Earlier this year, while in the southern Chinese city of Kunming, I had the fortune to witness first-hand two sides of the nation’s internet revolution. In August I attended a thousand-person protest against plans to build a petrochemical refinery and by-product paraxylene (PX) plant just 30km away. The protest had no central organisers; it was the organic escalation of an online discussion thread in which a small group of concerned citizens gathered to share information about the plant’s possible environmental and health hazards.
Many of the participants I talked to that day said that it was their first time taking part in a protest, and I was surprised at how well informed they seemed to be. Be they office workers, middle-aged mothers or young students, they could rattle off facts about air pollution and talk fervently about the importance of environmental impact assessment reports. In the days preceding the protest I had witnessed the stream of messages and posts being shared on the Chinese phone app WeChat, full of data, stats, pleas, declarations and poetry, designed both to inform and incite.
And in response came the heavy hand of the provincial government. There had been a mainstream media blackout on the protests, and posts on the microblog Weibo were being censored. I watched the frenzied posting of participants cease as one by one they were invited by the police to “drink tea” – a euphemism for being brought in for questioning. One woman who had participated in the original online discussions was interrogated for hours and warned me that “the police know everything”, before abruptly breaking off communication.
Yet incidents like this, in which the push and pull between Chinese “netizens” and the government’s control over public discourse erupt in such a confrontational manner, are rare. Mostly the hand of the government remains hidden. With close to 600 million users, the internet has become too integral to Chinese for the government ever to consider hitting the kill switch. Instead their manipulation of the online dialogue has grown subtler, and thus more dangerous.
Take, for example, the scalpel-like precision with which posts on Weibo are censored. Days before this year’s anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, related search-terms were actually unblocked, but instead turned up filtered content unrelated to the protests. By rendering the censorship invisible, users have the impression that nothing critical is being said on the topic. Other devices include delaying when a post goes “public” in order to give censors time to review (to the user the post appears to have gone live), disabling the comment function and blocking selected pages rather than an entire website. By withdrawing censorship control from everywhere but the hotspots, the government effectively reduces the frequency in which users touch the Great Firewall that cages them, and yet the wall remains strong and effective.
And while breeding complacency is a cornerstone of control, it is useful, on occasion, to wield that hand in public to remind would-be troublemakers there is a line, and it can be crossed. This was seen last month with the latest anti-rumour campaign (users can be charged with defamation if online rumours they create are visited by 5,000 internet users or reposted more than 500 times) and a witchhunt against influential tweeters. And yet that line of what is acceptable to post online, and what is not, is kept intentionally hazy in order to create a culture of paranoia and the illusion that the oppression serves public good, rather than the preservation of power.
We may already be witnessing the effects of the high profile interrogations and detentions made under this new ruling. Earlier this month Bloomerg reported on the muted online response to serious flooding in the city of Yuyao, which contrasted the usual buzz that such a natural disaster would generate, and connected this to a new culture of self-censorship. The story also notes that the local government had arrested two women for “spreading what they characterized as flood-related rumours.”
Rumour occupies a funny place online, and the Chinese government has failed to make the distinction between slander and misinformation. Citizen journalism is always messy work that unfolds over days, if not months, carried out by the amorphous online collective where pieces of the puzzles are discarded or clicked into place. And rumours can play a critical part in story-building, often containing nuggets of truth, when not eventually being confirmed as fact. There have already been several cases of citizens exposing low-level government corruption. And recent action to clean up China’s air pollution can be seen as a response to years of increasingly informed, high-decibel online discussions.
Which is not to deny the destructive potential of rumours in society. A state-media editorial defending the new “judicial interpretation” mention of a 2011 incident in which unfounded fears of a radiation crisis led to a salt run in multiple major cities. But the antidote to this problem is not to shutdown rumour-mongering but to increase transparency. Citizens wouldn’t be so susceptible to rumour if the government published more reliable data and information about the state of the nation. Citizen journalism is also most effective when conducted in tandem with fact-checking professional journalists, who can work unburdened of the official directives currently being issued on how a big news story should – or shouldn’t – be told.
The battle of the government versus netizens is one that, in a best-case scenario, wouldn’t exist in the first place. High-profile figures needn’t be tried and hung in the public court of opinion when a strong and independent judicial system is in place. Mass protests can become final resort measures, when all other civil participation channels are exhausted. And the best way for the Chinese government to cool online criticism is to do good work, rather than criminalize it.
The Guardian, October 2013.