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Social Networking in the Golden Shield Environment

July 16, 2010
Translation by Wen Huang

The Internet has created room for the birth and development of civil society in totalitarian countries. In the past two years, social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, have developed at an amazing speed in non-democratic countries. They have become the carriers of grassroots democratic movements in those countries. For example, in June 2009, during the general election in Iran, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube became important vehicles for demonstrators to vent their frustration and disseminate information to the outside world. Even after the Iranian government had blocked the Twitter and Facebook sites, many demonstrators used foreign proxies to foil the government’s attempts. They used Twitter to disseminate news.1 Thus, the protest movement during the Iranian election was dubbed by the international community as a “Twitter Revolution.”

In January and February of 2010, two major events happened in Hong Kong: nearly ten thousand people gathered outside the Legislative Council building to protest against the construction of an express rail link and legislators in Hong Kong’s five electoral districts resigned to pressure Beijing for democracy. In the course of these two events, organizers used Facebook to urge local residents to participate. Yu Guanwei (余冠威), an advisor at the young citizens department of the Hong Kong Citizens Party, was one of the organizers. He said he had used new social media to organize many of his recent activities. “We have achieved quite nice results, without too much cost. We don’t need to spend any money. New media are important vehicles for us to publicize the events and rally support.”

Microblogs, such as Twitter and Facebook, have enabled many political campaigns to transcend national borders, uniting worldwide grassroots forces. During the protest against the express rail link in Hong Kong, many microblog users in mainland China signed on with the same tag, #stopxrl, to offer support, and their messages greatly encouraged Hong Kong residents.2 Since Internet-linked mobile phones are relatively cheap in Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, social networking media such as Facebook and Twitter are rapidly spreading from cities to rural areas, making it possible for millions of people to gain access. These social networking sites have helped gather a political force that is powerful, but sometimes unpredictable. The Facebook movement in Indonesia garnered support for the country’s key anti-graft organizations which successfully exposed police conspiracies to frame their leaders and undermine their work.3 Thus, in totalitarian countries, Twitter and Facebook have provided people with new tools of cooperation. They have become an engine to generate support for protest movements, creating a new activity platform to restructure the social order.

In the 21st century, the Internet has become a battlefield without gunshots. If one wants to locate the top player in this war, the Chinese government deserves the title. With the rapid development of Internet technology, the defense set up by the Golden Shield Project is bound to have loopholes. Therefore, the Internet has become a battlefield to jockey for power between the public and government officials. Uncovering truth and hiding truth have become a type of non-stop cyber offensive and defensive war. The Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Weekend published an article on July 22, 2009, to summarize this phenomenon. The article, titled “The Web Users’ Hidden War—Chinese Officials’ 2.0 Crisis,” asserts that “Chinese officials have ushered in the 2.0 crisis after 2008. A web posting alone is enough to rewrite the fate of a power-craving official after a posting has gathered a massive number of passionate hits, user responses and reposting.” There have been numerous examples—Zhou Jiugeng (周久耕), former Director of the Housing and Property Management Department at Jiangning District in Nanjing City and Dong Feng (董锋), Party Secretary of Quanshan District of Xuzhou City in Jiangsu Province are two of the officials who have fallen into the boundless ocean of the “people’s cyber war” and lost their jobs. This article did not list those officials who had found themselves in a difficult position after posting inappropriate remarks online. For example, Lu Jun (逯军), Deputy Bureau Chief of Zhengzhou Municipal Urban Planning Committee, was suspended after questioning a reporter during an interview by saying, “Are you trying to speak on behalf of the Party or are you only prepared to be the spokesperson for ordinary people?”4

Since the Internet transcends geographical regions and enables equal exchanges, it now carries the mission of promoting free speech and political freedom in China. Since 2008 with the arrival of the Web 2.0 era, marked by the popularity of social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, Twitter’s influence in China has increased rapidly. The Chinese Internet, which often skillfully copies and plagiarizes other programs, successively released Twitter clones such as Fanfou, Jiwai, and Taotao. The most well-known microblog is Fanfou, founded in May, 2007, and once dubbed “Twitter’s Chinese copycat.” In the late spring and early summer of 2009, a group of liberal intellectuals used fanfou.com as a platform to disseminate news and information, making it a very popular site. Its function as a conduit to disseminate news and information was suddenly amplified during the July 5 riot in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. On July 7, the Chinese government shut it down. Since then, the Chinese government has tightened its control over China’s microblogs.5 Subsequently, the large number of fanfou.com followers began their exiled life online. In the end, most of them found a new home at Twitter.

The Chinese government keeps a close eye on the new functions of social networking sites in non-democratic countries, linking them with America’s “political ploy to promote color revolutions.” Following the general election in Iran, Global Times, affiliated with Xinhua News Agency, published an article titled “Strange Orders from the White House—Social Networking Sites Assisted Iranian Opposition in Coordinating Rallies.” The author pointed out that Iran had become a “testing ground for America’s new subversive tools.” In addition, the Chinese propaganda machines accused Twitter of being a new tool for the American government to plot color revolutions in other countries.6

At present, Twitter politics in China has been active and displayed amazing capabilities for staging protests. It plays an increasingly important role in the social protest movement that’s been running for the past ten years. Even though Twitter is being blocked by China’s Great Firewall (GFW), Internet users can communicate with each other freely on Twitter through anti-censorship software such as Freegate and Ultrasurf, as well as Twitter’s hundreds of third party APIs. Based on the Chinese language version of twibase.com, as of May 5, 2010, about 59,693 Chinese citizens have registered with Twitter via proxies or VPNs (worldwide, about 85,286 people are registered users of the Chinese-language version of Twitter).7

The Chinese government keeps a close eye on the new functions of social networking sites in nondemocratic countries, linking them with America’s “political ploy to promote color revolutions.”

