Cyber activism scores victories behind the Great Firewall

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A popular meme on Weibo of a photo of the Wenzhou crash site with oversized monsters tearing up the rails with a caption that read, “I would rather believe this than the official explanation.”

On Sept. 26, 2013, a court in Beijing sentenced Li Tianyi to 10 years in prison for his leading role in gang raping a woman. Li Tianyi is the 17-year-old son of Li Shuangjiang, an Army general and well-known singer, and Meng Ge, also a celebrity singer. The trial garnered widespread attention from a Chinese population disgusted by what they saw as the excess and relative impunity of the country’s elite. For months leading up to the trial, netizens took to cyberspace to chastise the legal system, which they believed would treat Li Tianyi leniently because of his family’s status, and to demand justice.

The onslaught of online attention became such a significant aspect of the trial that the court eventually announced Tianyi’s guilty verdict through Sina Weibo, China’s popular microblogging platform. According to Zhejiang University law professor Lan Rongjie, the 10-year sentence was the maximum length a minor could receive. In an interview with the Guardian, Rongjie speculated that Tianyi would have received a lesser sentence had the trial not received such attention and outcry. The outcome, Rongjie said, demonstrated that the court felt its image and legitimacy was at stake.

Grievances over corruption, official malfeasance and elite impunity are nothing new in China. But the last few years have witnessed a surge of cyber activism aimed at exposing and protesting these injustices in the digital sphere — often producing, as in the case of Tianyi’s trial, surprisingly powerful results. Activists and media critics are divided over whether the cyber activism is truly forcing a systemic shift toward greater openness and participation in society, or whether the digital resistance has achieved only individual minor victories. Either way, with 600 million Internet users in China, online activists are becoming an increasingly influential political force in one of the world’s superpowers.

‘My father is Li Gang!’

On Oct. 16, 2010, a black Volkswagen sped along the streets of Baoding near Hebei University. The car crashed into two girls, Chen Xiaofeng and Zhang Jingping, killing the former and severely injuring the latter. The intoxicated driver was Li Qiming, the son of a local official who served as the deputy director of the Baoding City Public Security Bureau. Undeterred by the fatal collision, Qiming sped on, stopping the car only when a crowd of bystanders and security guards at the university campus accosted him. Before being taken into custody, he uttered the now famous words: “Go ahead, sue me if you dare. My father is Li Gang!”

The incident generated outrage, not only over the tragedy of Chen Xiaofeng’s death but also over Li Qiming’s words and his arrogance. He became the symbol — or perhaps more fittingly, the meme — for abuse of power.

Angry netizens launched an online investigation known in the Chinese cyber world as a “human flesh search engine.” People scoured the Internet for news about both father and son, revealing personal information, photos of the son and several properties valued far in excess of the salary of the father. Four days after the incident, a Chinese blogger launched an online poetry contest to satirize the line “My father is Li Gang.” Thousands of submissions poured in. Eventually Li Gang released a tearful apology, which generated much online sarcasm, and Li Qiming was sentenced to six years in prison.

Critical reporting on local officials like Li Gang and his son is nothing new in Chinese journalism. Since the 1990s, programs like the popular CCTV Focus Interviews have increasingly revealed abuses and held local officials accountable. However, traditional Chinese reporting is ultimately constrained by party directives. There is no independent media.

In the spring of 2013, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television merged with the General Administration of Press and Publication to form a streamlined media-control agency. Following the announcement that The New York Times had won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative series on the secret family wealth of former Premier Wen Jiabao, China banned the use of unapproved foreign media coverage in domestic reporting. Later, the government announced mandatory ideology training for the nation’s 300,000 reporters.

