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Jasmine Revolution Protest in Beijing organized
through the Internet and Twitter-like microblogs
According to the New York Times:“The surprising power of online communities in China has Communist Party leaders worried about the ability of online social networks to spread viral messages that could ignite social movements, and pose a challenge to the party and its leaders.” [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, April 18, 2010]

“For the government, the scary part of the Internet is the unpredictable power of its organization, said Yang Guobin, an associate professor at Barnard College and author of The Power of the Internet in China (Columbia University Press, 2009). Although people are there socializing, it can provide a platform for lots of other activities, and even turn political, he said. But at this juncture entertainment trumps politics on the Web in China.”

Even with pervasive restraints, “China’s press and Internet are capable of freewheeling discourse and social criticism. Newspapers, blogs and online chats have unleashed national outrages over a host of topics, including food and medicine contamination and local corruption. Bloggers continually tweak the censors, leaking their orders and creating an online land of mythical creatures whose names are all homonyms for aspects of the state’s heavy hand.” [Source: Michael Wines, Sharon Lafraniere and Jonathan Ansfield, New York Times, April 7, 2010]

There have been politically-oriented bloggers in China, some who have ended up in jail. Many bloggers try to get around the censors by publishing a number of blogs, hosted on different Internet sites: because censorship rules are vague and the censors merely human, a post that one blocks may be ignored or overlooked by another. Some bloggers argue that growing restrictions on Internet speech only inflame ordinary users, and that bit by bit people are pushing the wall back.

Government oversight of the Internet increased markedly in December 2008, after a pro-democracy movement led by Liu Xiaobo, later a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and other highly regarded intellectuals released the online petition Charter 08 calling for an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Shortly after its release, government censors began a campaign, ostensibly against Internet pornography and other forms of deviance. By mid-February, the government effort had shut down more than 1,900 Web sites and 250 blogs — not only overtly pornographic sites, but also online discussion forums, instant-message groups and even cellphone text messages in which political and other sensitive issues were broached. Among the most prominent Web sites that were closed down was, a widely read forum whose liberal-minded bloggers had written in detail about Charter 08. China Digital Times, called it the most vicious crackdown in years. [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, March 11, 2009]

Book: “The Power of the Internet in China” by Yang Guobin, an associate professor at Barnard College, (Columbia University Press, 2009).

Chinese Cyberactivists

20111030-Human rights in China Wangfujing Street 3.jpg
Jasmine Revolution Protest in Beijing
Over the years t a number of people in mainland China have turned to the Internet to speak up for the plight of powerless ordinary people who are oppressed by their local governments. Helped and supported by scores of volunteers, many of whom are victims of human-rights abuse themselves, they hope they can exert pressure on the government to compromise and make changes by exposing injustice. [Source: Verna Yu, Asia Times, March 21, 2009]

These Internet activists are typically in their late 30s, university-educated and 20 years ago were impressionable young adults who witnessed the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. One activist told the Asian Times, “That movement had a tremendous impact on me ... started rethinking China's political system and recognized that democratization is a world trend and only a democratic political system can prevent another massacre from happening.”

Among the causes the activists take up are land seizures, forced demolitions, harassment of activists and wrongdoings of officials. Lu Jun, a campaigner at the health rights advocacy group Beijing Yirenping Center, said the group's online petitions held a few years ago helped push the central government to make progress on an anti-discrimination law against hepatitis B patients.

In the late 2000s, Liu Feiyue ran the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch (“Minsheng Guancha”) website, which exposed cases of rights abuses across the country. Working out of a 20-square-meter home in central China's Hubei province, the former teacher spent most of his waking hours on the Internet and slept just six hours a day. Running from a server in the United States, his website was updated every day with new reports of rights abuse incidents — an important source of information for the foreign media and international rights bodies, though it is blocked in China. To gather data he uses a range of Internet communication tools, such as instant messenger programs and e-mail as well as mobile phone text messages and a fax to receive complaints of rights cases. Living under surveillance became part of his daily life and his family. He is regularly followed and his neighbors are ordered by authorities to watch his movements.

Internet-Related Arrests in China

As of early 2007, 52 people were in prison for online activities, more than any other country, according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. In comparison 54 people were in prison in February 2004 and 33 people were in prison in November 2002. Amnesty International insists these numbers are only “a fraction” of those actually in jail for Internet-related crimes. Some are activists who have been arrested on charges of trying to overthrow the government for posting an open letter calling for political reform. Many are relatively ordinary people accused of posting material on the Internet that government deemed inappropriate.