Twitter has grown into a unique social and political platform, playing an increasingly important role in China’s social movement, leading and promoting participation in China’s Internet-based political activities. Its functions can be summarized in the following three aspects:

  1. Twitter has become a tool for Chinese to find other users who share similar political views. The Chinese government’s strict political censorship has increasingly narrowed the space for free online discussions. Forums on various Chinese websites are becoming more afraid of featuring political topics. The number of Twitter users in mainland China is limited but more and more web surfers are gathering on Twitter because it is insulated from the political pressures in mainland China and its unique technology makes it open to everyone. Twitter has turned into a free speech platform, free of Chinese government control. This special political feature is irreplaceable in China.
  2. Twitter has gathered a group of China’s opinion leaders. In the past ten years, China’s public intellectuals, including those residing overseas, have employed all sorts of means to participate in public affairs. They are now gathering on Twitter. Topics discussed or fiercely debated on Twitter have led to some political actions, giving birth to new opinion leaders. Twitter is influencing and leading both traditional and online media inside China. The remarks by some public intellectuals have played a big role in efforts to topple China’s current authoritarian system. The writer who best knows how to maximize Twitter’s unique function to express his views is Han Han (韩寒). The painter who best knows how to maximize the unique communications and organizational functions of Twitter is certainly Ai Weiwei (艾未未).
  3. Twitter has become a model to organize and rally the public. In the information age, people’s capabilities of expression and action are in direct proportion with their abilities to search and disseminate information. In recent years, China’s rights defending movement has relied more and more on online information. Between 2009 and 2010, activist Feng Zhenghu (冯正虎) camped out in Japan’s Narita International Airport for 92 days to fight for his right to return to China. During that time, Feng used Twitter as his only platform to update on his situation and communicate with the outside world.

More and more Chinese are clearly aware of these new functions of Twitter. In today’s China where the Communist Party claims to “command two battles, one online and one offline,”8 and has tightened its control over the Internet, people have learned how to use Twitter’s rallying and communications functions to effectively organize their political actions. During the Yushu earthquake in Qinghai province in April of this year, the Twitter postings by Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser (唯色) worked very well. Through Woeser’s reports on what had truly happened at the epicenter, many Tibetans in Yushu were able to organize timely rescue and relief efforts.

Through these analyses, the author hopes to illustrate the following points: After the Internet entered China, Chinese authorities, with technical support from multinational high-tech companies, began to invest heavily in the construction of a gigantic Internet surveillance system. However, over the years, with persistent contributions by technical experts who are Falun gong practitioners, new software technologies, such as Freegate, Ultrasurf, and Garden networks, have become important tools for Chinese to “climb over the firewall.” The Chinese people have never stopped in their efforts to break through the iron curtain that the Communist Party has painstakingly constructed, whether it is through “climbing over the firewall” to obtain information or using Twitter to participate in China’s social and political life. At present, the virtual kingdom of Twitter has displayed a rosy picture of hope: Under the watchful eyes of the GFW, the Chinese are still able to access a platform where they can freely express themselves.

Notes

1. Mike Musgrove, “Twitter Is a Player in Iran’s Drama,” Washington Post, June 17, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/16/AR2009061603391.html. ^

2. “Xianggang minzhu yundong xin meiti zhuli” [香港民主运动新媒体助力], Radio Free Asia [自由亚洲电台], February 5, 2010, http://www.rfa.org/mandarin/yataibaodao/minzhu-02052010100427.html. ^

3. Norimitsu Onishi, “Debate on Internet’s Limits Grows in Indonesia,” The New York Times, April 19, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/20/world/asia/20indonet.html. ^

4. “Zhiwen jizhe ‘ti shui shuo hua,’ fujuzhang bei tingzhi,” [质问记者“替谁说话”,副局长被停职], Southern Weekend [南方周末], June 23, 2009, http://www.infzm.com/content/30433. ^

5. Robert Mackey, “China’s Great Firewall Blocks Twitter,” The Lede, June 2, 2009, http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/02/chinas-great-firewall-blocks-twitter.^

6. “Baigong ‘qi guai zhi shi,’ shejiao wangzhan bang Yilang fandui paigao chuanlian” [白宫“奇怪指示”:社交网站帮伊朗反对派搞串联], Global Times [环球时报], June 24, 2009, http://www.chinaelections.org/NewsInfo.asp?NewsID=151318.^

7. “Tuite jidi: Top 1000 zhongwen yingxiang libang” [推特基地:Top 1000 中文影响力榜], twibase.com, May 5, 2010, http://twibase.com/sr/vip?no_status=1.^

8. “Gong’an bu: ba po wangshang wangxia liang ge zhanchang” [公安部: 把握网上网下两个战场], Southern Metropolis Daily [南方都市报], December 28, 2009, http://gcontent.nddaily.com/8/18/818f4654ed39a1c1/Blog/3ab/451d34.html. ^

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