Lu Yiyi: Chinese Protest in the Age of the Internet

Lu Yiyi, research fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and an associate fellow at the U.K.-based Chatham House, writes on the China Real Time blog of the Wall Street Journal about the impact of the Internet on protests in China and the government’s response:

While the broader, longer-term impact of the Internet may still be unclear, it has definitely led to some changes to Chinese politics already. One such change involves popular protests and their outcomes.

Although tens of thousands of protests take place in China every year, many fail to achieve their objectives. Studies (e.g., by Yongshun Cai) have suggested that, other things being equal, the smaller in scale a protest is, the less likely it is to succeed in forcing the authorities to meet protesters’ demands. When protesters fail to marshal large numbers, local governments are more likely to simply ignore or suppress them. The Internet, however, has enabled protests involving a small number of people or even just a lone individual to attract wide attention, creating the same effect as a large crowd in the street.

One recent example is “Brother banner,” a software engineer in Wuxi who became an online celebrity overnight after holding a banner that read “Not Serving the People” outside the gate of the local labor department (report, in Chinese) to protest its failure to intervene in his pay dispute with his former employer. The banner turned the Party’s slogan “Serving the People” on its head, and was very effective in embarrassing the labor department after this one-person protest gained national prominence through the Internet and, eventually, coverage in traditional media.


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