Chinese whispers

by Henry on December 17, 2005

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.

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1

Bro. Bartleby 12.17.05 at 11:10 am

I wonder what the real impact of the Internet is having in Iraq. I think the one major difference between Vietnam and Iraq is the Internet, and especially the many Iraqis who are now blogging. In any closed society great power is held by the government press, and in Vietnam this was true. But the VC gained great power by use of the rumor mill. So, are the blogs in Iraq just modern rumor mills? Or are they a source of what is really taking place in the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people?

2

Seth Edenbaum 12.17.05 at 11:54 am

This sort of thing has a very long history in China. Metaphors of one sort or another as code for political speech. It’s lovely to watch.

And when have things not involved such elites?

3

Jim 12.17.05 at 12:18 pm

The other more recent case is to bear in mind is the beating to death in detention of Sun Zhigang by the police in 2003 (IIRC). The subsequent outcry, which began online, and an open letter by prominent academics, led directly to a reform of China’s system for detaining and repatriating those in the cities who could not produce the required paperwork, “vagrants and beggars” I think the law said (very reminiscent of the Elisabethan Poor Law) but also used as a catch-all against migrant labourers.
I have become a deal less sceptical about the value of the internet, partly because of cases like that, and partly because of once working with a migrant worker support group in Panyu (a suburb of Guangzhou) on their website. That showed me that in fact, perhaps because of the prevalence on internet cafes here, a surpising number of ordinary workers and even peasants do get on line.

4

Brendan 12.17.05 at 12:22 pm

‘I wonder what the real impact of the Internet is having in Iraq. I think the one major difference between Vietnam and Iraq is the Internet, and especially the many Iraqis who are now blogging. In any closed society great power is held by the government press, and in Vietnam this was true. But the VC gained great power by use of the rumor mill. So, are the blogs in Iraq just modern rumor mills? Or are they a source of what is really taking place in the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.’

I think the basic problem with international blogging is far simpler than most people think. I don’t want to sound like a tedious old reactionary here, but one of the most disturbing things about the way Britain and the US (and to a lesser extent, Australia and Canada and the rest) are going is simply the fact that less and less young people learn a foreign language at school.

But if you restrict yourself to English you commit yourself (obviously) to only reading and accessing what English speaking people can say. There are translations services but of course they can cherry pick what they translate and translate in the most ‘unfriendly’ possible way (not thinking of anyone in particular here…….).

So in Iraq I think blogging is going to be a huge force for democracy and freedom……for Iraqis.

Whether it will help outsiders understand the situation is another question. ‘We’ can only read the blogs that are written in English, which tend to be orientated (reasonably enough) towards those who have been educated in English speaking countries or who have done business with English speakers: i.e. the highly educated middle class. This is an important part of Iraqi society of course, but we always run the risk of extrapolating, and deciding that the views of these people are representative of the views of Iraqis as a whole. For example, if it is true (and it may not be) that Allawi has done far worse in the current elections than we were led to believe by the Western media, this may be because Allawi’s broadly secular, pro-American policies were more popular with the secular pro-American middle class, and I would guess that a disproportionate number of these people are bloggers.

This goes double for the rest of the world. There are growing numbers of bloggers in African languages and South American languages (not to mention, as the article above, Chinese bloggers) but how many of us will have a chance to read these in the original?

5

Bro. Bartleby 12.17.05 at 7:07 pm

Of course you’re right about an English-only speaker reading only English written … well, English written anything. But nevertheless, one can easily factor that into the equation, and one has to admit the enormous difference the Internet makes for the ‘common’ folk telling their story. Diaries and journals have always been the glee of the historian, reading about daily life in rural 17-Century America puts a whole new perspective to the written history of 17-Century America. But a dozen discovered diaries does not history make. But now with countless blogs, in all languages, we have history writing itself!

6

Colin Danby 12.17.05 at 10:17 pm

Speaking of Chinese political thought,

NEW BEDFORD — A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung’s tome on Communism called “The Little Red Book.”

http://www.southcoasttoday.com/daily/12-05/12-17-05/a09lo650.htm

An appropriate response might be to publicize these links:

http://art-bin.com/art/omaotoc.html

http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/works/red-book/

7

Tom - Daai Tou Laam 12.18.05 at 1:27 am

Jim, on the case of Sun Zhigang, please remember that a lot of the pressure on the government came about as a result of stories in the Southern Metropolitan Daily. It should also be mentioned that two senior editors of the Southern Metropolitan Daily are in prison on “economic crimes charges” which most observers accept as trumped up to cover for the embarrassment of government cadres of SMD’s exposure of this case and of the SARS coverup.