One Chinese man was sentenced to prison for “inciting the overthrow of state power" after he e-mailed 30,000 Chinese computer users about a U.S.-based pro-democracy Internet magazine. A high school teacher was arrested on similar charges for posting articles critical of the government on his website. In November 2002, Liu Di, a 20-year-old, bespectacled female student who called herself Stainless Steel Supermouse on the Internet, was imprisoned for a year after she posted some Internet articles that 1) defended dissidents who were imprisoned for airing their views; 2) called for more freedoms; and 3) and jokingly demanded the creation of new political party in which everyone could be chairmen. She was never formally accused of a crime. She was released after her case drew international attention.

In April 2004, a woman was sentenced to 18 months in a labor camp for posting an article on the Internet that criticized the central government for the way it handled public complaints. The women had her home in Shanghai destroyed to make way for development and had tried to petition the government to have something done about it.

In March 2006, a 27-year-old teacher named Ren Ziyuan was sentenced to 10 years in prison for publishing an anti-government essay on the Internet called The Road to Democracy. In May 2006, Yang Tianshui, a veteran dissident writer, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for subversion for posting essays on a blog that supported a movement by exiles to hold free elections. Many have condemned these punishments as being extraordinarily harsh.

One very vocal critic of the government that has managed to avoid arrest told the New York Times that the secret to staying out of jail is knowing where to draw the line. “If you talk every day online and criticize the government they don’t care because it is just talk. But if you try to organize — even if its just three or four people — that’s what the crackdown on. It’s not speech; its organizing.”

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Wangfujing Street in Beijing during Jasmine Revolution Protest

Coup Rumors Spur China to Hem in Social Networking Sites

During the period in 2011 and 2012 when one of China's most charismatic politicians Bo Xilai was ousted, investigated and imprisoned, things got a little crazy in China. the Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: China started a sweeping crackdown of its vibrant social networking media over the weekend, detaining six people, closing 16 Web sites and shutting off the comment function for China’s two most popular microblogs, run by and Tencent. The campaign, which was put in place in stages over two days was directly linked to the political instability that has gripped China since Bo Xilai, lost his post in March. That spurred rumors of a coup, which the government-run Xinhua news agency cited as the reason for the measures. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, March 31, 2012]

Xinhua quoted an official with the State Internet Information Office as saying that the sites had spread reports of “military vehicles entering Beijing and something wrong going on in Beijing.” The reports, which Xinhua said were carried on the sites, and, stemmed from disagreements among senior leaders over whether to remove Mr. Bo, who is being investigated over accusations of corruption and abuse of power. One of his backers, the senior leader Zhou Yongkang, was said to be behind the planned coup, although most Chinese analysts have discounted this as a fabrication.

In addition to the six detainees — whose names were not released — Xinhua said others were “admonished and educated” and had promised to “repent.” The sites that were closed were relatively minor players in China. More noticeable for most Chinese was the decision to shut off the commenting services for microblogs run by the Sina Corporation and Tencent Holdings, which each have 300 million registered accounts.

On Sina’s Weibo service, users who tried to comment on posts after 8 a.m. Saturday were greeted with a message saying that microblogs contained “many rumors and illegal, destructive information.” The shutdown was necessary, the notice said, “to carry out a concentrated cleanup.” It said comments would be allowed starting Tuesday morning. The measures allowed users to post, but not comment on others’posts.

Chinese Cybernationalists

Chinese cybernationalists seize on anything seen as anti-Chinese and attack those who are perceived of instigating it. There is little hard evidence that instigators and hackers involved with such groups have ties with the Beijing government although it is widely believed they are.

Nationalism today is largely driven through exchanges on the Internet and e-mail. Cybernationalists see Chinese history as a series of conspiracies, schemes and betrayals at the hands of foreigners who are also blamed for almost every bad thing that happens to China today. Declining Chinese stocks are blamed on foreign speculators who “wildly manipulate” Chinese stock markets and lure investors to take their money out of China. These nationalists talk of a global “currency war” to “make Chinese people foot the bill” for America’s financial woes.

The cybernationalists are known for being particularly nasty to anyone who defies their agenda. Among the responses to criticism of their positions have been “someone give me a gun! Don’t show mercy to the enemy!” And “People who fart through the mouth will get shit stuffed down their throats by me!”

As the attack on Google in January 2010 showed the victims of cyber attacks are just as likely to be private companies as military or government targets with the aims being to steal computer source codes, company secrets and strategies, and intellectual property or to implant spyware or disruptive malware or otherwise disrupt the target company . The hackers often use a “1,000 grains of sand” approach, meaning they collect every bit of information they can and sift through it for intelligence. Many companies that are victims of such attacks regard them as an embarrassment and keep quiet about them.

