CDF Conference: Public Opinion in Chinese Cyberspace
Was 2003 the “Year of the Internet”? This panel thinks so. Nine years after the net was introduced to the country, public opinion has started to use it to impose its will on the political system.
Xiao Qiang, moderator: UC Berkeley
Liang Lu, Co-Founder and CEO of BlogDriver: the second largest weblog hosting service in China.
Xingdong Fang, Founder of Blogchina: Aims to capture a large number of Chinese Internet writers.
Hu Yong: Media critic, Translator of Nichcolas Negroponte’s “Being Digital” , one of pioneers in China’s Internet development.
Haibo Lu: Is the front page editor on Sohu.com, one of the country’s biggest sites.
The big story in 2003 was the case of Sun Zhigang, who was stopped by police in China and arrested for not having identity papers. He died in custody. Xiao said this was not an isolated case, but it caused outrage. It was covered in the press, and then it hit the net.
Haibo Lu said the Southern Metropolis News (corrected on May 10, 2004 from the original typo: Southern National News) covered the story first. It is on the net. When people read it, they put angry posts on the net. Doctors were among those posting, describing their anger at the case. When the government realized that this was a big deal, they executed a prison official, and abolished the internal passport system that killed Sun Zhigang.
Haibo Lu said the net’s influence was clear because reporting in the traditional press always quoted the posts from Sina.com and blog sites.
Hu Yong wrote that the case hit Sina.com, and within 2 hours it had 4,000 comments. “2003 can be called the year of the Internet,” he said. “It was the most important phenomenom in the life of the Chinese people in that year.”
This case, with the help of the net, “witnessed the rise of intellectuals as opinion leaders.” Doctors of law wrote to the central government, along with professors, to push Congress to abolish the passport system. “It shows that internet opinion in the year 2003 were heard and acted upon in the real world.”
Xingdong Fang’s site is more of a high-tech site, but he said, his blog did post the Sun Zhigang case. It elicited more comments than any other topic. They also got a lot of comments about Mu Zimei, the woman in Guangzhou who discusses her sex life.
He has written a lot about the tech industry. He hasn’t had pressure from the government, but rather from the large companies in China. He wrote an article about Microsoft that got eliminated by Microsoft’s PR department. He started blogging in August 2002. He hasn’t gotten government pressure, despite his blogging. He is surprised. China, he things, is freer than many people think.
Liang Lu spoke about his 10,000 bloggers on BlogDriver. “If you want to have your own voice, if you want to be heard, if you want to make history, how do you do that?” Blog. He said he does get government pressure related to the anti-government bloggers. But “there are so many bloggers posting,” and it is distributed so quickly, it is very hard to censor.
In the question and answer session, an audience member asked how much editorial discretion is left when search engines send so many viewers to sites.
An audience member asked where news sources come from, and what further restrictions were imposed a month ago? Haibo Lu said he can publish only news that has showed up in the newspaper. Lu said he was waiting for clues from the government about the new rules.
An audience asked how many visitors there are each day. Lu said single articles can get 1 million unique viewers. The brief Iraq news items can get 5 million viewers.
Someone asked what web companies do when the state security apparatus asks them to change an article. Do they negotiate? And second, when she has sued the sites for defamation, they have taken articles down. Is there any way to bring them back?
Haibo Lu: If the government gives the order to remove an article to a hidden place, “there is no negotiation.” And so far as defamation, the news is archived. But there is usually no responsibility, because the articles are from newspapers.
Liang Lu: Now that everyone
Xingdong Fang: This year marks 10 years of the Internet in China. Short messages and SMS messages now dominate, and serious discussion on the net is decreasing in China. There are 80 million net users but only 40 million personal computers in the country. Also, the strict government control over life in internet cafes is a problem.
Hu Yong: Chinese media is in two houses — insiders and outsiders. The relationship might vary, but the ecosystem has changed since 2003. It is like Dreyfus affair in France — the entry of intellectuals into public life.
Haibo Lu agrees that blogs have taken off – things won’t be the same.