Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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The Revolt of China’s Twittering Classes

BEIJING – Last week, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China. That award comes at a crucial moment in Chinese politics, as it may well become a stepping stone on China’s long march toward greater freedom.

Yet few voices in mainland Chinese media are discussing Liu’s Nobel Prize. The government’s propaganda department has ordered major media to keep the news from spreading to the general public by imposing strict censorship. In fact, on CCTV’s widely viewed 7 p.m. national newscast, not a word on Liu was mentioned on the day he received the prize.

Despite this news blackout, China’s blogosphere and microblogs exploded after Liu was announced as the winner. For example, on Sina’s microblog site, bloggers used pictures, euphemisms, and English or traditional Chinese characters to avoid censorship.

Twitter-style microblogging is extremely popular in China. Twitter.com was officially blocked last year, following the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown and the riots in Xinjiang that summer. Soon afterwards, its most famous Chinese clone, Fanfou.com, also was closed down, leaving one million registered users homeless. Nevertheless, although Twitter can be accessed in China only via proxy servers, it still plays a vital role in Chinese Internet life because of its ability to connect different news sources and social activists.

Indeed, Twitter is the only place where people can talk freely about Liu‘s Nobel prize. A search of the hash tag “#Liuxiaobo” shows that relevant messages pop up hundreds of times per minute.

More generally, Twitter has become a powerful tool for Chinese citizens as they increasingly play a role in reporting local news in their communities. But the social revolution brought by microblogging might be even more important than the communication revolution. Indeed, here Chinese Twitter users lead the world, using it for everything from social resistance, civic investigation, and monitoring public opinion, to creating black satire, “organizing without organizations” in the Guangdong anti-incineration movement, and mailing postcards to prisoners of conscience.

Ever since Iranians used Twitter to swap information and inform the outside world about the mushrooming protests against the stolen presidential election of June 2009, there has been much discussion about the role of digital activism in authoritarian countries like China. Does Web 2.0 technology imply an analogous role for “Twivolution” in a Chinese democratic transition one day?

Twitter political activism in China challenges the simplistic yet widespread assumption that social media in the hands of activists can lead swiftly to mass mobilization and social change. Instead, these information-sharing tools and channels promote more subtle social progress.

That subtlety reflects the distinction between macro-politics and micro-politics. Macro-politics is structural, whereas micro-politics is daily. Changes in the micro-political system do not necessarily lead to an adjustment in the macro structure, particularly in hyper-controlled political systems like China’s. But if small units are well organized, they can greatly improve the well-being of society as a whole, bit by bit, by working at the micro level. “Micro-information” and “micro-exchange” can push forward real change.

Why is micro-power so important? In the past, only a few highly motivated people engaged in political activism; the masses took almost no initiative. Passionate people did not understand why the public seemed unconcerned about their efforts. Today, highly motivated people can lower the threshold for action so that people with less passion join their efforts.

Currently, the Chinese Twittersphere has three prominent features: First, as China’s rulers strengthen their censorship efforts, Twitter has become highly politicized. Moreover, Twitters brings opinion leaders together around one virtual table, attracting a lot of “new public intellectuals” and “rights advocates,” as well as veterans of civil rights movements and exiled dissidents. Its influence on Chinese cyberspace and traditional media is the result of this grouping.

Finally, Twitter can be used as a mobilizing tool in China. Recent years have seen an explosion of activities indicating that Twitter has become the coordinating platform for many campaigns asserting citizens’ rights. With the proliferation of Twitter clones in China (all the major portals now offer microblog services), social movements in China are getting a long-term boost.

So Twitter has become a major tool to promote contentious politics in China. It can effectively link discourse and action, generate widespread campaigns, and forge common ground among rights activists, public intellectuals, and all kinds of Twitter users. In fact, a series of protests and events held since the second half of 2009 suggests a close relationship between Twitter and contentious real-life politics, and thus invites new possibilities for reshaping China’s authoritarian regime.

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