China’s bloggers push for change, one click at a time
By Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, June 26, 2012
BEIJING—The nine people selected later this year as China’s top leaders will largely determine if, and how much, the country’s authoritarian political system yields to demands for change.
And pushing them from the bottom will be a growing grass-roots army of bloggers, microbloggers and on-line activists who are demanding more accountability and gradually pressing the boundaries of freedom in this tightly controlled Communist-ruled country.
These blogger-activists are far from revolutionary. Like the incoming leaders , many of them are children of Communist Party officials. They are patriots who love China, but want its institutions to work better and on behalf of the people. They take on corrupt corporations as much as the government. They are just as concerned about kidnapped children and AIDS victims as voting rights and free elections.
The best known among them, like scholar Yu Jianrong, whose microblog tries to connect begging street children with their parents, have more than a million followers. And they must contend with ever-changing censorship rules. Many of the most popular microbloggers have had their accounts temporarily suspended or shut down entirely, after the government launched a crackdown this year on Internet “rumors,” following aggressive reporting on the case of ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai.
They also risk death threats and harassment to raise civic awareness, bring powerful people to book and give a voice to the voiceless.
“If I speak in a high-profile way, it’s because I love this country,” said Wang Xiaoshan, 45, a well-known journalist and active microblogger who has led a boycott campaign against a large dairy company called Mengniu, at the center of several recent food safety scandals.
Wang said he worries about his safety, and he recently spent a week in Hong Kong and three days in Macau because he said he was informed of a credible threat to silence him. His biggest fear, he said, was being arrested and sent to Inner Mongolia, where the company he is challenging is located. “I know how this country works,” he said. “I’m not afraid of jail. I’m afraid of torture.”
But he returned to China and to his writing. “I’ve always wanted to be a hero, ever since I was a child,” he said. “I think I’m a hero now.”
Last year, Wu Heng, a graduate student in historical geography at Fudan University in Shanghai, became incensed when he learned that some of the lunches he bought just off campus—meals he thought contained beef—actually consisted of pork that had been treated with a harmful additive to give it the color of beef.
“I was shocked when I realized the food safety issue was so close to my life,” Wu, 27, said, speaking with his IMB ThinkPad laptop at the ready in a university coffee shop. “I decided I should do something.”
Wu started a Web site, www.zccw.info, the Chinese initials for its English name, “Throw It Out The Window.” The phrase comes from that apocryphal moment when President Theodore Roosevelt supposedly became so disgusted reading about conditions in Chicago meatpacking plants that he threw his breakfast sausage out a White House window.
Roosevelt went on to create the modern-day Food and Drug Administration. When Wu launched his Web site, he implored others “Let’s come together. We can also change something.” Immediately, 30 people volunteered to join him, 20 of them strangers. “I felt the power of the Internet,” Wu said.
His site compiles food safety reports from around China, and displays them all on an easy-to-navigate map. One year after he set it up, in the period between May 3 and June 13, he said the site recorded 1.6 million visitors, 85 percent of them new—so many that his server was temporarily paralyzed.
The mild-mannered Wu is no revolutionary. His father is a Communist Party official back in their native Hubei province. He has an older brother who became a computer programmer and followed his father’s wish to join the Party. As the second child, Wu said he enjoyed a lot more freedom. “Although my values are different from my parents, we can coexist peacefully,” he said.
Wu said his site tries not to make news or run afoul of authorities, and he calls himself a “mild combatant” in the battle to change China. He admires Wang Xiaoshan, for example, but said he opts for a less confrontational way.
“I don’t have so much time or effort to raise a protest flag,” Wu said. “But online, I can do this.”
Another active microblogger, who uses the name Huanguoshan Zonshuji, or “Secretary General of the Flower and Fruit Mountain,” asked that his real name not be revealed, so the powerful people he has angered have a harder time tracking him down.
Secretary General became popular last year, after he began taking officially published photos of high-ranking Communist Party officials and zeroing in on the expensive wristwatches they wore. He then matched the watches to publicly available catalogues, to reveal how much officials were spending on luxury goods, while supposedly living on a government salary.
The watch blog became so popular, and angered so many Communist officials, that it was eventually deleted, and his accounts were all suspended. He began a new microblog, taking on an allegedly fraudulent nonprofit group claiming to represent global luxury goods makers. Those exposes led to threats, and Secretary General began traveling around China for his safety, eventually heading to Vietnam to hide out shortly after an interview in Beijing.
China has more than 500 million Internet users, according to the government’s China Internet Network Information Center. There are also some 250 million users of the Twitter-like microblogging sites known collectively as weibo. The most popular of the microblogging sites, Sina Weibo, reported that in Chinese New Year, the number of tweets hit a new record, with 32,312 messages sent per second.
Microblogs exploded here because of the ability to convey a lot of information in a quick burst. Like with Twitter, there’s a 140-character limit. But in Chinese, where each character is a separate word, 140 characters is enough for a lengthy discourse.
The microblogs have forced the government to become more attuned to public opinion, and has obliterated the Communist Party’s traditional control over the flow of information. More and more young Netizens say they get their news from weibo than from state-controlled television broadcasts or print newspapers towing the Party line.
“Microblogging is a starting point of calling on the government to be more accountable,” said Hu Yong, a professor at Peking University’s journalism school.
No one expects the Internet to fashion any dramatic reform of the system. Already there have been efforts to rein in the microblogs, shutting down some and requiring users to register their real names and identification numbers.
“It’s very much evolutionary, but not revolutionary,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei.org, which tracks and researches Chinese media and Web sites. And the government authorities, he said, “have been very good at neutralizing threats to power.”
He added, “If the government senses it is a threat, they will shut it down.”