This morning I attended a panel discussion on The Internet and Social Change in China, moderated by Rebecca MacKinnon. Her opening address and the discussion that followed were impressive. I particularly liked that MacKinnon opened with a powerpoint featuring work from Chinese bloggers. It was great to see the ingenuity of Chinese bloggers firsthand! One video showed a group of alpacas frolicking in a field singing a children’s song in Chinese. MacKinnon explained that the lyrics, “cao ni ma”, mean “grass mud horse”. That’s what alpacas are called in Chinese. But change the tones of the words slightly (as the singers did in the video) and they means something very different…about your mother. What a crafty, funny way to protest against internet censorship in China, where the “Great Firewall” blocks content that could weaken the legitimacy of the government. Content relating to Tiananmen Square and other sensitive topics is routinely blocked, but resourceful internet users find ways to get around the censorship. In China, MacKinnon told us, the most popular search midday June 4th was “What day is June fourth?”, evading the censor that blocks “Tiananmen Square” on certain search engines. Search for “Tiananmen Square” on baidu, a Chinese search engine, and you will not get any results.
However, my lasting impression from the discussion is that the role of the internet in China is more complex than monolithic censorship of liberals. China has the largest population of internet users in the world, and the government has effectively used the internet to connect with the people. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao recently participated in a two and a half hour live chat with “netizens”, discussing policy and his private life. The “E-Congress” website has a large posting section that even featured a discussion about China’s one child policy; a discussion that was not removed from the website. Internet users also use the internet to connect with the government. Popular support organized via the internet may help a young woman named Den Yujiao, who was arrested after stabbing an official who tried to rape her. She has become a popular heroine in China, and MacKinnon believes the charges will soon be reduced if not dropped. Nationalists also use the internet in creative ways to support government policies such as the recent crackdown in Tibet.
The three panelists, Shen Tong, Hu Yong and Michael Anti, discussed how the internet has changed China on an individual and nationwide level. They all agreed that the internet is a liberalizing agent in China. Hu Yong claimed that “netizens share different values than older people” and as many as 80% have been liberalized by their exposure to the internet. Freedom of speech and democracy are more valued among netizens. Shen Tong agreed that the internet is gradually liberalizing China, but argued that immediate freedom of speech would lead to greater civil liberties and make China a “better country faster”.
Throughout the panel discussion, all four of the speakers were regularly checking their cellphones. MacKinnon assured the audience that it was not because they were bored. Instead, they were checking Twitter updates about a Tiananmen anniversary rally in Hong Kong that attracted 150,000 people.