Fri, Jun 19, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Online Chinese voices grow louder against official corruption


There was a time when the story of the 21-year-old waitress who fatally stabbed a Chinese Communist Party official as he tried to force himself on her would have never left the rural byways of Hubei Province where it took place.

Instead, her arrest last month on suspicion of voluntary manslaughter erupted into an online furor that turned her into a national hero and reverberated all the way to China’s capital, where censors ordered incendiary comments banned. Hubei officials even restricted TV coverage and tried to block travel to the small town where the assault occurred.

On Tuesday, a Hubei court granted the woman, Deng Yujiao (鄧玉嬌), an unexpectedly swift victory, ruling that she had acted in self-defense and freeing her without criminal penalties.

The case of Deng is only the most recent and prominent of several cases in which the Internet has cracked open a channel for citizens to voice mass displeasure with official conduct, demonstrating its potential as a catalyst for social change.

The government’s reactions have raised questions about how much power officials have to control what they call “online mass incidents.” China’s estimated 300 million Internet users, experts say, are awakening to the idea that even in authoritarian China they sometimes can fight City Hall.

“It’s about raising the public awareness of democratic ideas — accountability, transparency, citizens’ rights to participate, that the government should serve the people,” said Xiao Qiang (蕭強), a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who tracks China’s Internet activity. “Netizens who are now sharing those more democratic values are using these cases, each time making inch-by-inch progress.”

China still exerts sweeping and sophisticated control over the Internet, employing thousands of people to monitor Internet traffic for forbidden material and using software to spot key words that hint at subversion. But the system is not infallible and Internet users frequently find ways to skirt the censors.


Since late last year, online tempests have blown up over a video of an official in Guangdong Province who assaulted a young girl and bragged that he was above punishment, and a Nanjing official who was spotted wearing a US$14,500 Vacheron Constantin watch and smoking US$22-a-pack cigarettes, evidence of a lifestyle well beyond his means.

Early this year, an online outcry exposed prison officials’ cover-up of the beating death of an inmate. At the moment, outrage is focused on officials in Yunnan Province who battled a rabies outbreak by dispatching “killing teams” that, according to news reports, beat 50,000 dogs to death.

Not all the crusades are entirely civic-minded. In more than a few cases, virtual mobs have harassed offending officials, posting personal information and other details. The nickname for such mobs, “human-flesh search engines,” hints at their pitiless nature.

But the Internet campaigns have repeatedly produced results. Six officials were punished or fired in the prison beating. The Nanjing official with the flashy watch was sacked. The Yunnan dog killings have provoked harsh criticism, even in state-run newspapers.

Most such cases, says Xiao, the Berkeley professor, spawn tens or hundreds of thousands of mentions on Internet blogs and other forums.

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