One cold but sunny autumn day, a young white-collar worker in Shanghai received an anxious phone call from his family. The authorities were requisitioning their farmland for development.
Wang Shuai believed the scheme was illegal, but officials refused to discuss it. He tried journalists, but they thought his story both too common and too sensitive. That was when he turned to the internet. “It was the choice of having no choice,” he said. “But I had read complaints about injustices on the net before and I knew some cases had worked out. There were reports like officials who used public money for holidays; when they appeared, the nation began investigating.”
The authorities had launched an “anti-drought initiative” which included chopping down fruit trees — conveniently allowing them to slash compensation to families turfed off the land. “Great tactics for fighting drought in Ningbao village!” Wang headlined his post. Underneath, he added pictures of the tree stumps.
It would indeed grab attention; but not quite as he had expected. Wang’s story exemplifies the growing power of the Internet in China: the airing of grievances; the ability to reach a wider audience; the use of satire to discuss serious topics.
While China has the world’s most sophisticated Internet censorship system, it also has almost 400 million Internet users — at least some of whom are challenging those restraints with increasing boldness.
Controls mean that almost everyone self-censors to some degree. But some have used the variations and gaps in the system to stake out spaces where they can find or share viewpoints that are not officially sanctioned.
In fact, the Internet is arguably more important than in other countries since the mainstream media is still more firmly controlled. The Chinese have even invented a word – “wangmin” or “netizen” — that captures this sense of the internet as a space for social and political discussion. It is also a space for enjoyment.
“The Internet community is diverse, lively, and contentious, full of fun and dynamism,” said Guobin Yang, author of The Power of the Internet: Citizen Activism in China. “This aspect of Chinese internet culture is not well understood by the general public in the west.
“[The Internet culture is] capturing more and more things, good or bad, political or non-political, and then weaving them into all sorts of new creatures — new languages, new relationships, new images … despite and perhaps because of political control.”
Users are increasingly creative in the ways they elude restraints — perhaps using analogies to discuss topics — and increasingly open in their mockery of them. Deleted sites have “been harmonised”, in reference to President Hu Jintao’s calls for a “harmonious” society. Censors are referred to as “river crabs”, because in Chinese those two words together form a homophone for “harmony”.
Heavy-handed propaganda is ridiculed. Take the reaction to last month’s Chinese new year gala on the state broadcaster, which featured a paean to the Communist party using the Uighur word yakexi, or good; this, months after vicious inter-ethnic violence tore through Xinjiang, home of the Uighur minority.
“Now the nation has abolished the agricultural tax … Ah! The Chinese Communist party central committee’s policies are yakexi,” the singers enthused.
Within hours, the word yakexi was popping up all over the Internet. Han Han, the country’s most popular blogger, launched a contest for the best rewrite of the lyrics. Others wrote about the “yake lizard” — “xi” is a homophone for lizard — which “enjoys arse-licking” and survives only in China, North Korea and Cuba.
The Great Firewall
Because they are outspoken, articulate and keen to engage with the outside world, the numbers of the liberal, socially aware users prepared to poke fun at those in power are easy to overestimate.
“Maybe there are much less than 100,000 people concerned about those issues and maybe only 2,000 who are active,” suggested Ai Weiwei, a leading artist and vociferous social critic with 25,000 Twitter followers.
Most of these will use software such as virtual private networks and proxies to evade the Great Firewall — allowing them to read articles or debates outlawed at home, or to post controversial material on blog platforms hosted overseas.
Like their counterparts around the world, the majority of China’s Internet users have little interest in seeking such debates: they want entertainment, shopping and other services.
And even among those who want to debate current affairs, there are plenty of pro-government voices, sometimes paid — known as the ‘50 cent party’ — but sometimes acting independently.