China’s Internet Coup: Is It A Possibility?
It started with the peculiar death of an English businessman in a hotel room in the city of Chongqing. It has descended into an epochal political crisis that threatens the stability of a country on the brink of its once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
Bo Xilai, one of the most prominent politicians in China and previously considered a likely candidate to join the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, was removed from his post as the Chongqing party chief. His wife, Gu Kailai, is under investigation for the murder of the businessman, Neil Heywood. Emerging details of the death are becoming increasingly salacious, with Boxun, a China-focused website based in the United States, claiming that he was poisoned with potassium cyanide.
The Web has been particularly active in the wake of the tumult. Indeed, this is the first crisis of its kind to occur in China since the arrival of the Internet and it is providing a stern test of the government’s strict and stringent Web censorship regimen. But will these repressive policies outlast any online political mobilization brought about by the events?
Social media is in many ways the residence of the anti-establishment. Some analysts have been quick to promote the idea that the Internet could help bring about change in China. Even the country’s most famous dissident, artist Ai Weiwei, wrote in a recent opinion piece that a new sense of freedom has risen with the Internet in China.
“It still hasn’t come to the moment that it will collapse,” he wrote of the Communist government. “That makes a lot of other states admire its technology and methods. But in the long run, its leaders must understand it’s not possible for them to control the internet unless they shut it off – and they can’t live with the consequences of that. The internet is uncontrollable. And if the internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It’s as simple as that.”
Or is it? The ability of the government to effectively kill off any problematic voices within the current turmoil suggests opposition is being successfully stymied. Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, said that the government’s heavy-handed reaction owed a lot to fears of a “coup.”
Much of what the Chinese government does to maintain its monopolization of information now revolves around the Internet, probably fearful of the ability for antitheses to flourish on the Web. With the word “coup” being used, it certainly begs the question: Can social media achieve what it did in the Arab World in China?
According to many, the answer is a categorical no.
After Bo’s dismissal in March, policymakers started a comprehensive crackdown of the country’s energetic social media scene. This included detaining six people, closing 42 websites and disallowing comments on the two biggest Twitter-like services in the country Sina Weibo and Tencent for “fabricating or disseminating online rumors,” the State Internet Information Office (SIIO) said.
The state’s Internet police force has also censored the following words and phrases:
Commission for Discipline Inspection, filed for investigation, investigate, Neil, British businessman, British housekeeper, Bo, Guagua [the son], Chongqing, King of the Southwest, Gu, Kailai, Wang Lijuan [the police chief], head nurse, Energetic Wang, Wang Li jun, wanglijun, WLJ, defect, U.S. consulate, Central Committee, usurp party leadership, political struggle, inner struggle.
Even a search for “Bo” comes up empty on the country’s major microblog Sina Weibo, as users are met with a message that translates: “In accordance with the relevant laws, regulations and policies, these search results do not show in a country without democracy and freedom, unfortunately!”
Twitter and Facebook have long been banned in the country, which allows the government to manage the messages more easily than governments in Egypt or Tunisia.
Louis Yu, a Social Computing Lab expert at HP and author of various papers on the nature of social media in China, said the swift and ruthless governmental response is not surprising at all.
“The government puts a lot of pressure on the individual sites and the people that run them get scared,” he said. “This particular incident has put pressure on the social networks.
“People cannot discuss this incident,” he added. “It is impossible. The only information comes from official releases. You can’t discuss any of these secrets.”
Historically speaking, this control of information was definitely easier for the Chinese government pre-Internet. In 1971, when the military leader Lin Biao died in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia after allegedly organizing a coup against Chairman Mao Zedong, it took a year before the Chinese public heard anything about it.
Today, the stakes are higher with more ability for the Chinese people to discuss such matters online. But according to Yu, who authored a study called “What Trends in Chinese Social Media” among others, censorship has effectively put a stop to any serious political discussion.
People also tend to use Sina Weibo to share jokes, images and videos and a significantly large percentage of posts are retweets. The trends that are formed are almost entirely due to the repeated retweets of such inconsequential media content.
“This represents an important contrast in the use of these media,” said the report of comparisons with Twitter, “with Chinese users being more inclined to share and propagate trivial content than the Twitter users.”
Some theorize that the reason for this is the government guiding these discussions, but there are also cultural antecedents, as early Chinese text memes were also of a frivolous nature. This means any sort of political activity is also more pronounced and easy to detect when it does occur.
The revolutionary mobilization effects of Twitter in the Arab World thus become increasingly difficult, almost impossible, in such a climate.
The only message that survived the censorship on Sina Weibo as of this week was this: “Living in a place with no freedom is sad.” Two people had commented
vaguely, with one saying “I remember when he [implying Bo] had his first incident – then you could discuss things, now you can’t.”
Yu hypothesized that the authorities had missed this message and left it up “by accident.”
“It is very hard to organize any political activity on Sina Weibo,” said Yu. “The government simply doesn’t want people to talk about it.”
The words of Chairman Mao seem pertinent: “As communists we gain control with the power of the gun and maintain control with the power of the pen.” Today, Mao probably would have spoke about controlling with a keyboard.
Nicholas Stone is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached on Twitter (@NicStone)