Zhong Jizhang (鍾吉章) became a celebrity in China when he used the Internet to expose safety flaws in the subway of a major city. He is one of a growing number of online crusaders daring to challenge the system.
Nicknamed the “death-defying grandpa” due to the issue’s sensitivity, he has lost his job and received death threats since he revealed problems with a metro extension in Guangzhou that had passed inspection tests.
“There were threatening phone calls, and there were warnings that people were getting ready to cripple me,” the 68-year-old engineer said. “Someone even told me that to exterminate me, they would run me over with a car, then drink alcohol and wait for the police so they would be done for driving under the influence, but would get out of jail via their contacts.”
Zhong, whose quality inspection firm has refused to renew his contract since he blew the whistle this summer, said he had tried various avenues to report the problem, including via government departments, but they failed to respond.
So he resorted to the Internet, creating a blog where he wrote about substandard concrete work. As Guangzhou was then about to host the Asian Games, the news spread like wildfire.
China has the most Internet users in the world at 450 million, so the Web presents a golden opportunity for people like Zhong who want to expose problems or incidents, especially as traditional media are strictly censored.
Authorities censor Web sites they deem unacceptable through a system dubbed the “Great Firewall of China,” but users manage to bypass this through proxy servers, and blogs that are shut down quickly spring up again.
Yang Guobin (楊國斌), an associate professor at Columbia University who wrote a book about online activism in China, says the trend is on the rise.
“I covered over 70 major cases in my book which occurred in the span of a decade. Recently, I wrote an afterword ... and I counted about 60 notable new cases for the two years of 2009 and 2010,” he said.
In the past few months alone, several cases have gained traction thanks to the Internet.
Last October, the son of a senior police officer in Hebei Province sparked online outrage when he hit two students while allegedly driving drunk, one of whom died.
When he was blocked from escaping the scene, the driver, Li Qiming (李啟銘), challenged people to sue him, shouting “my father is Li Gang [李剛].”
The incident triggered an outcry on the Internet as an example of the brazen high-handedness of top officials and their families, and was picked up by traditional media.
Li was then arrested in an apparent victory for online activism. The English-language Global Times has since reported that he will be tried.
Jiang Huanwen, who runs a whistleblowing Web site, said he had counted at least 200 such “anti-corruption” sites in China, not including individual bloggers who expose problems.
“Announcing and transmitting information on the Internet puts definite pressure on the government and judicial authorities, forcing them to investigate those who have been exposed,” he said.
In Jiangxi Province, several officials were removed from their posts last September after three residents set themselves on fire in protest at the forced demolition of their home — one of whom later died.
Mainstream media were initially silent on the news, but when the daughters of one of the victims were stopped as they tried to travel to Beijing to petition authorities over the case, they reached out to Chinese journalists for help.