[Draft paper prepared for 9th Annual Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers held in Copenhagen Oct 15-18, 2008]
China: Netizen Impact on Government Policy and Media Practice
In this article, I present several examples where the activity of netizens has had an impact on Chinese society. I seek to demonstrate developing relations between netizens and the media in China and netizens and the government of China. I hope to show that Chinese speaking netizens have demonstrated that active participation by a critical mass of net users in online discussions, petitions, posts and protests can influence national public opinion, activate the mainstream media, check actions of the authorities and set some of the political agenda of China. There is evidence that netizens are developing into a substantial force beginning to exercise some political power and contributing to developing Chinese society in the direction of greater citizen participation. In the process netizens are finding new forms and new means to assert the will of the people whether or not it is in line with current government policies.
Internet adoption in China is rapidly expanding as it has been since 1995. Such expansion is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. It was reported in July 2008 by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) that there are more than 253 million Internet users in China.1 In comparison, the US was reported to have 223 million users. Such numbers are only approximations and in the Chinese case probably unknowable because of wide spread account sharing and multiple aliases. Approximately 40% or over 100 million of these users in China participate in online forums, some of whom also contribute to the over 100 million Chinese language blogs. CNNIC reports that a still smaller set of net users, about 23% or 59 million are active contributors to forum and chat room discussions. Among the users in this group, I would locate net users who are “netizens”, who practice some form of netizenship, that is, contribute actively to the Internet to effect social and political change.
Netizen as a concept of scholarly interest was first analyzed in the research of Michael Hauben at Columbia University starting in 1992. Hauben had participated in the mid and late 1980s on local hobbyist run bulletin board systems (BBSs) and in global Usenet newsgroups. He writes that he became aware of “a new social institution, an electronic commons developing.”2 He undertook research to explore how and why these communications forums served as an electronic commons. He posted questions on newsgroups, mailing lists and portals and found a very high level “of mutual respect and sharing of research and ideas fostering a sense of community and participation.”3 Hauben found social and political issues being discussed with seriousness in this online community which the conventional media and his school courses rarely if ever covered or covered only from a narrow angle.
Hauben documented in the book, Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet4 which he co-authored with Ronda Hauben that he found in this community of net users many for whom their self identity was generated by their online participation. Users who found online forums were tempted to participate and identify with others who participated. Such users often found others with shared interest. As social beings, when they can participate, have others to participate with and see the chance to have an effect, most people will be active. Hauben found that there were people online who identify the net as their “place”, who actively use and take up to defend public communication, they oppose censorship and disruptive online behavior. He recognized this identification and behavior as a form of network citizenship. He contracted “net.citizen”, the name on Usenet for such people, into “netizen” to express the new online non-geographically based social identity and net citizenship he attributed to these people.
As the Internet spread in the mid and late 1990s around the world so did the online self-identity and practice of netizenship. Two uses of the word netizen emerged. Especially in analyzing the net in China, it is necessary to distinguish between all net users (wang min meaning ‘network people’ in Chinese) and those users who participate constructively concerning social and political issues in forums and chat rooms or on their blogs.5 This second category is the users who come online for public rather than simply for personal and entertainment purposes. They act as citizens of the net (wang luo gong min meaning ‘network citizens’ in Chinese) and are the netizens of this article. The distinction must be emphasized because the Chinese characters for network person wang min are very often translated into English as “netizen”.
I strictly adopt the second usage. Not all net users are netizens. My usage is similar to that of Haiqing Yu who writes, “I use ‘netizen’ in a narrow sense to mean ‘Net plus citizen.’ or ‘citizen on the net.’ Netizens are those who use the Internet as a venue for exercising citizenship through rational public debates on social and political issues of common concern.”6 I add, however, that netizens are not only ‘citizens on the net’ but also ‘citizens of the net’ signifying those who actively contribute to the development and defense of the net as a global communications platform.7
In the examples and discussion to follow, it is important to recognize that the Internet is basically global. Geographic and political boundaries on the net are weaker than in the physical world. There are approximately 34 million Chinese speaking people living outside of mainland China including in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and. Singapore. There are perhaps at any one time 380,000 Chinese students studying aboard.8 For example, in 2008 there were approximately 67,000 students from China studying temporarily in the US. Many Chinese speaking people outside of China take a keen interest in social and political issues in China. Those online often participate in forums, chat rooms and blogs hosted on servers in China and outside. Chinese speaking netizens outside China gain from the richness and vibrancy of the mainland netizen community and add viewpoints, media clips and information which further enrich the information environment and discussions in which netizens in China participate. Efforts at what the government and party of China call supervision and netizens call censorship have only a limited effect in part because of the borderless essence of the Internet. In the examples that follow it is often likely but difficult to tell whether netizens from outside China have participated.
