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Author: Jeremy

The internet: China’s fourth

China’s investigative journalists and a group of news publications become increasingly bold the last decade. But the internet is now the powerful force in China’s rights movements, the exposure of of power, freedom of expression and the of a real civil society. by several high-profile cases of brought to light by online concerned citizens and reporters are to social media to air their and attract publicity to their

The official response usually repression of information. The Chinese continues to operate the world’s extensive censorship apparatus, both traditional media and the Because of this and other not all citizen grievances or activist and campaigns are successfully exposed on the

Nonetheless, the huge numbers of citizens online – more 450 million people at the time of – and the blazing speed with social media spread kinds of information mean news about breaking can no longer be hidden by the authorities.


To how the internet is changing challenges to the of power and social resistance in it is useful to look at two events took place in late and July 2011:

• My dad is Li Gang – a hit-and-run accident by a well-connected man who was exposed online in October

• The Wenzhou high-speed railway on 23 July 2011.

Precedent: The factory slave children

were set many years the My dad is Li Gang scandal broke on the internet. The watershed moment was the 2007 exposure of a brick run using slave labour.

In 2007, an internet user a letter to a Chinese internet appealing for help. The authors of the were some of the parents of than 400 children who had been and forced to work as slaves in a factory in Shanxi province. finding out where their were imprisoned, the group of attempted to rescue their but were prevented by security and local police working in with the brick factory’s

Within a week of publishing appeal for help online, the became a cause célèbre, and the provincial government shut the factory and liberated the children. The scandal erupted online driven by citizen anger, the traditional news media had to catch-up. The first traditional to report on the case were the commercial and independent local organisations, but within a week of the breaking online, even the controlled central government organisations such as Xinhua Agency were forced to stories about it.

This has been repeated many since 2007: an outrage of kind occurs; citizens text, photos or videos it on the internet; the postings are forwarded and only then do the traditional catch up and report, usually by government action. Once the outcry has been appeased, usually steps up again, and of the internet postings about it

Case 1: My dad is Li Gang

The My dad is Li Gang followed the same pattern. is a city of more than 1.5 people in north China’s province. On 16 October 2010, a man named Li Qiming was drunk and his Volkswagen Magotan down a inside the campus of Hebei in Baoding to take his girlfriend to her dormitory.

Li drove into two university students, Chen (20) and Zhang Jingjing Chen died soon and Zhang was seriously injured. Li the injured students and drove Before he left the university some campus security tried to stop him, but he out of his car window, Sue me if you dare! My dad is Li Gang! and off.

Li Gang was the deputy of the Baoding public security (i.e. police authority) in district, where Hebei is located.

Li Qiming was not pursued or after the incident, even Chen died of her injuries the day. Some bystanders had the accident and Li’s escape and of it to local news media and on the But nothing happened to Li, and there was to suggest a cover-up was orchestrated to the news out of the media. The police did not

Some students who had witnessed the continued to post about it In particular, they focused on words, My dad is Li Gang. Four after the accident, a blogger an online competition which entrants to use the phrase My dad is Li Gang in a written in classical Chinese There were hundreds of and thousands of users voted for favourite poem.

The phrase an internet meme: photoshopped and spoof videos of George W. and other famous figures using My dad is Li Gang to signify corruption and a lack of decency.

By 20 the My dad is Li Gang case was famous and started reporting on the case. On 22 Li Qiming appeared on the country’s highly censored and conservative platform: the state-owned broadcaster news channel. He wept and for his deeds, but if anything the apology enraged his online critics.

were two important factors the strong online reaction to the Li case. Firstly, the catch My dad is Li Gang, which rolls off the in Chinese (wo ba shi Li Gang), made the memorable and inspired all kinds of humorous creativity.

Secondly, is a growing resentment felt by young Chinese people the conspicuous wealth gap that now in China between a tiny elite and the rest of the country. is clearly expressed in the Chinese slang for the children of the rich and fu er dai (literally second-generation rich) and er dai (second generation of government By contrast, many internet identify themselves as pimin – (or literally “buttocks people”). [Pi means buttocks or arse; min people. Rabble is probably the translation to convey the sense of the but does not have the connotations of and slang. The phrase could be translated as ordinary bums.]

Li Qiming’s expensive car and his confidence he could escape even questioned after a fatal that he caused made him a symbol of the fu er dai and guan er dai, and the rose up in rebellion online.

As the seemed to be directed against the not just Li Qiming, government efforts stepped up. The story was from some news In the last few days of October, from government propaganda leaked onto the internet, the media to stop hyping the Li case. Li Qiming remained at

But the stink over Hebei and Li Qiming would not go away, because people continued to fresh information about the and Li Qiming, and viciously funny My dad is Li jokes.

