Saturday, October 1, 2011

China’s struggle with political freedoms and Internet freedom

by M. Ulric Killion


On February 20, 2011, during “the anonymous call for a ‘jasmine revolution’ in China's major cities”,  a man is arrested by police in front of Shanghai's Peace Cinema. Carlos Barria / Reuters; (Austin Ramzy, State Stamps Out Small ‘Jasmine’ Protests in China, Time Magazine, February 21, 2011).

A recent China Daily news article reported the keynote address of Wang Chen, Minister of the State Internet Information Office, at the opening of the 4th UK-China Internet Roundtable in Beijing on Sept 29, 2011. (Cao Yin and Zheng Jinran, Social network websites ‘pose a challenge’, China Daily, September 30, 2011).

The focus of Wang’s speech was the danger and/or new problems posed by social networking Internet sites such as Facebook and Twitter. According to Wang, the challenge of social networking via the Internet is that, “Many people are considering how to prevent the abuse of these networks following violent crimes that took place in some parts of the world this year” (Cao and Zheng, 2011).

A potential problem for China is that the Chinese-version of Twitter is the social networking site of Weibo, which presently enjoys a membership or enrollment of 300 million members or netizens. China’s total Internet users number more than 500 million, which, although only by innuendo, makes Weibo and its growing number of netizens a potential problem.

Further elaborating on the dangers of social networks, according to Wang, “Everyone involved should observe the law and safeguard the norms of social morality. The Internet should not be used to jeopardize the national or public interest, or the legitimate rights and interests of other citizens.”

Joining the chorus on the dangers of social networking was reportedly Xie Yungeng, a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, whom also essentially agrees with Wang. Xie reportedly focused on the growing number of Internet users, especially teenagers or those young of age, turning to online and virtual worlds, thereby increasing the potential for them and/or the Internet to have a negative impact on real life (Cao and Zheng, 2011).

In all of this ceremony regarding the problems and dangers of the Internet, these spoke persons ignored the issues of freedom of choice and/or Internet freedom. Additionally, the association of the Internet with violent crimes that took place in other parts of the world (i.e., North Africa, Libya, Egypt, etc.) ignores the reality of the potential of the Internet or Internet freedom to promote democracy in action. 

All of this leaves us with a reminder that what hails as the Tunisian revolution (a.k.a. “Jasmine Revolution”), which took place from December 2010 to January 2011, and ends with the ouster of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is subject to different perspectives via different political preferences. From a Western perspective, especially Western media, the Tunisian revolution represented the struggle for better living conditions, and political freedoms such as  freedom of speech, and impliedly Internet freedom.

Moreover, this is the gist of Wang’s concern with Internet freedom, especially a social network such as Weibo, which is the Internet home to about 300 million Chinese netizens. In February 2011, there were admittedly calls by activists to attempt to initiate a Chinese-version of a “Jasmine Revolution.”  It was an unsuccessful call from activists, however.

As reported by the New York Times, the calls by activists did not hardly measure up to what earlier occurred in North African countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. First, the initial call by activists was for Chinese citizens to show or express their displeasure at the lack of reforms by silently meeting in front of department stores or other publics places (Ian Johnson, Calls for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China Persist, The New York Times, February 23, 2011).

Secondly, and more importantly, unlike what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, during the weekend of silent meetings, China’s government “rounded up lawyers, activists and dissidents, increased online censorship and deployed massive numbers of police to quash any demonstrations” (Ramzy, 2011). Thus, putting an end to an intended “Jasmine Revolution” in China.

All of this ultimately leaves issues of greater political freedoms, democracy reforms, and Internet freedom on the back burner. In other words, earlier promises of greater democracy by many leaders remain pending, and in the far distant future.

Copyright © Protected – All Rights Reserved M. Ulric Killion, 2011.


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