Information and communication technology (ICT), for at least the last 15 or 20 years, has been officially promoted as one of the most important driving forces of China’s economic development. The Chinese government and party actively support the spread of the Internet and its active use by people within China. Zixue Tai in his book, The Internet in China: Cyberspace and Civil Society reports, “The Chinese government has displayed an unusual level of enthusiasm in embracing the Internet since the mid-1990s . . . by investing heavily in the infrastructure and in promoting Internet use among its government agencies, businesses, and citizens.”9 Another scholar commented, “In China, if the government does not push, hardly anything grows so quickly.”10 When reporting about the Internet by media outside of China, the predominant stress of censorship in China misses this level of support and adoption. The long standing governance philosophy and practice of “benevolent” supervision and guidance in all aspects of Chinese society is still prevalent and results in the censorship emphasized by that media.11 But official emphasis on “reform and opening” especially economic market oriented development is changing the nature of such supervision and guidance. The result is the rapid spread of the Internet and its active use (averaging for net users in China almost three hours per day) supported by the highest government and party officials. Broadband and mobile access was by the middle of 2008 already available to about 20% of the population. Although still disproportionately in the urban areas and with 80% of the people of China without Internet access, the level, speed of adoption and the active participation by net users is significant. A foreign journalist working in Beijing commented that users in China "are usually too busy enjoying the Internet they have to lament the Internet they do not have." And, as the examples which follow show, many of them are using it with the purpose of social and political improvement.
II. Examples Thallium Poisoning (1995)12 After an official top level decision in 1994 to connect China to the Internet, the government of China supported and encouraged Internet use for science and education. By 1995, students at least in the major Chinese universities began to have Internet access.
In March of that year, a student at Beijing University, Ms Zhu Ling, lie near death from a mysterious disease that was stumping the doctors at Peking Union Medical College Hospital (PUMCH), one of the best in China. Ms Zhu’s high school friends, Cai Quanqing and Bei Zhicheng decided it was not inappropriate to use the Internet to seek help for her. They composed in English a description of the symptoms and searched for where online to post it. They found on Usenet, a world wide bulletin board system (BBS), newsgroups (forums) like sci.med, sci.med.diseases.cancer and sci.med.pathology. On these they posted their description with a subject “Urgent!!! Need diagnostic advice for sick friend”. They included an email address at Tsinghua University where they could be reached.
The message was transmitted via telephone circuits and satellites to users of Usenet at hospitals and universities in the US, Germany, India, Scotland, and elsewhere. Some who read the message reposted it to email lists and other forums. Within a few hours Ms Zhu’s friends were receiving the first messages of sympathy, encouragement and help. Within two weeks over 600 email messages arrived. The disease was diagnosed by 30% of the doctors responding as thallium poisoning. One of those doctors had colleagues at the PUMCH whom he contacted with the reasons for the diagnosis. Many students helped translate the email messages into Chinese so the doctors could understand them. But still Ms Zhu’s parents had on their own to get a lab to test for thallium. The test was positive. The email messages suggested possible treatments. With the help of two poison centers in the US, a recommended treatment saved Ms Zhu’s life. By then because of the damage she suffered from the poison she had serious neurological damage and permanent physical impairment.
The story of this online request from Chinese students for diagnostic and therapeutic assistance led the field of telemedicine to appreciate the Internet as a potential diagnostic tool. The students, using the net for a constructive social purpose and contributing to online telemedicine were acting as early netizens.
In the years that followed the saving of her life, the same friends of Ms Zhu put up a Help Zhu website. In 2006, netizens in China used a forum on the popular site Tianya to again discuss Ms Zhu’s disease and the possibility that her roommate in1995 had deliberately poisoned her. Some netizens argued that the evidence was enough to accuse the room mate of attempted murder. Others felt accusing the room mate 11 years later adds the room mate as a victim of the crime. The case remains unsolved.
Jiangxi Village School Explosion (2001)
On March 6, 2001 at 11:10am, a large explosion caused the collapse of a two story school building in Fanglin Village, Wanzi County, Jiangxi Province about 900 miles South of Beijing. At the time, the National People’s congress was in its annual session. Many domestic and overseas journalists where in Beijing to cover the Congress. The local, national and international press gave substantial coverage of the explosion. Thirty-six school children, four teachers and one villager were reported killed. At the time of the explosion, fireworks production dominated the economy of Jiangxi Province. There was the possibility that fireworks were somehow involved in the tragedy.
