A Review Of The Chinese Internet In 2008

(Southern Weekend)  Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?  A Review Of The Chinese Internet In 2008.  By Ping Ke.  January 21, 2009.

[in translation] 

"You have to check the channels one by one, the programs one by one, the pages one by one.  You must not miss any step.  You must not leave any unchecked corners.  There is no such thing as an 'inspection-free' product."  On January 29, 2009, State Council Information Office Internet News Research Center director Liu Zhengrong said this at a Bejjing media forum.  So at the beginning of the new year in 2009, a clean-up campaign was started and swept through the Chinese Internet.

Several days ago before Liu Zhengrong gave his speech, the 81 photos of Zhang Ziyi and her fiancé having fun on a Caribbean beach were spreading rapidly across the Internet in the same way that "Sexy Photos Gate" did at the start of year 2008.  For the public, "Sexy Photos Gate" was an astonishing "Gossip Gate."  But for the government it was a "Management Dilemma Gate."

"Sexy Photos Gate" once again made the people and the government aware of the huge size of the Internet population and the incalculable power that can be unleashed in a instant.

On January 27, 2008, the sexy photos of Edison Chen were leaked at a certain Hong Kong forum.  The mainland Tianya forum's "entertainment gossip" section quickly set up "the biggest post ever."  In less than one month, it had accumulated 2.7 million hits.  There were more than 150,000 comments spread over one thousand pages.  Some netizen estimated: "It would take a person three days and three nights without eating or sleeping to read through the comments."

When this post reached more than 600 pages, it was briefly deleted before being quickly restored.  Under the "aura" of "Sexy Photo Gate," people seemed to have forgotten that a once-in-50-years snowstorm was happening at the time.

Faced with this unexpected "Sex Photo Gate," the Hong Kong police also appeared to be at a loss -- What is an indecent/obscene article?  Which method by which the articles are circulated is a crime?  The Hong Kong media was boiling over.

The Hong Kong police commissioner Tang King-shing's public comment at the time deserves to be brought up again here: "Sharing these photos via email, or even storing such photos on a computer may constitute a crime."  At the time, a Legislator asked in return: "If we all send junk mail with pornographic photos to Commissioner Tang's email address, then should he be arrested too?"

The police later issued a revised statement, "It is not against the law to watch these photos or share them with friends via email.  But it is illegal to post these photos onto the Internet."  This immediately raised questions with the Hong Kong netizens: "If we bring a portable hard disk to meet a netizen, we become friends and I make copies of the sexy photos for my friend.  Am I breaking the law?"

The mainland also took all sorts of actions on "Sexy Photos Gate": "It is illegal to give the 'Sex Photo Gate' series of photos to friends"; "criminal liability is incurred if you send more than 200 photos to others."  In Hong Kong and mainland China, people were summoned or arrested by the police for distributing those sexy photos.

On December 10, 2008, Google announced the top keywords in 2008.  "Edison Chen" was the year's most quickly rising keyword.  "Sex Photos Gate" was number 5.  "Sex Photos Gate" became the first item coming out of the Pandora's box for the Chinese Internet.  Once the magical box is opened, it cannot be shut again.  Even as "hope" came out of the box, "disaster" and "calamity" came out as well.

How shall we face these "disasters" and "calamities"?  Peking University School of Journalism and Communication associate professor Hu Yong said: "It is reactive to use the old methods.  The government must adjust to this new channel."

Actually, on January 4, 2008 which was a couple of weeks before "Sexy Photos Gate" broke open, the article <2007, Listen to the Chinese Netizens> in <People's Daily> had described the management strategy.  The article affirmed that the year 2007 was the year in which the Internet became public space for the people.  With the attention of both the people and the government, the Internet has become a channel to rationally bring about fairness and justice.  At the same time, the importance of "protecting the people's right to know, the right to participate, the right to express and the right to monitor" was emphasized.

The renowned Internet observer Keso noted the clash of various voices triggered by the Lhasa riots.

On March 14, 2008, a disturbance took place in Lhasa.  Three days later, the American website CNN.com published a photo of "two army trucks heading towards two civilians" on a Lhasa street.  In truth, this photo had been cropped.  In the complete photo, there were about 10 people throwing rocks at the military vehicles on the side.  The British website BBC and the Germany Newspaper <Berlin Morning Daily> also made serious "errors" in which the texts did not match the photos in their reports about the Lhasa disturbance.

On March 20, the 23-year-old Beijing young man and Tsinghua University graduate Rao Jin established the Anti-CNN.com website.  This website specialized in "collecting and exposing the anti-China slurs made by the western media." Rao Jin told the media: "This website was visited by 200,000 persons in five days' time.  Two to three hundred people wanted to become volunteers for us."

At the same time, an Anti-Anti-CNN website was also established.  Its purpose was to "analyze what is being presented as 'facts' and 'analyses' on the Anti-CNN.com website" in the hope of "showing the facts and truth accurately."

