The Curious Case of Chinese Social Media |

The Curious Case of Chinese Social Media |

Chinese social media is not a myth. Though most of the popular sites (and by popular, we mean Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter) are blocked, China has allowed the Twitter alternative Sina Weibo to flourish. It’s probably not a coincidence that, two months after its launch, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service, Sina Weibo, was overwhelmed with outrage over China’s “re-education through labor” camps, a committee on judicial reform has signaled that the government may be ready to overhaul these notorious prisons.

China’s system of re-education through labor cleaved under Mao Zedong in 1950s and was an inspiration of Soviet gulags. At recent times, approximately 500,000 people are sent to these camps every year, according to a research. If and when one gets sent to these prisons, they will rediscover the meaning of pain and suffering, as they are slowly worn down by hard factory or farm labor. Commit a petty crime, like a small time theft or a political protest, and the police can send you directly to one of these prisons, without you ever appearing before a judge.

Back in August, Tang Hui, a mother of an 11 year old, was raped and forced into prostitution by seven men. She had every right to be upset when these men did not receive the death penalty and so, she staged a series of protests. This annoyed the local government, and believe it or not, Tang was sentenced to 18 months in re-education camp. When this story went viral on Sina Weibo, so furious was the popular outrage that even People’s Daily, the mouth piece of China’s ruling party, posted to Weibo in Tang’s support.

Is it manipulation or response to popular sentiment?

Weibo is a generic Chinese term for microblogs, and is typically shorthand for Sina’s site. But this isn’t immune to censorship. There is a long list of terms that are blocked in the site, which, as expected includes any mention of Tiananmen Square. Some argues that the reason Weibo han’t yet been shut down by the Chinese government is because it’s useful to Beijing as a tool to distract the masses and expose the excess of corrupt regional bureaucrats, over whom the central government has historically had weak control.

The Tang Hui case portrayed how Weibo could, though paradoxically, consolidate the power of the central government, since it involved the actions of the local officials. By determining what can and can’t be said on Weibo, the communist party can selectively protect or punish whichever regional governments it wants to bust or keep in check.

Weibo has become a channel to the central government, through which it can gather, and perhaps even act on public sentiment. It is also an important information gathering channel for the party. As China’s political system doesn’t allow for the citizenry to speak their minds, at the same time the local bureaucrats always try to deceive their superiors, Chinese top leaders can only understand the mentality of the people through the spontaneous expressions of misgivings, needs, aspirations and passions found online. In the absence of an effective system to collect and respond to popular opinion and demands, Weibo is an alternative.

So did the famed protest over re-education camps lead to the government’s concession that they should be reformed? Over 97% favored “immediate abolition” of the non-judicial system of labor camps.

Will the re-education camps be abolished in China? Can social media bring a massive change in this China? Only time will tell.

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