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China’s cyber activists click

world Updated: Aug 07, 2009 01:31 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times
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China’s civil servants now fear the power of the Chinese blogosphere the way India’s bureaucrats fear the Right To Information Act.

A year after Beijing hosted the Olympics, China’s talked-about ‘open’ policy still silences parts of the Internet.

But to maintain a sense of stability in the 338-million strong online community, China lets netizens raise a ruckus about a local police investigation or a get a corrupt official fired, faster than any RTI petition moves in India.

The Internet is currently the most active tool for citizen intervention in the communist nation where the media is government-run, petitioners rarely get heard, and a gathering of five people can be called a ‘mass incident’ or protest.

Recent Internet-influenced sackings included an official who drove a police car to walk his dogs in eastern Zhejiang, until a Chinese website that is tracked by local officials wrote about him.

“We must know what problems are emerging in the community and solve them quickly, or higher officials will criticise us,’’ a policeman who monitors the website was quoted saying in the State-run media last week.

The casualties of cyber activism have included an official sacked after bloggers pounced on a photograph of him wearing a luxury watch and smoking expensive cigarettes.

In February, netizens in southwest Yunnan were invited to join an official probe into a debated custody death. In June, a court freed a massage parlour employee who became an Internet heroine after stabbing two officials for sexually harassing her.

China’s cyber citizens are still disorganised and subtly controlled by censors who can direct websites to discontinue certain debates. Chinese bloggers are getting snap outcomes and bringing remote cases into mainstream attention, but it’s stop-gap activism compared to India’s RTI users who can effect slow but meaningful changes in governance.

In China, online criticism is tolerated if bloggers discuss local corruption and crime, not governance and democracy. When ethnic riots erupted in northwest Xinjiang last month, the Internet was instantly silenced. Many bloggers who signed an online pro-democracy petition called Charter ’08 since December, found their blogs shut down. The petition vanished from the Internet.