Me and the Internet

Me and the Internet.  By Liu Xiaobo.  February 14, 2006.  (Original Chinese version)

[in translation]

Today, there are more than 100 million Internet users in China.  The Chinese Communist government is ambivalent in its attitude towards the Internet, and is showing many signs of awkwardness.  On one hand, the lame-footed reforms require high economic growth and the main benefit of the Internet is that it is a tool to make money.  On the other hand, the dictators are afraid of openness of information and freedom of expression, and therefore they are afraid of the political effects of the Internet.  Especially in recent years, the Internet has vastly brought out the awakening of ideas about rights and the defense of civil rights among the Chinese people.  This caused the current government to become worried.  They have placed great importance on controlling speech and blocking information on the Internet in order to exert ideological control.  They invested huge amounts of capital on the Golden Shield project and hired many Internet police.  They used economic incentives to force the western Internet companies in China to cooperate with their Internet control.

Yet, insofar as my personal experience is concerned, the effect of the Internet in improving the state of free expression in China cannot be underestimated.  Even under the present reality with increasingly severe censorship and more cases of persecution for expression, the Internet has still helped the mainland people greatly.

On October 7, 1999, I finished three years of jail and I returned home.  There was a computer at home.  A friend gave it to my wife, and she was learning to type and get on the Internet. After I returned, the computer rapidly became my writing tool and my wife rarely touched the computer afterwards.

When I first returned home, it seemed that every visiting friend was telling me to use the computer.  I tried a few times, but I felt that I could not write anything while facing a machine.  Therefore, I was resisting the computer for a period of time and I insisted on writing with a fountain pen.  Slowly, under the patient persuasion and guidance of my friends, I got familiar with the computer and I cannot leave it now.

As someone who writes for a living, and as someone who participated in the 1989 movement and who joined the democratic movement since June 4, my gratitude towards the Internet for personal and public reasons cannot be easily expressed.

Personally speaking, my first essay on the computer took a week to do.  I was doing it on and off and I was ready to abandon it several times.  Under the encouragement of my friends, I finished it.  For the first time, I sent the article out via email.  Several hours later, I received the reply from the editor.  This made me aware of the magic of the Internet, and I determined that I had to learn to use the computer quickly.

With the censorship here, my essays can only be published overseas.  Before using the computer, my handwritten essays were difficult to correct and the cost of shipping was high.  In order to avoid the essays being intercepted, I often went from the west side of the city to the east side where I had a foreign friend who owned a fax machine.  I had to bother the friend to fax my essays out.  With such high costs, it obviously affected my writing efficiency and enthusiasm.  It would be quite good if I could send one or two essays a month to the overseas media.

But now, through the Internet that connects the whole world, all I need is a computer and my personal information space has expanded to previously unimaginable breadth.  The computer allowd me to write conveniently, the Internet provided me the ease of obtaining information and contacting the outside and it also allowd me to submit articles to overseas media.  Therefore, the Internet is like a super-engine that makes my writing spring out of a well.  The essays provides me with enough income to live an independent and adequate life.

As for the public interests, the Internet provides an information channel that the Chinese dictators cannot completely censor, it allows people to speak and communicate and it offers a platform for the spontaneous civilian organizations.

In a dictatorial country, open letters signed by individuals or groups form an important method for the civilians to resist dictatorship and fight for freedom.  In the past, the open letter from Havel to Czech dictator Husak and the "Charter 77" signed by Havel and others were classics of civil opposition to dictatorship.  The open letter signed by a group is an expression of political opinion by civilians as well as the collection of semi-organized civilian forces.

The broad influence of the open letter from the Chinese civilians began before the 1989 movement.  The famous Fang Lizhi began with the open letter to Deng Xiaoping to ask for the release of the political prisoner Wei Jingsheng, and this was followed by the open letters from 33 and 45 persons.  These three open letters were regarded as the prelude to the 1989 movement.  During the 1989 movement, civilian open letters rose up like bamboo buds after raining, and all social sectors seemed to have made public calls to support the students.