As for the use of political allegory as political weapon, it definitely has a long history. Anyone studying the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution will recognise the use of cultural critique of a popular historical play at the time as the initial tool to attack Mao’s political enemies and launch the GPCR.

8

Thomas Palm 12.18.05 at 6:20 am

For an example how bloggers and the Internet community can be wrong about the mood in a country witness the latest Iranian election. Very few thought Ahmadinejad would have any chance, because his support among the middle class was very small.

The lack of knowledge of foreign languages in the West Brandon brings up may to some extent be a good thing. It does make it a lot harder for foreigners to start large propaganda efforts to corrupt the exchange of information, leaving the locals somewhat free to develop their own dialogue. We know CIA bought stories in Iraqi newspapers, and they would probably want to swamp all of the Iraqi media with their own sanitized stories, but I doubt they have the people to do it.

9

abb1 12.18.05 at 6:35 am

C’mon, you can always find enough people to do it, just spend some of those ‘reconstruction’ money. A billion more, a billion less – who’s counting?

10

Brendan 12.18.05 at 7:23 am

Another classic example, it occured to me, was Venezuela. Not only were pro-Chavez bloggers more likely to write in Spanish or in indigenous languages rather than in English, but in a wildly divided country like Venezuela, few members of the poor/ethnic classes who were the bedrock of Chavez’ support even had access to a computer, let alone the internet.

So in the West when we read Venezuelan blogs, we tended to read blogs written in English by the uppper middle class elite, who were disproprtionately anti-Chavez. This helps to explain, I think, why so many in the West were shocked by the result of the recall vote.

Hopefully the ‘access to a computer’ issue will become less of a problem over the next few decades, but until we in the West (for example, as regards Iraq) actually bother our arses to learn some Arabic we will always get a one sided view of the situation.

11

willie mink 12.18.05 at 11:01 am

> NEW BEDFORD —A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung’s tome on Communism called “The Little Red Book.”

Thanks Colin, chilling indeed. The “chilling effect” at the end of the article is for me the scariest part–a prof has now decided against teaching a course on terrorism because it would put his students at risk. Just when someone is going to encourage young people to think beyond the stultifying platitudes of The War on Terror, the Department of Homeland Security squashes it. Long live the Ministry of Propaganda.

12

Bro. Bartleby 12.18.05 at 11:02 am

What is interesting about blogs and bloggers is that they reveal just how human it is to want to be stripped bare. In the past what did we fear? The FBI and CIA tapping our phones, injecting us with truth serum, locking us up until we talk, anything to make us expose our deepest thoughts and plans and schemes. Yet now everyone is freely telling the world with blogs their deepest thoughts and plans and schemes. How ironic?

13

Bro. Bartleby 12.18.05 at 11:09 am

How long would it have taken the CIA to uncover this bit of information? Blogs are the new truth serum. –BB

“Not all voters have purple fingers this time though, a useful learnt technique has spread and is being successfully used throughout the family. Putting some vaseline on the finger before putting it in the ink, then wiping the finger after putting it in the ink, seems to do a very good job at removing the evidence of voting..
Voting is no reason to be ashamed of though, but mom says the ink makes her hand look ugly!”

14

jomama 12.18.05 at 11:28 am

I’m convinced the net, in whatever form it takes, will be akin the the advent of the printing press.

The Holy Roman Catholic Chuch was devasted.

What’s it going to be this time?

Three guesses…

15

Seth Edenbaum 12.18.05 at 1:56 pm

“So in the West when we read Venezuelan blogs”
Que? (WTF?)

And I’d really hoped the subject would become the flexibility of language and the long tradition of literary dissent, but here we go again with technology and innovation.

What else would I expect from people who are more interested in inventing new musical instruments that learning to play them well.

16

Bro. Bartleby 12.19.05 at 10:02 am

I suppose the point is, soon Mao’s blather about power to the people will finally come around and bite his arse (though I think a bit waxy by now). Chinese whispers will become Chinese shouts. Yes, the Internet is the tool, but I think the blogs will be the instruments. Pajamamedia is just discovering the need to daily database blogs, but soon you’ll see others grabbing the idea and running with it.

http://pajamasmedia.com/
“But the phenomenon of blogging is much more than that; it’s the modern equivalent of the Gutenberg revolution, a way of putting not just published material in the hands of the public—but publishing itself.

Where journalists once gave us “experts say,” blogs give us the experts themselves. And where faceless, “objective” editorial boards once handed down opinions and endorsements, bloggers sound off, the numbers on their public sitemeters lending them unassailable credibility as voices for the rest of us.”

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