Mon, Oct 22, 2012 - Page 12 News List

Interview: Jumping the (fire)wall

Despite the Chinese government’s attempts to control online information, the Internet has forced the Chinese Communist Party to change the narrative it presents to its citizens, says scholar Perry Link

By Catherine Shu  /  Staff reporter

Perry Link, a US academic and China specialist.

Photo Courtesy of perry link

Considered one of the foremost Western experts on China, Perry Link’s research has spanned the country’s politics, culture and language.

In 1996, Link was blacklisted by the Chinese government after co-editing and translating The Tiananmen Papers, a collection of documents leaked by a high-level official detailing the Chinese Communist Party’s response to the 1989 protests. Since then, Link has been denied entry to China, but keeps a close eye on the country and maintains friendships with dissidents via Skype and the Internet, which he calls “the first medium in the history of the People’s Republic of China that the Communist Party cannot control.”

Despite the government’s attempt to censor information online by erecting the “Great Firewall of China,” Link says the Internet has forced the CCP to dramatically change the narrative it presents to the Chinese people, as evidenced by the charges leveled against disgraced former official Bo Xilai (薄熙來). Instead of corruption, the party used the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood and accusations of illicit sexual relationships with women to bring about Bo’s downfall.

“The way I explain the difference is that by now in Chinese popular opinion, especially on the Internet, it is taken for granted that the top is so thoroughly corrupt that if you pull out one leader on the grounds of corruption, public opinion is just going to say ‘Well, all of you guys are corrupt,’” says Link.

In a phone conversation with the Taipei Times, Link discussed the power of Chinese netizens despite the firewall, tensions surrounding the CPP’s upcoming 18th National Congress and how fear of being blacklisted has affected scholarship on China.

Taipei Times: Can you tell me about how the Internet is currently shaping Chinese people’s views of themselves and of their government’s policies?

Perry Link: It’s made a big difference. It changes the way ordinary people view government and that is strictly inside the [Chinese firewall]. It’s now possible for people to do two things that they couldn’t do before. The first is to get information on local events, if there is a fire or train crash or a corrupt official bullying someone. That could only be passed orally before. Now it can be passed on the Internet and it goes faster, much faster. Freedom of local information has expanded in a way that the government can’t control.

The other thing is that the Internet has given to local people a forum to express themselves. People can sign petitions and discuss outrages without being in the same place. This makes it much harder to control from the government’s point of view, and much easier for ordinary citizens to organize public opinion in a focused way.

I’ll make up a hypothetical example. If there is a crash between a Mercedes-Benz and somebody pulling a vegetable cart in some rural part of China, this will get on the Internet and immediately all netizens will just naturally sympathize with the vegetable cart puller. That is, popular resentment of the privilege and wealth associated with officialdom is very automatic and very quick and, on the Internet, it can be focused.

There are a lot of cases over the last three or four years where resentment centered on an event got strong enough where it forced local leaders to make amends, change policies and sometimes even pay reparations to victims. If you go back 10, 20 years, that just wasn’t possible.

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