After June 4, as a person who had gone through participating and organizing civilian letter-signing campaigns, I often have some old memories as I sit in front of the computer typing, getting on the Internet or sending email today.

In the mid 1990's, there was a small upsurge in open letter writing on mainland China.  First of all, there were several letters signed by famous intellectuals outside of the system: "The Declaration of the Alliance to Protect the Rights of Laborers," "Recommendations concerning the Abolition of the Labor Reform System," "Suggestions on Opposing Corruption," "The June 4 Sixth Anniversary Call -- Learning from the Bloody Lesson to Promote Democracy and Rule of Law."  These letters all involved the protection of human rights, and the signers included young, middle-aged and old intellectuals and dissidents.  Especially around the time of the sixth anniversary of June 4 in 1995, there was a series of open letters, the most influential of which was obviously "Welcoming the United Nations Year of Tolerance and Calling for Implementing Tolerance in China."  This letter was initiated by veteran Communist Party liberal Mr. Xu Liangying with the famous nuclear physicists Wang Ganchang heading list, together with many Chinese Academy of Science academicians and cultural celebrities, including Yang Xianyi, Xu Zouguang, Lou Shiyi, Zhou Fucheng, Fan Dainian, Ding Zilin, Jiang Peikun, Wang Ruoshui; the Mothers of Tiananmen released the first open letter to the National People's Congress in 1995 and thereafter there was an open letter every year for the next ten years.  I and Pao Zunxin initiated the open letter to ask Chen Ziming be bailed out for medical treatment and I mobilized a group of famous intellectuals such as Beijing University's Ji Yilin, Tang Yijie and Yue Daiyun and Beijing Normal University's He Ziquan, Tong Qingbing, Wang Fuyan, etc.

It can be said that the year 1995 was the first climax of civil rights defense since June 4.

Yet, under the limitations of the communication technology at the time, it took a lot of time and resources to organize an open letter to the point where it is difficult for those who have only organized civil rights defense over the Internet to imagine.  In order to complete a June 4 open letter, preparations must begin a month ahead of time.  We must find organizers to look up the people and that took some time.  We talked about the content of the letter, the phrasing, the timing and it took several days to reach consensus.  Afterwards, we had to find a place to typeset the handwritten open letter and then made several copies, which had to be done at the place of the foreign friend outside of Jianguomen.  After proofing the document, the most time-consuming and effort-intensive thing was to go and collect the signatures.  Since the government was monitoring the telephones of sensitive people, we could not use what was the most convenient method of communication at the time.  Instead, we rode our bicycles or took public buses in all directions of the city of Beijing.  For example, I had participated in drafting and organizing the open letter on the sixth anniversary of June 4.  In order to collect the signatures of famous poet Mang Ke and famous art critic Li Xianting, I had to go to the homes of these two friends to discuss in person.  That required going from the west of Beijing to the east, and then from the east to the north.  It was really time-consuming hard work with limited results.

In an era without the Internet, it was impossible to collect the signatures of several hundred people or even a thousand people, and it was also impossible to rapidly disseminate the news all over the world.  At the time, the participation and sphere of influence of the civilian letter-writing campaigns were all quite limited.  We worked for many days, and in the end we would only get a few dozen people to sign.

Ever since China entered the Internet era, the civilian voices have a technical support that is difficult to completely block.

1. The Internet enabled the emergence of Internet rights protection.  Compared to the rights protection activities over the telephone or collecting signatures by bicycling around, the letter-signing movements in this new era has made a quantum leap due to the appearance of the Internet.  The ability of civilians to mobilize expanded rapidly -- both the quantity and quality improved at the same time -- because the Internet was cheap, speedy, convenient and borderless and it reduced the costs of rights protection tremendously.  The drafting, discussion, editing and printing of open letters can all be done on computers.  Just click your mouse with a light tap and the basic problems are solved with a few emails.  The most difficult part about collecting the signatures can go through group mail and signature-collecting websites.  It is also possible to collect signatures from around China as well as all over the world at the same time.  If there are volunteers to collect the number of signatures and comments, it is possible to provide the information concerning the signature campaign through the Internet, so that this becomes a continuous and broad Internet rights protection movement.  At the same time, civilian rights protection websites have emerged, such as

