MAEBASHI, GUNMA PREF. – The Internet censorship in China is notorious. Due to the Great Firewall, the state-sponsored censorship system, people can’t access some blocked websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Sensitive words such as some dissidents’ names are filtered in the search results.
On Sept. 14, 1987, the first e-mail sent from China to the world said, “Across the Great Wall, we can reach every corner in the world.”
Ironically, today people in China have to use some anti-block software to cross the “Great Firewall” for access to the blocked websites. Indeed, the censorship has greatly restricted Internet freedom in China.
Even so, the Internet is a strong force to remold China. Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo famously argued, “The Internet is God’s great gift to China — it has provided the Chinese people with the best tool in their efforts to cast off slavery and fight for freedom.”
Unlike traditional media, communication via the Internet is inherently bidirectional, decentralized and less easily monitored and censored. This means that it can be used to promote democratic interaction even in an authoritarian country.
China is standing at the crossroads of political transition after successful economic reforms. Demand for political democracy is on the rise as a large middle class has emerged. The Internet has become an effective social medium for people to protest for political rights and freedom under the authoritarian regime.
By the end of 2012, the number of China’s Internet users reached 564 million, largest in the world, accounting for 42.1 percent of its total population.
Rapid development of the Internet in China created a dynamic cyber community. Every day there are fierce online discussions and debates, quarreling and fighting. Facing plenty of social problems such as income gap, political corruption and environmental pollution, Chinese people have too much to complain about.
Traditional social media like newspaper, television, radio, and book publication are all under firm control of the authoritarian regime. In contrast, the Internet is much easier for individuals to penetrate and much more difficult for the government to monitor. Consequently, people resort to the Internet for freedom of expression.
The government realizes that the voices of the Internet users must be listened to. For instance, former President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao used to conduct same-time online conversations with netizens on the Strong Nation Forum (qiangguo luntan), one influential Chinese Web forum.
Special government sectors are set up to collect and analyze opinions and suggestions posted by netizens. Some are adopted by the government in its policy.
One major reason for President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign was that many corruption scandals of governmental officials were disclosed in the cyberspace in recent years. The disclosure has degraded the party’s reputation and put its legitimacy at crisis. Here are some typical examples.
In August 2012, some netizens found from Web pictures that one official was always wearing different brands of luxury watches in public. They asserted that he couldn’t afford to buy such super expensive watches without bribery. Netizens joked about him as the “watch brother” and strongly requested an investigation on him. Under the online social pressures, the government investigated him. Within one month, the “watch brother” was fired.
In November 2012, one journalist put some government official’s pink video on the Internet and accused him of accepting sex bribes. The video was striking and attracted many netizens’ attention. The government was forced to respond. The official was soon arrested and prosecuted.
There are many similar cases in which the Internet plays a vital role in anti-corruption activities. Cyberspace provided convenience for people to expose corrupt officials, restrict political privileges and pursue social justice. It was under such background that Xi vowed to fight against corruption.
Micro Bog, or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, is the most influential Internet tool in China. Since Facebook and Twitter are blocked, Micro Blog has become the dominant social network website. By the end of June 2012, Micro Blog’s penetration rate exceeded 50 percent.
Democracy is deeply rooted in civil society. In contrast to Western democracies, China has an extremely weak civil society due to the authoritarian regime. Micro Blog is developing a vibrant cyber civil society in which netizens get informed, connected, organized and mobilized. Netizens’ voices are integrated into public opinions, which have considerable social and political effects. At Micro Blog, netizens can even express harsh criticism on the flawed political system and one-party leadership, which never appear in traditional media.
Micro Blog has also become an inspection agency for checking party rulers, whether corrupt officials or spoiled princelings. In the aforementioned anti-corruption cases, it was through Micro Blog that people managed to disclose the scandals and create social pressures over the government.
The paradox of the Internet in China is evident. Though the government understands that Internet freedom contributes to China’s industrial innovation and social development, it still keeps strict censorship for political purposes.
Interestingly, the censorship has also stimulated the development of anti-censorship technology to break through the Great Firewall. The censorship system’s function to isolate the Chinese Internet users is limited.
The censorship demonstrates infringement on freedom of expression in China, but it can’t stop people from using the Internet to protest for more political freedom. The old Chinese proverb goes, “To block people’s mouths is harder than to block the river.”
Under increasing domestic and international pressures, the Chinese government will be forced to loosen its control on the Internet in the future.
Thanks to the Internet, the Chinese people are enjoying more freedom of expression. Public opinions expressed in the cyberspace create social pressures on the government and thus impact the real political life. Cyberspace is not an imagined existence anymore, but a tangible community.
As U.S. former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pointed out, the Internet helps citizens hold their governments accountable. For China, this is particularly the case, since the political inspection system is flawed and traditional social media are under firm control.
The Internet has already awakened people’s democratic consciousness and facilitated a certain level of democratic development in China. Pervasive use of the Internet will make democratization an easier task than it would be otherwise.
As the Internet further develops, people have reason to believe it will help Chinese people to realize more political freedom.
Xie Zhihai, an assistant professor at Maebashi Kyoai Gakuen College in Gunma Prefecture, was a research associate at the Asian Development Bank Institute and a Japan Foundation research fellow. He received his Ph.D. in international relations from Peking University in July 2011.