Despite restricted coverage and a perception that the were reluctant to investigate the properly, Li Qiming was arrested in 2011, and sentenced to six years in and a large fine at his trial at the end of month.

Li remains in jail, and My dad is Li remains a popular catch on the Chinese internet.

Case 2: The 23 Wenzhou high-speed rail

Just after 8 p.m. on a night, 23 July 2011, a train on one of China’s new high-speed lines smashed into the of another train that had on the tracks.

At 8:47 p.m. a on the stalled train with the Yangjuan Quanyang tweeted her Sina Weibo microblog: the train D301 is derailed ahead of South Wenzhou passengers are crying and we cannot any train crew, please us!

Since its launch in summer the Twitter-like Weibo, operated by news portal Sina.com, has one of China’s most popular web and a powerful tool for the exposure and spread of information. Weibo a large role in the aftermath of the crash.

Late into night when most and government information minders sleeping, news of the crash on Weibo. Yangjuan Quanyang’s was widely cited by media as the that broke news of the

By Sunday, the official death was above 30 and officials were the accident on a lightning strike, an that did not satisfy an outraged on the internet.

Claims emerged in reports and on the internet that the effort had stopped after five hours of work. As as ten hours after that, the survivor was rescued, a two-and-a-half-year-old

Even worse, on Monday, eye posted photos and video to the that appeared to show of the wrecked train carriages buried, less than 48 after the accident.

One video a carriage being pulled the railway viaduct. What like a dead body to fall out of a window to the ground. It like evidence was being up and nobody believed that a investigation could be made in a short amount of time. A of Railways spokesperson told the that the carriages were buried because of marshy underneath the viaduct, saying they needed a solid for rescue equipment. He concluded his with the words, Whether you it or not, I believe it, which became an internet meme again, the source of darkly jokes.

The initial official of the cause of the accident – that the train was struck by lighting – was criticised on the internet and it fed into an toxic public opinion of railway authorities. In the first of the year, as the high-speed rail was being hyped by foreign and hailed as a glorious achievement of the Communist Party, doubts to emerge. In February, Minister of Liu Zhijun lost his job and an investigation into charges of corruption. media organisations and bloggers tales of massive corruption: bribes and kickbacks, and stories Liu used some of his ill-gotten to keep eighteen mistresses in a of luxury. There were that quality was sacrificed for and that some of the corruption in the of Railways meant that construction materials were to allow officials to embezzle the they saved.

The combination of public suspicions the railway authorities and the poor of the rescue emboldened journalists and In the week after the accident, news magazines, websites, and even the normally conservative News produced investigative and highly critical commentary. the Communist Party mouthpiece The People’s Daily said in an that China should not blood-stained GDP – that growth not take precedence over lives.

The period of openness did not long: eight days the accident, news of the accident and its disappeared from newspaper pages. Propaganda organisations warning news media of for failing to toe the new line, which to keep quiet, don’t and use only authorised reports.

is no doubt that the blitz of and internet reporting on the accident result in a more thorough But it remains to be seen how transparent the will be about the results.

The Li and Wenzhou train crash illustrate how the internet is allowing citizens and activists to expose of power – but not all such cases captivate the public, and the results are depending on official sensitivity to the

A key factor in most successful is that the wrongdoing has some with China’s internet which is largely made up of with middle-class aspirations. In the two discussed here, resentment the behaviour of the privileged elite and with a train system has been held up as a national were key in inspiring a strong response.

The two cases above can be with attempts by online to organise a Jasmine Revolution the lines of the Egyptian and Tunisian which failed to elicit a from the Chinese public and resulted in a crackdown on activists, and journalists.

The key difference is that the Revolution calls had no concrete nor did they attempt to redress a wrong, but rather to start a challenging the political system. Not do such movements cause harsher repression and censorship the authorities, they do not generate a response from ordinary on the internet.

The following key points are useful experiences for any civil society planned for the internet:

• Publicising a or a cause in China is complex. the internet has become the key tool for type of communication, and the Weibo is currently the most active and method.

• Calls to investigate a case of wrongdoing, especially it involves common resentments, are likely to be heard. Abstract and calls to change the political do not go anywhere.

• Eye-witness accounts, and video evidence, particularly of or fatal events, are the most materials to attract citizen

Two poems from the “My dad is Li Gang” protests, with their classical poetry references

The couplet from the Tang poem Seeing [my friend] Off at Lotus Tower, a sad poem two friends parting:

洛阳亲友如相问

If my friend at Luoyang asks of me, you may

He’s keeping his pure and affection in a jade vase,

Li Gang version:

洛阳亲友如相问

If my friend at Luoyang asks of me, you may

My dad is Li Gang.

The philosopher Mencius in Chinese, 372-289 B.C.)

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