Guobin Yang: On the Persistence of Online Activism in China

The Power of the InternetTonight Guobin Yang, author of The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online will be part of a panel discussion on China’s new media landscape at the Asia Society.

The event coincides with the paperback edition of The Power of the Internet, which includes a new afterword describing new developments in online activism in China since the book’s original publication in June 2009. The following is an excerpt from “The Persistence of Online Activism,” a section from the afterword in which Yang looks at an incident in the Yunnan province that led to an online protest that revealed “that the Chinese ruling regime may be suffering a crisis of credibility.” Here is the excerpt:

“Eluding the cat” is a Chinese idiom for “hide-and-seek.” On February 12, 2009, police authorities in Yunnan province announced that Li Qiaom­ing, an inmate in a local detention center, died of fatal injuries from play­ing the game of “eluding the cat.” Doubtful of this bizarre explanation, neti­zens protested and demanded an investigation. In response, the Yunnan provincial authorities announced that an investigation committee would be set up, and in an unprecedented move, invited netizens to join. Ten out of 510 applicants were selected to form a committee with four government officials and three journalists. Subsequently, on the basis of the investiga­tion, the provincial authorities announced that Li had died of beating by fellow inmates and that officers in charge of the detention center would be punished accordingly.

The prevalence of “rights defense” and “corruption and power abuse” in online protest shows that the Chinese ruling regime may be suffering a crisis of credibility. In almost all cases, netizens protested because they did not trust official accounts of the events or because government authorities withheld information. Citizens want an open and accountable government. Online protests thus reveal a profound lack of trust in government authori­ties, especially local government agencies and officials. In the “Eluding the Cat” case, the Yunnan provincial government’s decision to include netizens in the investigation committee was an attempt to boost government cred­ibility, which was as much the issue in question as the death of the inmate.

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