2. The ease, openness and freedom of Internet speech caused civilian opinion to become very lively in recent years.  Internet opinion has gradually become the main force of monitoring and supervising by opinion.  Whenever there is a major public disaster, the broad Internet opinions will more or less influence the attitudes of the traditional media and the government.  First, the Internet opinion is pressing the other media to be more open and diversified in providing information.  An important indicator of the degree of openness of any media is whether they can keep up with Internet information and opinion.  Next, the government can control the traditional media, but they cannot control the Internet in total.  The scandals that are censored in the traditional media are disseminated through the Internet to form a powerful Internet opinion and the government has to be concerned about the hearts and minds of the people.  Therefore, they have to open up the release of information in certain areas, and the scandal-affected officials may have to appear in public to apologize to the victims' families and society as a whole.  The first senior official to apologize was in March 2001 in the time between the two Congresses, when the "Fanglincun elementary school explosion" caused the deaths of 41 persons and a huge Internet opinion surge.  Then Premier Zhu Rongji appeared and apologized to the families of the victims and society as a whole.  Thereafter, officials were seen to apologize continuously.  At the same time, under the impact of huge Internet opinion, the authorities had to punish certain responsible officials in scapegoat fashion (e.g. SARS, major mining accidents, the contamination of the Songhua River, etc).

3. The Internet has the powerful function to allow exchange of information and gathering people together.  It has provided an easy and convenient platform for civilian organizations.  First, the Internet has provided an easy and convenient platform for assembling civilian ideas and scholarly studies.  A civilian website or BBS is a self-organized platform for like-minded people to exchange and debate, and it provides the foundation for reaching consensus in ideas after adequate discussion.  Next, concerning any specific case or major social incident, the Internet has provided powerful aid to mobilize and organize civilian opinions.  An apparently minor incident (such as the Heilongjiang BMW case) or the oppression of and resistance by an apparently insignificant person (such as  Liu Di, Du Daobing, Lu Xuesong, etc) became a huge Internet opinion wave once the information is disseminated on the Internet, and then it may become another instance of Internet rights defense.  In the end, it may become a public incident that receives broad attention and support inside and outside of China.

4. Related to this, the freedom and efficacy of the Internet have the extraordinary ability to "create stars."  Not only can the Internet produce entertainment stars such as "Furong Jiejie," it can also create one after another "Star of Civil Rights Defense" and "opinion leader," "moral example," or "truth-speaking hero."  First, through the Internet medium, famous middle-aged intellectuals can rapidly expand the influence of their ideas and public commentary, such as Li Junning, Xu Youyu, Qin Hui, Cui Weiping, Zhang Zuhua, etc.  Next, the Internet allowed a new generation of intellectuals to emerge, such as the influential Yu Jie, Wang Yi and others.  Next, the Internet created folk heros such as the military doctor Jiang Yanyong who is regarded as the truth-speaking hero, rural enterpreneur Sun Dawu, rights defender Feng Bingxian, excellent media persons Cheng Yizhong, Lu Yuegang, Li Datong and others, university teachers Jiao Guobiao and Lu Xuesong, etc.  All of them became famous through civilian Internet rights defense.  Finally, in recent years, there is a group of rights defenders who became famous public figures through the Intenet, and that would be the group of human rights defense lawyers: Zhang Sizhi, Mo Xiaoping, Pu Zhiqiang, Zhu Jiuhu, Gao Zhisheng, Guo Feixiong, Teng Biao, Xu Zhiyong, Li Baiguang, Li Heping, Li Jianqiang, etc.

No wonder the Chinese Christians say: although the Chinese lack any sense of religion and most of them do not believe in the western God, the universal benefaction of God will not forsake the suffering Chinese people.  The Internet is God's present to China.  It provided the best tool for the Chinese people in their project to cast off slavery and strive for freedom.

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