On March 17, 2003, Sun Zhigang, a 27-year-old college graduate who was working for a graphic design company in Guangzhou, was stopped by police. He was detained for not having proper identity papers and died in custody three days later. After authorities refused to investigate the circumstances of his death, Sun’s parents posted information on his case and a petition letter on the Internet. His case was picked up by a reporter from the Southern Metropolis News, one of China’s most progressive papers, and then the story hit the Net.

Within two hours after being posted on China’s largest news portal, sina.com, this news item generated 4,000 comments from readers. Almost immediately, the case was being discussed throughout Chinese cyberspace, from official sites to personal Weblogs and e-mail groups. Police brutality is not new in China. For many years, international human rights organizations and those advocating legal reforms in China have called for abolishment of the Custody and Repatriation system, an inherently arbitrary form of administrative detention under which Sun was held. But the explosive reaction from Internet users was unprecedented. The official media, including CCTV, soon picked up on the public outrage and reported heated debates over treatment of migrants living in the cities and police corruption.

On May 29th, in an unprecedented appeal to the National People’s Congress, four professors, including two from Beijing University Law School, called on the state prosecutor to investigate Sun’s death. Three months later, the government abolished the entire system, and the officials responsible for Sun Zhigang’s death were convicted in court.

The Internet’s Role in China

This was a stunning result and marked the beginning of the Internet’s influential role in China’s public life. After eight years of explosive growth, the number of Chinese Internet users is quickly reaching 80 million—surpassing the number of members of the Chinese Communist Party. About one-fifth of Chinese netizens regularly make use of BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), the most politically active place in Chinese cyberspace. These BBS’s can be run by individuals, commercial companies such as sina.com, or government agencies.

At any given time, there are literally tens of thousands of users active in these BBS and forums, reading news, searching for information, and debating current affairs. Even on official Web sites such as People’s Daily, its popular BBS, Strong Nation Forum, has more than 280,000 registered members and more than 12,000 posts per day. Together with e-mail listservs, chat rooms, instant message services, wireless short text messaging, and an emerging Weblogging community, the BBS’s have provided unprecedented opportunities for Chinese netizens to engage in public affairs.

In 2003, there were more than half a dozen of those “online uprising” events. These were mostly cases involving police abuse, corruption, crime and social justice. Not every case had as direct a political result as Sun Zhigang’s, but together they resulted in creating a new form of public opinion in China: “Wangluo Yulun” (Internet Opinion) became a formal phenomenon and entered the Chinese public discourse.

This online uprising has had a significant impact on Chinese society because there is still no systematic way for the public to participate in and express themselves about policy and social issues. When the online discussions on current events are within the limits of government political tolerance, then the official media is allowed to discuss and report on them. Since the traditional media remains under tight editorial control of propaganda officials, without the Internet their reports, by themselves, will never be able to generate such debate. Within current political limits, these Internet opinions have also reduced the risk to traditional media of reporting on these issues; at times they even generate commercial pressure for them to do so.

Journalists are also helping blur the boundaries between traditional and online media by opening their own Weblogs. Likewise, some online writers have built a professional reputation and are now working in official media. In the last year and a half, it has become clear that the power of the Net and its interplay with traditional media are creating the public opinion in China.

It is important to understand the highly distributed, decentralized nature of the online movements; none has a central leader or organizer. This means that when an issue resonates with millions of Chinese netizens, it is expressed not only on BBS’s, but also through the “implicit” Internet communication channels and within the growing Weblogging community. Instead of being produced by official media, these online uprising events, powered by the Internet in this distributive and immediate way, now drive the agenda of official media.

Emerging as an important group on the Internet are public intellectuals. The Internet has given a voice to professors, lawyers, journalists and independent writers concerned about social and policy issues. The four university professors who led the petition for Sun Zhigang’s case present a clear example of this. Although it can be difficult for them to publish in the traditional media, they write and publish on the Net and become opinion leaders in the virtual public sphere. Some have their own Web sites or Weblogs, while others create professional communities such as China Lawyers Network or Home for Reporters. The Internet has given them a place to gather, debate, communicate, publish and receive information and, finally, to collectively articulate and amplify their voices on public matters.

Government Response

The government’s efforts to control Internet content through legal regulations, an Internet police force, and a powerful national information filtering system have been widely reported in recent years. While the overall censorship is still effective, the line between what is permissible or not is blurred by the Internet. The government is also trying to use official Web sites to propagandize in traditional ways. But many official Web sites, such as People’s Daily, do not draw as many readers as unofficial, commercial or personal sites. As Sun Zhigang’s case demonstrated, the Net has already created a bottom-up force and is constantly negotiating this new space with the old style, top-down censorship and propaganda regime.

Not every online uprising wins in this ongoing battle. Last winter, hundreds of thousands of netizens reacted against a lenient sentence given to a well-connected woman who hit and killed a peasant and injured 12 others with her BMW. Following an explosion of online protest, the government still upheld the verdict, and major Internet portals continued to report the news but banned users’ comments.

Three top editors at Southern Metropolis News are now in prison, apparently in retaliation for their aggressive reporting on Sun Zhigang’s case, SARS and other issues. Halfway into 2004, the government again seems to have adapted their strategy to regain control in cyberspace. But that’s just another chapter in these unfolding changes in China.

Despite authorities’ persistent efforts of control, the rising tide of Internet opinion is a fact of life in Chinese society now and will continue to play an influential role in expanding the space for free expression and even in creating social change. The transformative effect of the Internet has already set China on an irreversible course toward greater openness and public participation in its social and political life.

Xiao Qiang is director of the Berkeley China Internet Project at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

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