In such a tightly confined media environment, the Internet provides a public space for criticism and dialogue outside mainstream media channels. There are now nearly 600 million Chinese Internet users, including 500 million with registered Weibo accounts and 400 million on Weixin, an application for digital voice messaging and other features. Of course, the vast majority are not politically active, while a handful are explicitly hired by the government’s propaganda department to counteract the digital resistance. This sizable cohort of online opinion manipulators is known as the “50-cent party,” a reference to the payment per comment these people receive from the government. Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei explains that such actors, usually in their mid-20s, receive daily email updates from the propaganda department on trending topics and taboo subjects to steer their online counter-measures.

General Secretary Xi Jinping effectively declared a propaganda war on the Internet in the summer of 2013, demonstrating the government’s recognition of the growing threat posed by active users who treat the Chinese Internet as a tool for resistance. The Office of the Prosecutor issued rules that the author of any online commentary that is deemed slanderous by the government and is re-posted more than 500 times or visited by more than 5,000 people can face up to three years in prison. According to Global Voices, more than 400 bloggers and other Internet users had been arrested for “spreading rumors” between August and September alone.

While online activity in China has landed people in jail, the same type of digital organizing has also proven successful in getting people, particularly political prisoners, out from behind bars.

In July 2009, one month after Twitter was blocked from Chinese cyberspace, activist blogger Guo Baogeng tweeted, “I have been arrested by Mawei Police, SOS!” Guo’s furtive statement was retweeted hundreds of times by Chinese Internet users able to circumvent the firewall, known as fan qiang in Chinese, and was distributed through more widely accessible domestic channels. His tweet sparked a nationwide campaign for his release. Activists created the “Guo Baofeng, your mother is calling you back home for dinner” meme, which was widely tweeted and posted to blogs. After 16 days in police custody, Baogeng was released. He later wrote on his blog that he believed the online activism was instrumental in securing his freedom.

Guo Baogeng had been detained by the Mawei police on charges of defamation as a reprisal for his efforts to reveal the brutal gang rape and murder of Yan Xiaoling by local party members. While propaganda department officials had forbade mainstream media to discuss Yan Xiaoling’s case, Baogeng and others had used blogs, chat rooms and Twitter to spread evidence of the crime and the cover-up. Although Baogeng was ultimately released, in no small part due to the online campaign, three human rights defenders more deeply involved with Yan Xiaoling’s case were charged and sentenced to more than two years in prison.

Local mobilizations or long-term national campaigns?

No online campaign in China has spread as quickly, and with such severity, as the case of the 2011 Wenzhou train crash. On July 23, 2011, a high-speed train collision killed around 40 people and injured 192. The government officially called off the rescue efforts within a day of the crash — before certain mainstream outlets even began reporting on it. The propaganda department decried that official reporting should be infrequent and focus on positive elements, such as blood donations.

Instead, social media broke the news and remained the most up-to-date source of thorough information. The callous approach of officials served to further enrage an online community, and the story became as much about challenging corruption, and the lack of transparency and accountability, as it was about the loss of life.

The crash radicalized many previously apolitical Internet users who joined seasoned cyber activists in a national digital movement. The story was Weibo’s top trending topic for more than a week, generating over 10 million comments and dozens of memes. Some online activists conducted their own investigations and released photos of the crash site, while others posted several years worth of videos revealing inconsistencies in Railway Ministry statements. Ninety percent of the 30,000 respondents in a citizen-initiated poll on Weibo ranked the government’s handling as terrible.

Eventually, the massive online outcry contributed to the arrest of several ministry representatives and heartfelt promises from the government that the corruption that permitted the safety errors would be resolved. Some Chinese activists have also claimed that widespread negative public opinion contributed to lessening the repressive environment that had been building since the ill-fated Jasmine Revolution earlier that year.

The question remains whether these digital mobilizations produce long-term national change. Skeptics argue that cyber activism may be capable of generating widespread attention around specific issues, like a train crash, but that the government will forestall mobilization on issues of nationwide political significance. Others, however, point to times when online activism has helped spark changes in the national policy and discourse in China.

The case of Sun Zhigang, a graphic designer from Wuhan, is one of these cases.

