In the “Arab Spring,” people in the Middle East have used social media to counter autocrats. A similar scenario is unfolding in China as an increasingly wired citizenry circumvents government-controlled media and information releases. The July 23 collision of two bullet trains that claimed 40 lives has brought global attention to social media’s role in China as a channel for news, dissension and accountability.
The New York Times reports that social media entwined with the incident even before the actual impact as a girl posted her concerns about one train traveling slowly after a storm. Blogs and microblogs have since filled with criticism of the central government and charges of corruption, incompetence and cover-up. Sites unique to China, such as the Twitter-esque Sina Weibo, have been major protest platforms, ironic since these services are allowed to exist because they permit government monitoring and censorship.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the Communist Party is not blocking domestic social media sites due to fears of fanning greater outrage. This resembles Saudi Arabia’s recent tolerance of anti-government content. While traditional Chinese media has become freer in recent years, it is still subject to government editorializing.
Digital dissension is not new in China. In 2007, blogs, online forums, and text messages fueled protests against a proposed petrochemical plant in the coastal city of Xiamen. In 2003, Chinese citizens shared information about SARS via texts, defying a government reluctant to confirm the outbreak and ready to punish the sending of such messages.
Is China social media’s greatest proving ground as an instrument of transparency? Will social media transform Chinese society into the world’s largest corps of citizen journalists? In 1989, the media of the era struggled to capture events at the Tiananmen Square protests, the images of “Tank Man” not withstanding. Twenty-two years later, we see it is impossible to shut down hundreds of millions of potential news outlets powered by mobile devices and Web 2.0.
POSTSCRIPT 1: After a week of relative press freedom on reporting the bullet train disaster, the Chinese government is censoring coverage. Editors and journalists are turning to microblogs to convey news and express opinions.
POSTSCRIPT 2: Microblogs and wireless communications fuel a successful protest against a new plant in Dalian that would make the same toxic chemical as the contested plant in Xiamen (see mention in post). Government censors try to purge microblogs of anti-plant images and comments.