A report by the congressional U.S.-China commission noted Chinese espionage is sometimes “straining the U.S. capacity to respond.” The report focused on one attack and concluded that it was supported and possibly orchestrated by the Chinese government.

Book: “Chinese Cyber Nationalism” by Xu Wu, a former journalist in China now at Arizona State University.

Attacks on Tibet and Other Activities by Chinese Cybernationalists

Hackers have caused the website for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing to display the slogan “Down with Barbarians” and made the White House website crash under flood of angry e-mail. In preparation for a wave anti-Japanese protests in the mid 2000s, anti-Japanese messages were broadcast via chat rooms, bulletin boards and text messages. When the protests were at their peak in Shanghai the Shanghai police cut off cell phone service to downtown Shanghai.

One of the most viewed video in the Internet in 2008 was a piece called “2008 China Stand Up”, a work made from snatched video and photos — by a Fudan university student named Tang Jie, who called himself CTGZ — that drew a million hits in its first week and half online. It begins with a run down of “farces, schemes and disasters” thrown at the Chinese by foreigners, then cuts to images of Tibetan rioters and a montage of pressing clippings critical of China, with CNN and BBC logos giving way to images of Nazi and accusations the West s stirring up a “new Col War.” From there it moves on to protesters attempting to disrupt the Olympic torch relay and ends with a Chinese flag and the promise: “We will stand up and hold together always as one family in harmony!”

After writing a piece about the disruption of the Olympic torch relay in London, one Times reporter received an e-mail that read: “Hope someday someone will spit in your face. Your name will be recorded in Chinese history book forever as one of cold-blooded, Hitler-type, murder’s assistant.” Other foreign reporters who have received much worse as well as death threats have been worried enough to move their offices.

The Dalai Lama has said that hackers have hacked into his computers and those of the Tibetan exile community and accessed e-mail and information, in one case getting information about a request for an Indian visa, with the Chinese government contacting an Indian embassy and telling them not to grant the visa. In other cases hackers have gained access to e-mails between exile offices just a few kilometers apart in Dharamsala.

The Dalai Lama has said he is not sure who the hackers are but is sure the stolen information finds its way to the Chinese government, A Canadian research group called the Information Warfare Monitors which looks into the matter said mainland hackers they have researched tend to be very nationalistic and “place as much importance on sovereignty [over Tibet] as Beijing does.”

Sinking of Vietnamese Boat Stirs Online Chinese Nationalists

Chinese nationalists — and many ordinary Chinese — have come out in force whenever there is an opportunity to express anti-Japanese or support for China for their activity in the South China Sea. In May 2014, when a Chinese fishing boat rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat about 32 kilometers from a deep sea oil rig that China has placed in waters contested by both countries, the reaction in social media appeared overwhelmingly supportive — even bellicose. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, Sinosphere blog, New York Times, May 27, 2014]

The New York Times reported: “Critical voices appeared to be censored, including one that sharply criticized the Chinese Foreign Ministry, saying a comment it made about Vietnam after the incident calling into question the country’s credibility was “beneath the dignity” of a major power. But most commentators whose opinions were permitted to remain online by China’s tens of thousands of censors in the police and Internet companies, seemed excited by the action.

““Chinese fishermen are mighty! There are still heroes among the people!” wrote a person with the online handle Hou Ning on his Sina Weibo account. According to Vietnamese accounts, the 10 fishermen aboard the boat that sank were all rescued. Other social media sites also showed support for the action of the Chinese boat, such as on the popular Phoenix, or ifeng, bulletin board. “This finally shows some backbone,” wrote a commenter in Hubei Province, garnering more than 6,600 thumbs-up signs.

“The top-ranking comment on, with nearly 13,000 thumbs-up, from someone in Beijing with the handle Smog in the Imperial Capital, suggested that the Chinese were only doing to the Vietnamese what others have done to the Chinese. ““South Korea detains Chinese fishermen. Japan detains Chinese fishermen,” the person wrote. “Russia attacks them with cannons. A Chinese fishing boat rams and sinks a Vietnamese fishing boat, hahahahahahaha.”

Internet Justice in China

The Internet has provided ordinary people with a forum for seeking justice that is otherwise denied in the legal system. Xiao Qian of the Berkeley China Internet Project told the Los Angeles Times, “In other societies you can turn to the media or the legal system but in China neither is credible. People don’t trust the government. They don’t have anywhere else to turn, so they go to the Internet.”

In one celebrated case of web justice a 21-year-old girl was found dead in her dormitory in 2003 and many thought her boyfriend” a young man from a well-connected family — did it even though he was not charged. Tens of thousands of Internet users followed the case and spoke out about it. Finally officials arrested the boyfriend. (He was eventually found not guilty but his family paid the dead woman’s family $75,000).