On March 17, 2003, Sun Zhigang was on his way to an Internet cafe. He had graduated from Wuhan University of Science and Technology two years earlier and was then working in a garment factory in Guangzhou. Along his route, the Guangzhou police stopped him and demanded to see his temporary residence permit. He tried to explain that he had left it at home, but they ignored him and took him into custody. They cited a 1982 administrative procedure known as Custody and Repatriation, which permitted the police to hold citizens without a valid local residence permit if they were suspected of homelessness or panhandling. Three days later his father received news that his son had died of a hemorrhage and heart attack while in police custody.

Sun Zhigang’s father and brother arrived in Guangzhou the next day. They could not believe the police account that the healthy 27-year-old man had died of a heart attack. A lawyer advised them to conduct an autopsy, a luxury they could not afford. In response, several of Sun Zhigang’s former classmates and family members campaigned on local media and online to raise the necessary money. The autopsy confirmed their suspicions: Sun Zhigang had been beaten to death in police custody. But even with forensic evidence, the authorities still refused to investigate his heath.

The family posted the story online, which prompted the Southern Metropolis Daily to cover the case. Within hours, the news generated thousands of comments. Within days, it had been shared and reposted to thousands of forums, eventually generating more than a million comments on Sina.com, according to some counts. The outrage over police brutality and the national law that permitted arbitrary detention sparked widespread discussions, both on and offline.

Leading human rights lawyers seized the attention generated by print media and online commentary to issue a full legal challenge to Custody and Repatriation. The officials involved were finally arrested and sentenced. Following the leadership transition of 2003, the new administration of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao surprised the nation by announcing the abolishment of the abusive Custody and Repatriation system.

Sun Zhigang’s case demonstrated that sustained online activism, combined with mainstream media attention and legal activism, is capable of affecting national policy change. Despite subsequent reports that the government was running a network of secret detention facilities known as “black jails,” the event and its impact is still heralded by human rights lawyers as one of the most galvanizing cases of the last decade.

The disappearance of Tang Hui’s daughter in 2006 sparked a similarly powerful social media movement. Three months after her disappearance, Hui’s 11-year-old daughter was found at a nearby spa where she had been forced into prostitution. While the incident became a national news story and led to seven of the culprits going to prison, Hui vocally demanded on social media that others involved also be prosecuted. Two months after the verdicts, Tang Hui herself was sentenced to 18 months in a Re-Education Through Labor camp on charges of disturbing public order in response to her online petitioning and activism.

The audacity of the local police shocked China’s online community. The well-known writer and activist Murong Xuecun lamented Tang’s brutal treatment and called for an end to the antiquated Re-Education Through Labor system. Her detention generated such a resounding national outcry that a Hunan court intervened to release her after she spent only one week in the labor camp.

Not only was Tang Hui released, but the digital backlash also sparked discussions of policy change. Within a few years, Meng Jianzhu, the head of the Central Politics and Law Commission, announced that the Re-Education Through Labor system would begin to be phased out. The new government of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang officially announced the end of the system in November 2013. Many believe that the sustained online activism, magnified by Tang Hui’s case, played a leading role in forcing the government to move towards the abolition of the Re-Education Through Labor system.

But while these cases highlight the power of online activism in China, there are often just as many defeats. In fact, just the day before Li Tianyi’s sentence for gang-rape was announced in September, another man named Xia Junfeng was put to death. In 2009, Junfeng and his wife were approached by a group of plain-clothed Chengguan — urban security officers notorious for their brutality and murky legality. As the men began to beat Junfeng, he fought back, ultimately killing two of the attackers. Despite pleading that his actions were taken in self-defense, Junfeng was convicted for the murders. The results of the trial sparked considerable online activism, from campaigns to commute the execution to outright vitriol towards the government and the Chengguan. Despite netizens’ best efforts at advocacy, Junfeng’s appeal was rejected in September. His wife, Zhang Jing, spent her final hours with her husband live-blogging the interactions for an emotional online community of followers and activists.

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