After two days without breakfast, I was glad to see the jianbing man this morning (jianbing is a delicious crepe like food that should be enjoyed by all). I was actually surprised to see him, the two big meetings of the Party start next week, and I had assumed they had forced him from the street early as usual.
When I asked where he had been, he said, “There was a health inspection. We get a phone call from someone who knows when these are, and so we stayed home.”
I nodded and expected the conversation to shift back to the usual topic: the cost of random goods in the US. In the last year the jianbing man has been absent a few days at a time nearly a dozen times, and it is almost always due to a government function somewhere in the city.
This time though, he had more to say, “When we can’t come to work, we lose a lot of money and people don’t get their breakfast.”
I added, “I don’t quite understand this kind of thing; every time there is an inspection in China, they just tell everyone to hide. But every city has jianbing men, why do they act like you don’t sell us all breakfast?”
“They just want to pass the inspection. It’s pointless. Really though, people need us. They need their breakfast,” the man said.
“You have to help us translate this message,” the woman who makes balls of rice chimed in.
“I would tell others myself,” the man added, “but I don’t know how to use the internet.”
The other women said the same thing. With that I handed them my $.50, took my jianbing, and agreed to help them spread this message.
Now, I know that I have discussed the comings and going of the jianbing man before, but I think we can learn something new from this brief exchange – for many in China, the internet has become the source of justice, even for those cut off from it.
Five years ago, it’s quite likely that these people would have assumed that the only possible action would be to file a petition with the gov’t and accept the risks that come with that. However, now there has been such a shift in how griefs are aired that the internet has become the first choice.
Later in my office, a co-worker came to the realization that the web wasn’t quite as free as she had thought. After all, she has no interest in politics (she’s surprised that I bother reading People’s Daily), and mostly uses the internet for celebrity rumors and shopping. But today she came across a report that a man had been wrongly arrested for spreading a “rumor” about a gov’t official, it turned out that he hadn’t actually posted the message, but had simply re-posted it (full story). Normally these arrests aren’t reported on popular sites, but because this was a case of wrongful imprisonment, it was more widely discussed than when an activist gets taken in the night.
As those at the lower rungs of society are starting to realize the potential of the internet, those in the middle are slowly becoming more aware of the limits that still exist.