As the last Global Voice Summit took place in 2008 in Budapest, one of the most shocking incidents in China in recent years was underway. People were astonished to watch video clips of a violent outburst in Weng’an, which included thousands of people surrounding a police headquarters in the town, and burned and overturned police vehicles. In the past, public protests were rarely seen in the media. This time the incident, which was triggered by the abuse of power by local government, arrived to the public through the internet in minutes. Moreover, although videos and articles published online about the incident were soon censored and covered up, it was realized that such efforts were in vain, because through instant messenger, popular forums, and social networking websites, everyone is able to share what they know, and covering up information only leads to more rumors. In the summer of 2009, in Shishou city, a similar scene played out. This time, reports and videos of the unrest were publicized and even the state-owned TV station covered the story, though not without distortion. The government reacted more quickly and even took the initiation to reveal information to the public, which is unprecedented. The government realized if they don’t respond to public inquiry, the internet will do the job instead, and they will lose their credibility.
That is what the internet has brought to China – greater transparency, public attention and mounting pressure on the government to tell the truth. But the problem, on the other hand, is that China is so large a country. Local governments with much leverage can easily ignore the voices of ordinary people, and not every injustice attracts attention. Moreover, the first response of authorities to the Internet is more often resistance than acceptance. In a recent case, three netizens who helped a mother whose daughter was gang-raped and murdered were imprisoned for slander. The only thing they did, however, was to help write an appeal and shoot a video about the grief of the victim. But the very action of uploading them to the internet unnerved the local government which immediately hunted down more than ten netizens and arrested them. Their fear of the Internet’s power is evident. In fact, it is exactly one tweet sent by a netizen that pushed the case to national attention: “I have been arrested by Mawei police, SOS” and “Pls help me, I grasp the phone during police sleep.” On the day of sentence, more than one hundred people gathered, most of them with nothing in common with the detainees other than being sympathetic netizens. They held up the banner calling for a just judgment. Many of them, empowered by a sense of online community, felt for the first time that they are not alone.
Much more can be said about the role of the Internet in China. It connects professionals with commoners, in that the former are able to provide their support through blogs. Some public figures such as Hanhan influenced young people via networking websites such as Renren (‘The Chinese facebook’). In disaster relief, the Internet unites people and attracts social support. With the largest population of internet users in the world, the potential power of the Internet in China is tremendous. But does that mean that it would radically reshape the political institutions and improve citizen rights? It is hard to assert any answer. The internet is more like an outlet for public discontent and a platform for spontaneous inquiry into injustice and corruption, with only soft power in most cases. So the call for rights has to finally extend to new legislation, enforcement, and social movements that reflect the voices of all citizens, and not just netizens.