On April 9, a Chinese student at Duke University in the United States Wang Qianyuan became a key person over the Lhasa disturbance.  Her actions at a certain gathering caused her to be accused as "Chinese traitor" and "Chinese scum."  She was the subject of "human flesh search."  Several days later, someone poured feces on the door of her parents' home in Qingdao.  The voices which were supportive and sympathetic clashed loudly with the voices which condemned and scolded her.

Before one thing ended, something else came along.  In April, the Olympic torch reached its fifth stage in Paris, France.  The paralympian torchbearer Jin Jing was attacked by a Tibet independence supporter.  The netizens at several dozen websites proposed a campaign to "boycott Carrefour, boycott France."  Afterwards, the "MSN patriotic red heart" became popular.  According to People's Net, this idea came from "a small website" and this became a public interest activity that was started spontaneously by Chinese netizens.  An article at Hexun Net called this action "a wonderful piece of crisis management by public relations."

Keso used "the furtherance of the public space" to include the increase "of unofficial voices" on the Internet in 2008.  "In the west, they have their own public spaces, such the culture of public plazas.  But the Chinese don't have that sort of thing.  The Internet is providing such a public space for the Chinese people.  In 2008, more and more people are expressing their views on the Internet.  The area of this public space is continuing to expand.  It has led to more and more influence on public opinion, particularly with respect to things that occur in social lives."

"When the unofficial voices get louder, it is impossible to shut them all up.  Stability is the most important mission at present.  At the same time, the ruling party needs to have a certain channel to understand public opinion."  Hu Yong told the Southern Weekend reporter.

On May 12, there was a big earthquake in Sichuan.  This was the twelve day after the "People's Republic Of China Government Open Information Regulations" came into effect.  Less than minutes after the earthquake hit, Xinhua reporters the news.  The various web portals also reported the news on the front page.

Meanwhile, various rumors from unknown sources began to fly all over the place: "There will be a big earthquake in Beijing tonight," "There will be a 5.7 magnitude earthquake in Zhejiang," ...

On May 14, the Baidu Forum carried a post that proclaimed: "It's over!  It's completely over!  The chemical plant in Dujiangyan has exploded!"  The news spread quickly.  Tens of thousands of people rushed into the street to buy food and mineral water.  The local government quickly organized personnel to direct traffic and use television broadcasts and the Internet to dispel the rumor about the "so-called chemical plant explosion in Dujiangyan."  Within two hours, the buying spree stopped.  The three persons who spread the rumor were given administrative punishments and lectures.

On June 28, 2008, there was disturbance in Weng'an, Guizhou province: a local female student died in unsual circumstances on June 22.  The first two autopsy reports said that she died from drowning.  Within the next six days, all sorts of rumors were flying around.  A common rumor was that the uncle of the deceased was beaten to death by the police.

At this time, all the related posts on the Internet were rapidly deleted.  Some forums even posted a notice: "All posts related to the Weng'an incident shall be deleted."  This caused the netizens to believe even more that some injustice must be involved.

So all sorts of posts carrying oblique and distorted references to Weng'an appeared on the Internet, as the netizens uses various means to upload and distribute videos from the scene in Weng'an and they even posted the rumors.  In order to blockade the news about the disturbance, the authorities even cut off mobile phone service in Weng'an.

On June 29, an emergency management center was set up in Weng'an for the purpose of guiding public opinion.  On June 30, the Guizhou provincial party secretary Shi Zongyuan hurried to Weng'an to direct the work.  On July 1, the first press conference was held in which the details of the incident was disclosed to the world.  The media from all around China reported the news, including clarifications about "the rumor that the police beat the uncle to death."  Three days later on July 4, the Weng'an leadership was dismissed from their jobs.  On July 6, the Weng'an county public security bureau held an open day to listen to grievances from petitionters.  On July 9, the results of the third autopsy was announced.  The cause of death was drowning.

Afterwards, some netizen discovered the blog of a Weng'an female police officer named Shen Xue.  This female police officer had written: "Within a short ten days' time, we estimated that we handled six mass incidents.  These neverending notices of suddenly breaking incidents forced us stay ready all the time.  We were all very tense and nervous.  I don't know what kind of tool the public security bureau is nowadays.  We handled these six incidents, some of which had no need to have so much police power there.  Why do the relevant want to treat the public security bureau as a fist or a violent tool.  How is the public security bureau supposed to maintain good relationships with the people?  This is really hard to explain."

Actually, Shen Xue's blog post was written in February 2007, and is unrelated to the Weng'an disturbance.  Dramatically, this blog post got many hits after the disturbance and caused it to be deleted for a while.

What Shen Xue felt in her blog post a year ago was exactly what Guizhou provincial party secretary Shi Zongyuan said about the Weng'an incident one year later: "We must be cautious about how we use police force, we must be cautious about how we use police weapons and we must be cautious about how we apply suppression.  We should not push the public security apparatus into the frontline at the drop of a hat.  We cannot use the dictatorship of the people against the people themselves."

Concerning the handling of information about this suddenly breaking incident, Shi Zongyuan emphasized: "The most important thing in handling a suddenly breaking incident is whether we can release information immediately, accurately and factually and then we can guide public opinion properly."