Portal13 sites hosted in China such as sina.com, sohu.com, yahoo.com and netease.com are required by Chinese law to post news only from licensed news sources. So all portals have partnered with licensed newspapers. In this case, there was much news coverage and the portal news sections quickly contained many stories about the explosion, eagerly but sadly read by many net users. To begin with, the portal news sections posted details of the explosion including speculation about the possibility that firework production had had something to do with it. Besides their news sections, as soon as it was clear many people were upset by the tragedy, portals created hot topic sections, special chat room sessions and forum topics for the discussion of the explosion. In the first few days, over 1000 netizens commented on sina.com alone, expressing for example dissatisfaction with low government spending on education or speculating on the role of corruption in the explosion. Many messages questioned why children had to make money for their school through manufacturing fireworks.14 But three days after the explosion, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji answering questions from Hong Kong journalists explained that fireworks were not the cause. Instead a man with a mental problem caused the explosion and died in the blast. Most Chinese news media from then on framed their stories about the explosion as the tragic result of the action of a “lone mad man.”
News coverage of the official explanation had wide and rapid distribution among internet users. But that did not close the door to online speculation that fireworks manufacture may have been involved. Many netizens expressed a high level of disbelief in the “lone mad man” explanation, considering it a cover up. Apparently referring to the Premier, someone posted on sina.com, “Here comes a ‘madman’”.15 Many netizens tried to gather more evidence and analyze the facts uncovered. News coverage by Hong Kong and foreign media was reposted on forums and discussed in chat rooms where netizens questioned why reporters were blocked from reporting from the village. Local netizens in Wanzi county posted first hand accounts and interviews they did with parents, surviving students and government officials. They also posted background information about their county and local school practices relative to firework manufacture. Even after Premier Zhu’s endorsement of the official story, these posts suggested the involvement of fireworks since many schools in the county have some such arrangements to generate income for the schools.
Angry netizens from all over China vented disbelief and disgust at the tragedy. The under funding of rural schools was criticized especially when large amounts of money were being spent with higher priority like to procure the Olympic Games for China. One poster wrote, “If the military budget is 1000 yuan, 10 percent increase is 100. But if funding for education is 1 yuan, 100% increase gives only 2 yuan. Education per capita needs absolute not percentage increase.”16 There were calls online for the resignation or firing of the Governor and Minister of Education of Jiangxi Province and even of Premier Zhu. As in many similar situations, a social issue was becoming a political issue. One early comment on a sina.com forum read, “The government conclusion may be truthful. But why so many people don’t believe it? It seems our government’s credibility among the public is reduced to nil, which is the most pitiful.”17
On March 9, after a flood of comments criticizing and questioning the government, sina.com closed the subsection of its forum devoted to the school explosion. Whether the closing was the result of government action or solely on the part of sina.com management’s own judgment has not been established. But the Strong Nation Forum (qiangguo luntan) on People’s Net (renmin wang) did not close a similar forum, only monitored it closely and deleted messages judged as inappropriate. Many netizens continued posting in other sections of the sina.com, playing word games to avoid using sensitive words like ‘explosion’ or ‘Jiangxi’ that were being used to filter posts. The issue of the death of children was overwhelming and many Chinese people had a means and chose to speak out despite efforts at control.
On March 15, 2001 in a televised press conference,18 Premier Zhu Rongji made a statement admitting that “the school in 1999 did ask some students to mount fuse to fireworks in the name of work-for-study.” He promised that “we will never allow anyone to ask students or minors to engage in activities and work that will pose danger to their lives.” Premier Zhu did not directly reverse his earlier explanation but he did say, “The State Council has not performed its mission properly. I feel very sad and I carry a very heavy heart. I want to apologize and review and reflect on my own work.” Premier Zhu reported that he had ordered the Ministry of Public Security to find the truth using a team of undercover agents. The result was Premier Zhu’s nearly unprecedented apology. Three weeks later the party secretary and governor of Jiangxi Province were both removed from office. The netizens had quickly and continuously gathered and distributed facts and analysis and skepticism not only for themselves and the rest of the public but also for journalists and for the government, and not just locally but nationally.
