How Ordinary Chinese Are Talking And Fighting Back


Authorities in
Hunan province sentenced Tang Hui to 18 months in a re-education-through-labor
camp after she repeatedly complained about the way police investigated the case
of her daughter's kidnapping and forced prostitution. An uproar on Weibo,
China's answer to Twitter, pushed authorities to free Tang days later.


November 27, 2012

Never have so many Chinese
people spoken so freely than on Weibo, China's answer to Twitter. Just 4 years
old, the series of microblog services now has more than 400 million users.

And, increasingly, Chinese are
using it to expose corruption, criticize officials and try to make their
country a better place — even as China's Communist Party tries to control the
Weibo revolution.

Were it not for Weibo, you
would never know Tang Hui's extraordinary story. She wouldn't be free to tell
it; she'd be sitting in a Chinese re-education-through-labor camp eating

Instead, Tang is at home in
Hunan province, sharing her Kafka-esque tale.

It began in 2006, when a pimp
lured her then-11-year-old daughter into a brothel in the central Chinese city
of Yongzhou.

“He said, 'If you cry, I
am going to go kill your mom. I know where your mother's business is, and I
know your mother,' ” Tang recalls.

The fifth-grader was forced to
service scores of clients. After three months, Tang got a tip about her
daughter's location and called the cops.

But Tang says the first officer
to arrive at the brothel never got out of his car. And even after she convinced
police to rescue her daughter, they wouldn't arrest anyone.

“We demanded they take
notes when interviewing my child. They repeatedly refused. They said this was
not a criminal case,” she says.

Later, Tang found out why the
police were so reluctant: The brothel owner had an uncle who was a top official
in the local prosecutor's office.

A court did eventually convict
the brothel staff. But over the years, Tang continued to demand public
punishment for the police who tried to shield them.

In August of this year, the
police had had enough and called Tang. When she arrived at the station, there
were seven or eight “special forces” police to guard her.

“They asked me to sit in a
chair for interrogation. I spent a night in the chair and didn't sleep at
all,” she says.

At 7:30 the next morning, they
gave her a document, notifying her that she would be sent to
re-education-through-labor camp. For 18 months. No lawyer. No trial.

Before the cops hauled her off,
Tang called her attorney, who posted the news to his Weibo account.

Within days, Tang's story had
reached more than 30 million Weibo users — and they were furious. A torrent of
criticism followed, overwhelming the local police.

After 10 days, the state-run
China Central Television announced Tang's release.

Just a few years ago, Tang
says, this couldn't have happened.

“Weibo had a very big
impact on my situation because our local government tried to cover up this case
and not let the public know,” she says. “But this time, people around
China and even around the world found out they put me in labor camp. And the
local government couldn't resist so many people's power.”

Powerful Tool

Weibo is changing the way
Chinese communicate and has become a major source of news in China.

“Any local news can
immediately become national news,” says 
Hu Yong, a professor at Peking University's School of Journalism and

Adds Isaac Mao, one of China's first bloggers: “Weibo is the battleground
between the authority and freedom-thinking people.”

Hu says Weibo has also become a
powerful new tool for ordinary people to protect their rights.

“Before the emergence of
Weibo, local people actually had limited channels to try to solve their
problems. Weibo is kind of pressure politics on local government
officials,” he says.

In recent months,
Weibo campaigns have triggered a number of firings. They include officials in
western China 
who forced a woman to abort her seven-month old fetus, and a safety chief who was photographedwearing various luxury watches and smiling at the scene of
a fatal bus accident. Observers call it “Weibo Justice.”


Why does China's famously
thin-skinned regime put up with such criticism?
Michael Anti, a prominent Chinese political commentator, says that when the
criticism is directed at local officials, those attacks actually serve the
central government.

“Chinese have a longtime
myth that the emperor is good, all the thugs are local. So that myth is
important to keep the regime's legitimacy,” Anti says. “I think Weibo
justice is a showcase for the government to tell the people [that] the emperor
… is still good.”

On occasion, the party will
even allow Netizens — or Wangmin, as they are known in Chinese —
to attack high-ranking officials it wants to get rid of.

That's what happened to
then-Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai, who was lobbying for a top post
in Beijing before his 
spectacular downfall this year and had many enemies.

After Bo's police chief hid out
in a U.S. Consulate earlier this year, Anti says it was open season on Weibo.

“You can joke about Bo
Xilai and Chongqing city, about everything. Weibo became a very convenient
platform,” Anti says.

Beyond Politics

This isn't to say there isn't
censorship when it comes to sensitive political or human rights topics — 
there is, and plenty of it. And the party won't tolerate anything it remotely sees as a
threat. Authorities detained a Beijing blogger earlier this month after 
he jokingly imagined the recent party leadership congress as a horror movie in which
the delegates die en masse.

But, like most Americans, most
Chinese don't use Weibo for politics. They use it to pursue their interests
and, sometimes, to help strangers who share them.

Take the case of Richard Sears,
a retired computer programmer from Tennessee. For the past 22 years, he has
been working on a website on the etymology of Chinese characters.

Sears came to China this year
to do research for his website, a personal hobby. But he says because of bad
information, his tourist visa was canceled in August.

“[The authorities]
confiscated my passport. I found myself with 10 days to get out of the country.
At that point, I figured I would have to go home and never come back to
China,” he says.

Sears had one thing going for
him: his Weibo connections.

“I had a few friends on
Weibo — I didn't realize how many friends I had on Weibo — but I told a couple
of my friends about it and then suddenly, within a couple of days, there were

Job possibilities poured in
from Chinese supporters trying to help Sears stay in the country. Last week,
Sears arrived back in Beijing with a work visa and a job teaching physics and
doing Chinese language research at Beijing Normal University.

“Without Weibo, this would
have been impossible,” Sears says.

Weibo is still in its infancy.
China's government and the microblog companies themselves employ an army of
censors every day to manage and shape its growth.

Sears isn't sure how Weibo will
ultimately evolve. But he thinks the potential is huge.



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