More than 20 days after the Weng'an incident, Bai Yansong made a summary of the incident on the CCTV program <News 1+1>: "Rumors stop as soon as information become publicly available.  When a negative incident is made public and transparent, there will be positive reflections."  The Weng'an model became the model for how the government made information public for suddenly breaking incidents in 2008.

With respect to the Weng'an incident, Hu Yong said: "It was definitely not handled the same way as before.  When the Internet sentiments are very strong, other side needs to strengthen their arguments in the battle.  Sometimes, it is a good thing to have mediation and negotiation.  The Internet belongs jointly to the government and the people.  They need to adjust to each other."

Concerning the numerous rumors on the Internet about emergency incidents, Hu Yong holds an even more open attitude: "The public has the right to dispute the veracity of any official reports or even government statements.  The people have the right to monitor the government.  The government can work harder to make information more open in order to eliminate the worries of the public and eliminate untrue statements."

In 2008, the Internet's function as monitor reached unprecedented levels.  It is no longer difficult for netizens to monitor government officials.  Some government officials have even lost their jobs as a result.

Some netizens use these words to warn certain government officials: "The netizens are everywhere.  We are watching you.  You better be worried about your job!"

The video of Shenzhen Marine Affairs Bureau Disciplinary Committee party secretary Lin Jiaxiang allegedly molesting a girl and subsequently using his official job position to bully people was posted on the Internet and that caused him to lose his job; a netizne found the overseas travel invoices and receipts for Wenzhou government officials on the Shanghai subway and a number of officials were dismissed or disciplined as a result; some netizens determined from photos of Nanjing City Housing Authority official Zhou Jiugeng that he wore an expensive Vacheron Constantine watch and smoked 150 yuan/pack cigarettes and he was dismissed from his job one week later; Liaoning province Xifeng county party secretary sent police to arrest a female reporter in Beijing and he lost his job after the Internet exposure; nine months later, he was appointed to a new position elsewhere but the netizens exposed that too and he lost his job again ...

Not only are government officials monitored, but even the websites are monitored by netizens too.  After the Sanlu affair was exposed, Baidu encountered an unprecedented confidence crisis -- an internal Sanlu Group crisis management plan was published on the Internet whereby Baidu was going to be paid 3 million yuan to hide all negative information about the Sanlu Group.

According to Hu Yong had published the book <Hubbub of Noises> about public expression on the Internet: "We cannot overestimate the utility of Internet opinion."  He said: "The Internet is still at the stage of expression in the so-called 'hubbub of noises.'  Previously, there was only a stony silence.  Now all of a sudden, we have the tool to express our voices.  So everybody is expressing themselves to their fullest.  The next steps after expression should be to reach a consensus and then take action.  At the moment, we are just expressing ourselves.  We can't speak of any consensus, never mind any action."

On January 13, 2009, the China Internet Network Information Center released the <The Statistical Report On the Growth and Development of the Internet in China> for 2008.  The reporter showed that the number of Chinese Internet users has increased to 298 million in 2008.  The highest rate of increase occurred in the 10-19 age group (that is, those who were born after 1990), and they are now the biggest group in the Chinese Internet.  Another noteworthy change is the increase in the number of Internet users in rural areas.  In 2008, the number of rural Chinese Internet users reached 84.6 million, which is a 60% increase over 2007.

Keso holds the opinion: "It is not very meaningful to lead the world in numbers."  Actually, in June 2008, the number of Chinese Internet users passed the number of American Internet users for the first time and hence led the world.  At the time, People's Net published a critical essay entitled <Chinese Internet users leads the world in numbers, but what is their rank in terms of quality?> which cast doubts on the state of the Chinese Internet.

What are the implications of having more rural Internet users.  In the rural areas, the Internet is regarded mostly as the "bad thing" that gets children to play games all day.  But in the rural areas of Taiwan, the Internet has other applications.

27-year-old Taiwan farmer Xie Mingjian (nickname Sword Sword Man) established a blog entitled <The History of the Struggles of the Sword Sword Optimistic Young Man> and tried to use it to promote the rice that he grows on his farm.  Not only did he sell all his rice, but he also won the top prize in the Annual Global Chinese-language Blog Awards.  Many young people are following his example to return home to farm.

Jeremy Goldkorn from South Africa pays attention on the increase of rural Chinese Internet users.  His English-language blog Danwei.org presents the various incidents that occur in China and has been called the "Mini Xinhua."  In Goldkorn's view, the implication of "farmers becoming Internet users" is not just about opening the vision of the farmers.  More importantly, this will "form a new platform so that farmers can have more opportunity to express their opinions."  The campaign to clean up vulgarity on the Internet is still ongoing.  According to Xinhua, 726 websites have been shut down since January 19, 2009.  At the same time, the first "human flesh search" of year 2009 has just been issued against railroad officials who are responsible for making tickets so scarce during the Chinese New Year period.  Then it was rumored that Xuzhou (Jiangsu province) city has introduced laws to ban "human flesh search" with a maximum penalty of 5,000 yuan.  "One step forward and two steps back, or two steps forward and one step back."  Hu Yong used the Minuet to describe the management model of the Chinese Internet.