“There are military vehicles everywhere. Chang’an Avenue in Beijing is completely shut down. There are plainclothes police at every street corner. Some intersections have been fenced off and completely blocked.” These few simple phrases were posted to the Sina Weibo microblog feed of Chinese journalist Li Den Lin last March 19th. Weibo counts over 300 million unique users, and has been dubbed the “Chinese Twitter,” since the original Twitter was blocked in China in 2009.
Evidently, blocking Twitter has failed to prevent access to alternative information sources. Aimed specifically at a Chinese audience, the unstoppable growth of websites like Weibo has allowed a more free expression of ideas that is impossible to control. Writing about a military coup with the authority of a journalist, going so far as to describe tanks in the streets, is a destabilizing act. In a country with airwaves as crowded as China’s, where news flies at the tap of a keyboard, a simple rumor can cause a cascade of reactions.
Even though the credibility of Li Den Lin’s report was short lived, what could have happened to the stock market, or the value of the renminbi, or the price of oil? Who would bear the responsibility for the outcome, for the destruction of wealth and international panic? Is the defense of all posts on microblogs, regardless of the situation, really a component of freedom of the press?
It is highly unlikely that the Chinese authorities pondered these questions as they were stopping Li Den Lin and other journalists, and shutting down four separate feeds. Sina Weibo, probably under the “encouragement” of Beijing, announced that it was shutting down the four feeds to prevent the diffusion of “malicious political rumours.”
The tensions of the past few weeks can all be traced back to the case of Bo Xilai. His removal from the post of Governor of Chongqing, the incrimination in the murder of an English businessman, his son’s joyrides in a Ferrari, and his brother’s stepping down from a high ranking position in a state owned company have been among the most talked about topics. Political discussion has gravitated around the fall of the “last of the Maoists” and of the Chongqing model, based on the fight against organized crime and the reshaping of the city along more egalitarian lines.
Every aspect of the Bo Xilai affair has been followed incessantly on Chinese social networks. Despite the fact that the whole story is anything but clear, or maybe because of it, any news relating to the case has been commented and re-commented extensively. The participation of the general public in the developments has been unprecedented; a mix of social evaluations, family gossip, concerns over repercussions on the Party, and hopes for democracy. Never in the history of China has there been a distribution of news so constant and widespread.
And yet, the international press seems to be ignoring these aspects. The top news sources remain attached to their antiquated views of China, where freedom of the press is just an idea, rather than a core value. China clearly needs to make more progress in certain aspects, but this time around the suppression of the news has been limited to a few extreme cases. Despite the significant importance and dramatic weight of recent events, netizens have been almost universally allowed to express their thoughts, an important development for the people of China.
Previous purges – the last one being of Zhao Zi Yang after the Tiananmen Square Incident – were never discussed and therefore never contradicted; the only version available was the official one. The press did not fail in its battle for freedom of speech, but it has failed to understand the massive changes that should be capitalized upon. In an uncertain and convoluted story with uncertain outcomes, prestigious newspapers and magazines have repeatedly produced analysis that reads like a slogan, taking positions of principle and not of reflection, their approach yielding obvious conclusions that are hardly groundbreaking.
Ironically, these attitudes are more beneficial to those in the Chinese establishment who oppose more open dialogue. Those in China who continue to deny the efforts of civil society, who prefer to repress rather than comprehend, are reinforced by those who ignore the values of the new social media. Freedom of the press is an instrument for the greater good, and it needs to be encouraged and supported wherever it begins to form.