In the mid 2000s there was a case in which a woman from Heilonjiang Province made a web video in which she slammed a stiletto high heel into a kitten’s eyes and killed the poor creature by crushing its head. People who saw the video were so outraged they launched an Internet witch hunt to find out who she was. Within five days the park where the video was filmed was recognized and with that bit of information Internet sleuths were able to track down the woman’s name and occupation (a nurse) and well as that of the video cameraman ( man who worked for a local television bureau). The woman’s and the cameraman’s names, home addresses, phone and identity card numbers were listed and people were invited to harass them, which they did. [Source: Ching-Ching No, October 16, 2006, Los Angeles Times]

Zhou Jiugeng, an official in Nanjing, was spotted wearing a $25,000 watch, something far beyond the reach of the pay of a civil servants. An investigation launched after the Internet buzz found that Zhu had accepted $200,000 in bribes. He was fired, prosecuted and sentenced to 11 years in jail.

In October 2009, 19-year-old driver Sun Zhongjie was using his company minivan to run errands in Shanghai. A man on the street flagged him down and asked him for a ride. Minutes later police surrounded the van, accusing Sun of operating an illegal taxi, The van was confiscated, Sun was fined $1,400 and was fired from his job. Knowing he had no legal recourse he instead chopped up his left pinkie in public as a declaration of his innocense and hope the publicity would bring attention to his plight. The story of his finger cuting was picked up by a couple of national newspapers and after that word of what he had done quickly spread on the Internet. This prompted an investigation, When the investigation concluded that the police had done nothing wrong, the uproar became louder. Another investigation was launched. This time the ruling was in Sun’s favor and it was decided that he wouldn’t have to pay the fine. [Source: Keith Richburg, Washington Post, November 210]

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Environmental Protest in Xiamen organized through the Internet and text messages

On Online Viciousness in China

Lu Jingxian wrote in the state- backed Global Times: “The Internet, an important channel for ordinary Chinese to vent their dissatisfaction and expose injustices, has also become a source of defamation and libel...There is no shortage of examples of how the Internet has brought down public officials and celebrities for crossing the ethical bottom line. But the Internet can also reach deep into ordinary people's lives and victimize innocents.” [Source:Lu Jingxian, Global Times, May 18, 2010]

“With the Internet, getting even seems to be so much easier. Deserted by your partner? Desperate wives throw up obscene pictures on popular online forums to humiliate unfaithful husbands. With condemnation from online users, justice is partly done, or so it seems....Mad at your boss? How about posting the internal memos of the company online to entertain the public? Workplace ethics and the consequent business damage count for little when individuals are eager to let their anger out. Loyalty to the company seems like an outdated idea.” “Human flesh searches,” where Internet users hunt down the real names of people who've come to public attention, can haunt the entire family of the target. Don't think that only corrupt officials or hit-and-run drivers can be the prey in such chases. A careless mistake made years ago might be enough to put someone on the list of an online witch hunt.”

“Many of the problems in the virtual world are rooted in the real world. Disrespect to different opinion, ignorance of privacy, racial prejudice, and an inability to compromise and reach consensus are part of our daily life. With the Internet providing the perfect forum, millions of grumpy messages scattered around are accumulated into a formidable opinion strong enough to mute any dissident viewpoint.”

“Traditional law is far from sufficient to rein in online irregularities. Without limits of space or anyone to play gatekeeper, online opinion tends to be more biased and extreme, as long as it gets the most clicks. There are hardly any taboo topics or limits of freedom of speech on the Internet. But technology is neutral, and only the people who use it make the difference.

Chinese Internet forums were then filled with anti-Western diatribes that the ruling Communist Party appears to allow.

Internet Vigilantes in China

There have been some abuses of this system — which is essentially vigilante Internet justice. In 2005 there was a case in which a girl posted an online message saying that she desperately needed money to pay for a transplant operation for her mother. She had collected more than $12,500, including some from overseas Chinese, when web users began questioning the girls’s story after she was allegedly spotted with a fancy new cell phone and expensive clothes. Internet sentiments turned against the girl whose mother was unable to get the transplant and died. After that questions were raised about the cell phone and new clothes report and the source of the report was attacked.

Internet vigilantes, especially those outraged by perceived moral lapses such as marital infidelity, have launched cyberattacks on their victims: sending huge volumes of abusive e-mails, flooding phones, faxes and electronic mailboxes with so much garbage they are unusable.

