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Growing People Power – Netizens are changing China for the better

When I first arrived in China in 2007, the attitude of many of my Chinese friends was that the system was broken, but there was absolutely nothing they could do to fix it. I clearly remember chatting with a professor in Longzhou. He said, “They talk a lot about a ‘harmonious society’ but what the hell does that mean? The price of everything is going up and things are getting worse. I don’t care about ‘harmony’ I care about actually having a good life.”

At that time I was surprised to hear people openly complain about their situation, and was bothered by their sense of hopelessness. Now though people are far more willing to vent their frustration, not only with foreigners (who are seen as a safe choice for venting), but also online.

Initially I was skeptical that anything would change as a result of messages on Weibo. Four years later, I am continually surprised at what can be accomplished by netizens.

This of course is not to say that China has been democratized, stories are still scrubbed from the forums, and many movements are deemed a threat to social harmony. However, I believe that we are seeing the next step being taken in public participation of government decisions.

The most recent example of this started back in the first week of October, when Beijing was draped in a smog that friends on Twitter described as “apocalyptic”.  When a foreign doctor commented on the health risks associated with such pollution, Global Times responded by saying it wasn’t that bad (read more in my post: An incredible lack of integrity). In short their argument was that the time was not yet right for Beijing to measure PM2.5, which are more harmful particles than what had been previously measured.

After a sustained campaign by citizens, roughly one month later, Beijing has acceded to higher air quality standards, and even The People’s Daily has taken a very different tune.

“The country now only reports air quality based on readings of PM10, particulate matter smaller than 10 microns, which is why monitoring results do not match people’s sense of pollution.

Zhang Lijun, vice-minister of environmental protection, said that Chinese cities are facing severe air pollution.”

In the last few months we have seen several effective environmental protests that have led to meaningful results, most of which started online. It is wonderful to see Chinese standing up to polluting factories, and that local governments are now being pushed to heed their demands is the result of an increased focus on the environment that started in the Central Government.

Once netizens get the taste for flesh and blood activism, we could see movements call for something more daring than the shuttering of dangerous polluters, perhaps something like freeing a blind lawyer and his family in Shandong province.

For more on China’s Environment I strongly recommend Jonathan Watts’ book, “When A Billion Chinese Jump,” you can read my review here


4 Comments

  1. Chopstik says:

    For some reason, when I saw this, I was thinking of 人肉搜索 (human flesh search engine). And I would not necessarily call that such a positive development under most circumstances. I understand the seeming necessity for it in a nation with such blatant levels of corruption with no true legal recourse to redress wrongs committed by the state and its minions (or even others external to the state but with similar power). But it is still little more than a virtual lynch mob that can be dangerous if directed to the wrong target.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think that the power of the internet and its relative anonymity (it is *NOT* truly anonymous) lends a greater degree of courage and power to an otherwise powerless populace. It provides a needed outlet for airing grievances and has, in some ways that may not seem immediately obvious, allowed for the continued “harmonious society” so desired by the government – if there were no outlet for airing grievances, it is not inconceivable that people would take to the streets instead in far greater numbers than they have done so far. (And yes, it can be argued that the internet has allowed issues that previously would have been contained locally to be spread around the nation/world very quickly which has been an offset toward that harmonious society, but the point remains the same.)

    I think this topic could be addressed in more than a few ways, quite frankly. The power of Weibo, the strengths and weaknesses of the GFW, the illusion of anonymity on the internet in China and the creation of Chinese (and government controlled) versions of the most popular Western internet sites/applications are all topics that deserve greater review. (Ok, Tom, you may have covered some of these before but these would be a great topic taken together.)

    • Tom says:

      My post linked to in this article about Weibo does look at the mob justice aspects of Weibo, which can be very dangerous. I think that people are far more willing to believe Weibo than news reports as a reflection of their feelings about the government. In my example the gov’t came out and tried to claim that the pollution wasn’t so bad, even though people could literally see the air.
      In the US the power of the internet to spread rumors is slightly more controlled I think because we have a little more faith in the media and the government. Secondly we also assume that rumors will die on their own, once they are exposed by other citizens.

  2. laowaitese says:

    Hey Tom! It’s Hannah.
    I have mixed feelings about online usage in China. It’s a mouthpiece that can be tampered with, but it will probably never go away. That’s a good thing. On the other hand it can lend to mob mentality, which nearly has the highest post of power in the Chinese legal system (not quite as high as the tanks, as we all know). Granted, any medium of communication can perhaps be considered a medium for mob-making. So the internet isn’t that bad or different in that regard.

    In America, and probably around the world, there is the reputation of someone spending a lot of time on the internet having bad social skills (re: n00b). I’m not about to say that that’s necessarily a problem in China. However, I feel there is an inherent albeit elusive connection between this behavior and the unwillingness to help someone dying on the side of the road. That is to say, the internet is a safe(r) forum that is not quite the real world, where people can voice opinions and be critical all they want. In this way, the internet gets news out, but it’s going to take another >big< step to get people to skip over that step of 1. identifying problem 2. telling everyone 3. bemoaning society 4. start new thread, repeat; and instead jump on the problem in real life when it's spotted.

    Were this a real-life conversation, someone at this point would jump on me and say I don't understand China's problems, I can't expect people to go out of their way in an oppressive society. But I still stand by what I say; that the internet is a great communications medium, but it's just that. It's not real life, and when I see someone go out of their way to help someone dying on the road, then I'll be really impressed.

    I'm on a bit of a kick; I posted something like this this morning: http://laowaitese.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/a-disheartening-statement/

    • Tom says:

      I agree with most of this, online activism is easy, and taking real steps is very very different from posting online. That being said, I do think we are starting to see more of these online complainers taking actual steps out into the real world and taking a stand. It is still very minimal, but it is starting to happen.

      A while ago I wrote about the “mob rule” aspects of Weibo, which is especially worrisome.

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