The fact it has become a channel for ordinary people to gain information and, at the same, misinformation too, is because they would rather bet their trust on anonymous sources and rumors than on the state-controlled media and the state itself. And guess what? They have a much better chance to get closer to the truth this way.

    In China it is a norm that judges and just about everyone else working in the judiciary system are Party members—in fact, it’s very hard for anyone to get to that position without a Party membership. Whenever there is a conflict between justice and the Party/power interest, you know whom the justice system serves first. This is so “normal” that many ordinary Chinese don’t even think there is anything wrong with it.

    Talk about China’s 山寨 culture. Let’s start from the judiciary system, except in both appearance and quality, it is not anywhere nearly as good as the Apple store in Yunnan.

  2. Lady Tam Li says:

    Even though it’s still in the primordial stages, I’m glad that change is coming to how they handle things. Perhaps one day, this will motivate the Chinese government to actually make a system that cares more about human rights and less about government control.

  3. I can barely tolerate Weibo. The only reason I have one is to be better connected with my girlfriend and I’ve noticed that some of our comments on each other’s blogs have been mysteriously deleted. Sure the comments were a little flirtatious but were they worthy of deletion on our own personal blogs? The lack of freedom of speech just shows how insecure and childish the CCP truly is. And that’s keepin it real.

  4. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    BBC Radio tonight announced that Ai Wei Wei is back on Twitter, claiming that his friend who was arrested at the same time as him, almost died in custody.

  5. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  6. Dave says:

    I think you are confusing ‘democracy’ (Chinese claim) with ‘justice’ (your claim) here. Democracy is not more ‘just’ than any other system, UNLESS it is joined by a ‘rule of law’, as examples from Athens in Ancient Greece, or decisions by the people of Switzerland or Iceland in more recent times show. In its most basic form, ‘democracy’ is actually just that… rule by the people. Calling these people ‘mob’ is at best a form of snobbishness, at worst a disenfranchising of those parts of the population who do not share the speaker’s or writer’s political views and sensibilities.
    The question arises: Do you want China to have a democracy (= rule of the majority of Chinese people), or do you want them to become a society following a specific set of laws, rules, regulations, etc. that you find acceptable (even if it is against the wishes of the majority of Chinese people)?
    Having lived in China for a while, I shudder to think what kind of ‘rules’ any majority of Chinese would come up with…

    • Tom says:

      I called it a “mob” only at the end of the article in reference to the fact that they called for a ~20 year old to be executed. Earlier in the piece I do show it as a step towards democracy in that it does require the gov’t to listen to the people.
      I don’t think that I am applying a double standard here (nor am I saying that China must conform to Western laws) in hoping that Chinese people have a voice in their gov’t, and use it in a way that creates a society that is more just, not only in instances of sensational crimes.

      • Dave says:

        I wasn’t only against your use of the word mob… also against your first sentence, which does equate ‘democracy’ and ‘justice’. That I find problematic, even if it happens in many articles discussing China…

    • Chopstik says:

      I think your comment is a worthy one and should make clearer the distinction between “justice” and “democracy” as you have expounded. While I feel that justice is sorely lacking in China today and that will be a major source of potential instability until it is addressed (or the system is replaced/overhauled), people often confuse the two. Westerners tend to view democracy and justice as being one and the same and often equate it to the version of “democracy” seen in the West. Of course, this is the same sort of confusion that leads to unhappy relations with democratic nations that disagree with each other on various policy issues while dictatorships sometimes enjoy warm relations with those same Western democracies through the efforts of an elite “Westernized” few (think Shah-run Iran, Marcos-dominated Philippines or Mubarak’s Egypt, among others).

      Does the West really want to see a majority opinion run China or a China that falls more in line with Western interests? Observing various Chinese opinions on various subjects, I’m not completely convinced that Chinese “democracy” is best for China or the rest of the world (in all aspects).

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  8. Jin Zhao says:

    Weibo, or any sort of media in that matter, cannot substitute the justice system. I agree with you on many points. For instance, I agree that public opinion sometimes can obstruct justice, and weibo, where the public’s opinions are voiced, is surely no exception. However, it is still a channel of expression for Chinese public, whether these opinions will have positive or negative impact on society. China needs a more comprehensive and healthier justice system, as well as enforcement of the Constitution and laws. However, it also needs a place for free speech. Weibo is nowhere near perfect, but it is important and, I have to say, necessary in building a democratic society in China, although it is going to be a long process.

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