In April 2008, after the riots in Tibet and surge of nationalism in China, a Chinese student at Duke University in the United States became the target of vicious Internet campaign. The student, a young woman named Wang Qianyuan, attempted to act as an intermediary in a confrontation between a dozen or so Tibetans and 100 or so nationalistic Chinese students at Duke and wrote “Save Tibet” with blue body paint on the back of one of the Tibetans. For that she was branded a traitor and became the object of a Internet vigilante campaign.

Wang’s picture was posted on the Internet with “Traitor to her country” written across her forehead. Someone posted Wang’s national identification number and her parents' address and phone number on the Internet and mercilessly attacked her on Internet chat lines. One user wrote: “Make us lose so much face. Shoot her where she stands.” Her parents were forced to flee their house in Qingdai and go into hiding. The windows of their house were smashed. Attackers dumped a bucket of excrement on their doorstep and posted a picture of it on the Internet.

Human Flesh Search Engines

Blogs sometimes serve as underground police and morality and corruption checks in China. “Human flesh search engines” is the term used to describe the online of community of cyber sleuths and vigilantes that use the Internet to expose perceived wrongdoers and bring attention to mistakes made by the media and the government. The community has millions of members and a following that numbers at least in the tens of million and perhaps hundreds of millions.

“Human Flesh Search Engines” (known as Renrou Sousuo, RRSS in China) refers “a method of tracking down offline individuals by putting together pieces of information different netizens provide” It originally started as a grassroots of seeking justice and action in response to dissatisfying and oppressive social-political conditions. It has led to positive results but also has been connected ethical concerns and controversies of Chinese Internet culture, such as the infringement of privacy, voyeurism, online bullying, and free speech.

Investigators use databases, photo analysis, search engines, social networking sites and hacking into online accounts. The most damaging postings are often video or photographs dug up somewhere that show someone doing something really bad and millions of people see it. The targets are often government officials. The government has a hard time controlling them.

One video that appeared in October 2008, showed an unnamed official in the city of Shenzhen in a confrontation with family members of an 11-year-old girl he allegedly tried to force into a restroom. In it the official said, “I did it, so what? How much money do you want? Give me a price. I will pay it.” Then he points to the girl’s father and says, “Do you now who I am? I was sent here by the Transportation Ministry in Beijing. I have the same seniority as your mayor. So what if I grabbed a little child’s neck.” It wasn’t long before the official was identified, Lin Jiaxiang, a party secretary in the Shenzhen Maritime Administration, and fired. Another cadre was fired when bloggers noticed he was wearing a $15,000 Swiss watch.

Victims of Human Flesh Search Engines

In December 2007, in a another well known case, a woman named Jiang Yan committed suicide by jumping from the 24th floor of building. In a blog found after she died she blamed her husband’s affair. Cybersleuths tracked down the husband Wang Fei, and published online details of his life. Wang received death threats and messages like “pay back your wife’s bloody death.” His parents were harassed. People picketed outside his workplace, forcing him to quit his advertising job.

Celia Hatton of the BBC News wrote. On one day in March 2013, the world changed for Yin Feng, a self-described "average guy" who worked as a part-time taxi driver in the western Chinese city of Urumqi. Just after 14:00 his mobile phone began ringing off the hook. The callers all berated the bewildered Yin, screaming obscenities and accusing him of acting like an animal. It took a while for Yin to uncover why the strangers phoning him were so upset. “Earlier that day, they told him, a driver in Urumqi had rolled down his window to spit on an elderly homeless person lying on the street. Witnesses recorded the first few digits of the spitter's number plate. The information was quickly broadcast by a local radio station.

“Thousands then banded together online to track down the perpetrator. "Driver with the licence plate A36D62, you really humiliate all men," wrote one angry internet user. "Please forward this post and let's see what kind of ugly face he has. Let's extinguish him. Die! Such a disgrace. We don't even know where he's from. Get out of Urumqi." Hours later, they zeroed in on Yin, whose number plate was a partial match, and posted his mobile number online. The internet vigilantes were wrong, Yin insists. He tried to defend himself to anyone who would listen, explaining he wasn't guilty of spitting on anyone. But as soon as Yin hung up with one angry caller, his phone would ring again. And again. And thousands of times again. [Source: Celia Hatton, BBC News, January 28, 2014]

“The phenomenon first scored attention in 2006, when many in China began to turn to the internet for the majority of their entertainment. The use of internet forums exploded during that period. One of the first notorious cases involved the search for a woman who starred in an anonymous video using the high heel of her stiletto to crush a kitten's skull. The woman, who turned out to be a nurse, was suspended from her job when her identity was revealed. She received numerous death threats and considered suicide, Chinese state television reported.

Image Sources: Human Rights in China, Wikicommons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2022

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