I’ve been quite skeptical in the past about the power of the Internet to change politics in authoritarian states. If this Washington Post story bears out, I may have to change my mind.
In Memory of Ms. Liu Hezhen,” which Lu Xun wrote in 1926 after warlord forces opened fire on protesters in Beijing and killed one of his students, is a classic of Chinese literature. But why did thousands of people read or post notes in an online forum devoted to the essay last week? A close look suggests an answer that China’s governing Communist Party might find disturbing: They were using Lu’s essay about the 1926 massacre as a pretext to discuss a more current and politically sensitive event—the Dec. 6 police shooting of rural protesters in the southern town of Dongzhou in Guangdong province.
In the 10 days since the shooting, which witnesses said resulted in the deaths of as many as 20 farmers protesting land seizures, the Chinese government has tried to maintain a blackout on the news, barring almost all newspapers and broadcasters from reporting it and ordering major Internet sites to censor any mention of it. Most Chinese still know nothing of the incident. But it is also clear that many Chinese have already learned about the violence and are finding ways to spread and discuss the news on the Internet, circumventing state controls with e-mail and instant messaging, blogs and bulletin board forums.
This shouldn’t be overestimated – it sounds as though discussion is only confined to a smallish elite, and in any event, contra blog evangelists, argument over the Internets is not in itself a major political force for change. But it’s something new, and perhaps something that’s going to become more important over time.