The Death of Sun Zhigang19 (2003)
In 1982, to help control migration of rural Chinese people to the cities, the Chinese government instituted “Measures for Internment and Deportation of Urban Vagrants.”20 On March 17, 2003 a college graduate from the city of Wuhan working in Guangzhou (formally also known by the English name Canton) was stopped for an identity check perhaps connected with the then ongoing SARS epidemic. He was detained because he did not have the necessary temporary residence card. In the police station he contacted two friends who came quickly to vouch for him and his employed status. The police would not release him. Three days later his friends tried to contact him and were notified that he died from a heart attack. After learning of Mr. Sun’ death, his relatives and friends contacted the local police for an explanation but received no definite answer.
With financial help from Mr. Sun’s former classmates, his family was able to have an autopsy performed which indicated that Mr. Sun was brutally beaten before his death. One of the classmates studying media in Beijing posted an appeal for help concerning Mr. Sun’s death on Peach Flower Port, a cyber forum for discussion among media professionals from all over China. A journalist working for the South Metropolitan Daily (Nanfang Dushi Bao) took the Peach Flower Port post as a lead and decided to initiate interviews of the family and authorities involved.21 About one month after the death, a detailed report about it appeared in the South Metropolitan Daily with the headline, “University graduate detained and cruelly beaten to death for not showing temporary residence card.”22 On the same day, the journalist also made the report available online on Southern Net (Nanfang Wang).23
Following the South Metropolitan Daily and Southern Net reports, the news was picked up by editors of other online news portals. The net was quickly flooded with comments and appeals for justice. Major national forums like Strong Nation Forum (qiangguo luntan), Development Forum (fazhan luntan) and China Youth Forum (zhongqing luntan) featured extensive, sometimes very serious discussions of the detention system, the death of Mr. Sun and its implications. Other netizens commented on their blogs about the obvious injustice and denial of his constitutional rights. Portal sites made the case a hot topic where all related stories were posted. Chinese language forums outside of China like United Morning Post Forum (zaobao luntan) in Singapore and Current Affair Review (shishi pingshu) based in North America also featured active discussions of the case.
A memorial page was launched by a software engineer. It eventually received over 200,000 visits, many visitors leaving comments, messages of sadness and some money donations to the family. On this site and in the forums, netizens criticized this and other cases of police brutality. Others went further, demanding an end to the official policy that treated migrants as lower class citizens.
Other newspapers picked up the story or published their own, feeding more online ferment. The intense online reaction influenced further reporting first by big non-governmental media and then by the mainstream national media including CCTV (China Central TV) and People’s Daily (voice of the CCP). A special committee was formed by the Guangzhou government to investigate Sun’s death. The blunt denial to the investigators of responsibility by the police enraged the netizens. They reacted with critical comments now focusing on the investigation procedures.
Contributions of articles, responses, comments and calls for action appeared on portals and in forums from online activists, lawyers, and academics all of whom had no other option but online where their critical analysis could be published. Online news articles typically received tens of thousands of responses. Blog entries and live chat discussions formulated demands for a thorough investigation, punishment for those involved, change or abolition of vagrancy measures and other anti-vagrant regulations, and an immediate end to deportations. The combination of online outrage and mainstream media coverage made the case a topic of household conversation everywhere in China. People’s Daily began to publish selected netizen comments in its online news section. Pressure from online communities, social groups and the central government prompted the local officials to initiate a more serious investigation. The investigators acknowledged that netizen pressure, in particular an online post “The Sun Zhigang Case: Who is Playing Deaf?” criticizing local government evasiveness, added to their determination resulting in thirteen arrests reported on May 13. An open trial from June 5 to 9 ended with 12 convictions including one death sentence. Twenty-three governmental officials and police officers were disciplined for their roles in the death.
Even after the arrest, online petitions were circulated and online protest letters were addressed to the National People’s Congress and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate calling for abolition of the current custody and repatriation system. Such letters almost never appear in Chinese off line media. On May 15, a netizen posted an article, “On the Violation of ‘Legislation Law’ by the Holding System: The Case of Sun Zhigang” on People Net (Renmin wang) a government site which was followed by an examination of the existing anti-vagrancy laws. On June 18, after over 20 years of enforcement, the State Council decide to abolished the 1982 Measures on custody and repatriation of urban vagrants under which Mr. Sun had been detained. New measures were initiated which did not allow for detention but required a system of help for homeless people be available on a voluntary basis.
The collaboration of netizen and traditional media set the news agenda and helped public opinion to form so that the death of Sun Zhigang an ordinary person was given extensive national coverage. This lead to the relatively quick end of a long standing oppressive and discriminatory law. One scholar described this as “one of the first cases of popular opinion overriding and resetting official agendas and the first demonstration of the sociopolitical power of Chinese netizenship.”24