Xiao Qiang: Control Mechanism Cracked in the Face of Technology

This OP-ED was published by Asian Wall Street Journal on 27 April 05:

It’s no coincidence that the largest of China’s recent anti-Japanese protests occurred in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, where the use of the Internet, cell phones and online chatting is among the highest in China. That’s because a notable feature of the recent protests was that they were almost exclusively organized through such modern communication technologies.

The most fervently pro-nationalist segment of society overlaps demographically in China with those who spend the most time on the Internet, since both are primarily composed of young, educated, urban males. That’s evident from the latest Gallup survey, which found that 86% of Chinese Internet users have college degrees, while 85% are male, and 40% are in the 21-25 age group.

Even before the recent protests, Chinese cyberspace was buzzing with anti-Japanese sentiment in popular nationalistic Web sites. In fact, these are virtually the only political Web sites tolerated by the Chinese government. That’s well demonstrated by the fact that while popular commercial news portals, such as Sina.com and Sohu.com, are careful to censor their political content on other issues, they frequently post high-profile anti-Japan articles and discussions without any fear of repercussions.

Some popular nationalistic Web sites and online forums have been around since the mid-1990s. However the Coalition of Patriots, which has gathered tens of millions of online signatures on numerous anti-Japan petitions, was established in 2002. Until now, for the most part, such sites had confined their activities to online expressions of anger. But that changed dramatically in recent weeks. Right after the first public demonstration in Beijing on April 9, eyewitness accounts, photos and video clips from the protests spread rapidly through Chinese cyberspace despite a complete blackout of coverage in the official media.

At the same time, demands for a boycott of Japanese products, online petitions, and calls for street demonstrations in many cities throughout China were widely distributed by the Internet and cell phones. Many of these messages were extraordinarily detailed, giving logistical information such as the route of the protest march and even what slogans to chant. The messages, many of which had multiple authors but no clear organizational identity, were sent out in chain-letter form through email or text messages, as well as posted online on bulletin boards and chat services. That’s primarily how the April 16 protest–in which an estimated 20,000 people participated–was organized, defying calls from Shanghai authorities for students to stay within campus.

From an organizational point of view, the Shanghai demonstration was a decentralized, bottom-up event, organized by taking advantage of the opportunities presented by digital communication technologies. Chinese authorities may have initially given the demonstrators some political space because it wanted to let out some of the virulent nationalistic steam. They may also have used this demonstration of Chinese “public opinion” as a lever to support Beijing’s diplomatic goal of opposing Japan’s bid for a seat on United Nations Security Council.

But whatever political space the anti-Japan activists were initially given, the success of their technology-enabled protests now poses a serious challenge to the Chinese authorities’ traditional mechanisms of social control. That was demonstrated by the failure of Shanghai authorities efforts to use such technology to dissuade students from attending the march. According to information posted on Chinese online bulletin boards and Web blogs, Shanghai authorities broadcast text and email messages in the run-up to the April 16 protest reminding people that, “demonstrations must be approved ahead of time through proper application procedures.” Numerous personal accounts of the April 16 march mentioned having received such messages or seeing them online.

Although the size of the recent anti-Japanese marches may have been exceptional, the government’s own statistics show that the number of protests in China has increased dramatically over the past ten years. According to a report from the Ministry of Public Security, it reached 58,000 in 2003, up from about 8,700 in 1993. Chinese authorities have traditionally used three methods to try to curb such demonstrations. Firstly, all protests require prior approval from the Public Security Bureau, which is almost never granted. Secondly, police are sent in to contain the crowds and identify the leaders of those protests which do occur. Finally, the government’s tight grip on the media and the flow of information is used to prevent news of unrest from spreading to other parts of the country. But this last control mechanism has now cracked in the face of the explosion of new forms of information technology outside the government’s control, prompting a recent warning from the Ministry of Public Security that it is illegal to use the Internet or text messages to organize protests. On April 25, the state media reported that police detained a netizen for trying to organize an anti-Japanese protest in Nanjing in May.

However, while using the Internet to organize protests threatens the authorities’ traditional mechanisms of social control, that is still a far cry from the emergence of a social movement that can truly challenge the government. That requires not just an understanding of modern technology, but a strong emotional or ideological motivation that is shared by the participants, and the political space that allows them to take action.

During the 1989 protests that led to the Tiananmen massacre, there was such a shared motivation centered around opposition to corruption and support for democracy. Because of the government power struggle, there was also a momentary political space, especially during the early protests in early-mid May. Although technology was not as developed as today, the brief breakdown in government control over the official media played a crucial role in spreading the news throughout the country. However, because the Tiananmen protests were organized by student groups, authorities were able to target the top leaders after the massacre.

This time around there are no clearly identifiable leaders to go after. But while activists in the recent protests share strong nationalistic sentiments, the story line behind their motivation is entangled with the government propaganda. As a result, the anti-Japan demonstrations are endorsing government policy, rather than challenging it. That means these demonstrations, can only exist in a political space temporarily provided by the government for its own purposes.

Nonetheless the use of technology in these protests is likely to have a wider impact on Chinese society. Despite the silence of the official media in reporting the anti-Japan demonstrations, many online bulletin boards and Web blogs have engaged in lively debate about Sino-Japan relations, Chinese nationalism, and the goals and impact of the demonstrators. Many articles also criticized the crude form of nationalism seen in the protests and questioned the motives of the government’s propaganda in giving anti-Japanese sentiment some political space.

By providing space for a pluralistic debate on such a heated topic, the Internet allows rational voices to be heard, and may ultimately help aid the development of civil society. As information technology becomes ever more widely available in China, it is sure to be increasingly used by activists to bypass government control. Instead of being used as a control device to strengthen the power of an authoritarian regime, the Internet may yet play a part in forcing a political opening in China.

Reprinted from The Asian Wall Street Journal © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.