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At 80 Million, There Are More Netizens Than Communists in China Today

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Xiao Qiang is director of the China Internet Project at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley ( and has led the Human Rights in China (HRIC) organization since 1991. In 2001, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

By Xiao Qiang

BERKELEY, California -- On March 17, 2003, Sun Zhigang, a 27-year-old college graduate working as a graphic designer in Guangzhou, was stopped by police. He was detained for not having proper identity papers and died in custody three days later. After authorities refused to investigate the circumstances of his death, Sun's parents posted information on his case and a petition letter on the Internet.

His case was picked up by a reporter for the Southern Metropolis News, one of China's most progressive papers, and then the story hit the Net. Within two hours after being posted on China's largest news portal,, this news item generated 4,000 comments from readers. Almost immediately, the case was being discussed throughout Chinese cyberspace, from official sites to personal Web logs and e-mail groups.

Police brutality is not new in China. For many years, international human rights organizations and those advocating legal reforms in China have called for abolishment of the "custody and repatriation" system, an inherently arbitrary form of administrative detention under which Sun was held. But the explosive reaction from Internet users was unprecedented. The official media, including CCTV, soon picked up on the public outrage and reported heated debates over treatment of migrants living in the cities and police corruption.

On May 29, 2003, in an unprecedented appeal to the National People's Congress, four professors, including two from Beijing University Law School, called on the state prosecutor to investigate Sun's death. Three months later, the government abolished the entire system, and the officials responsible for Sun Zhigang's death were convicted in court.

The Internet's Role in China

This was a stunning result and marked the beginning of the Internet's influential role in China's public life. After eight years of explosive growth, the number of Chinese Internet users is quickly reaching 80 million -- surpassing the number of members of the Chinese Communist Party. About one-fifth of Chinese netizens regularly make use of BBS's (Bulletin Board Systems), the most politically active places in Chinese cyberspace. These BBS's can be run by individuals, commercial companies such as, or government agencies.

At any given time, there are literally tens of thousands of users active in these BBS forums, reading news, searching for information and debating current affairs. Even on official Web sites such as People's Daily, its popular BBS, Strong Nation Forum, has more than 280,000 registered members and more than 12,000 posts per day. Together with e-mail listservs, chat rooms, instant message services, wireless short text messaging and an emerging Web-logging community, the BBS's have provided unprecedented opportunities for Chinese netizens to engage in public affairs.

In 2003, there were more than a half-dozen of those "online uprising" events. These were mostly cases involving police abuse, corruption, crime and social justice. Not every case had as direct a political result as Sun Zhigang's, but together they resulted in creating a new form of public opinion in China; "Wangluo Yufun" (Internet Opinion) became a phenomenon and entered the Chinese public discourse.

This online uprising has had a significant impact on Chinese society because there is still no systematic way for the public to participate in and express themselves about policy and social issues.

Furthermore, when online discussions of current events are within the limits of government political tolerance, then the official media are allowed to discuss and report on them. At times, they even generate commercial pressure for the media to do. It's worth noting, though, that, without the Internet, the traditional media, still tightly controlled by the propaganda officials, would not be able to generate such debate.

Journalists are also helping blur the boundaries between traditional and online media by opening their own Web logs. Likewise, some online writers have built a professional reputation and are now working in official media. In the last year and a half, it has become clear that the power of the net and its interplay with traditional media are creating the public opinion in China.

It is important to understand the highly distributed, decentralized nature of the online movements; none has a central leader or organizer. This means that when an issue resonates with millions of Chinese netizens, it is expressed not only on BBS's but also through the "implicit" Internet communication channels and within the growing Web-logging community. Instead of being produced by official media, these online uprising events, powered by the Internet in this distributive and immediate way, now drive the agenda of official media.

Emerging as an important group on the Internet are public intellectuals. The Internet has given a voice to professors, lawyers, journalists and independent writers concerned about social and policy issues. The four university professors who led the petition for Sun Zhigang's case present a clear example of this.

Although it can be difficult for them to publish in the traditional media, intellectuals write and publish on the Net and become opinion leaders in the virtual public sphere. Some have their own Web sites or Web logs, while others create professional communities such as China Lawyers Network or Home for Reporters. The Internet has given them a place to gather, debate, communicate, publish, receive information and, finally, to collectively articulate and amplify their voices on public matters.

Government Response

The government's efforts to control Internet content through legal regulations, an Internet police force and a powerful national information filtering system have been widely reported. In recent years, while the overall censorship is still effective, the line between what is permissible or not has been blurred by the Internet.

The government is also trying to use official Web sites to propagandize in traditional ways. But many official Web sites, such as People's Daily, do not draw as many readers as unofficial, commercial or personal sites. As Sun Zhigang's case demonstrated, the Net has already created a bottom-up force and is constantly negotiating this new space with the old-style, top-down censorship and propaganda regime.

Not every online uprising wins in this ongoing battle. Last winter, hundreds of thousands of netizens reacted against a lenient sentence given to a well-connected woman who hit and killed a peasant and injured 12 others with her BMW. Following an explosion of online protest, the government still upheld the verdict, and major Internet portals continued to report the news but banned users' comments.

Three top editors at Southern Metropolis News are now in prison, apparently in retaliation for their aggressive reporting on Sun Zhigang's case, SARS and other issues. Halfway into 2004, the government again seems to have adapted its strategy to regain control in cyberspace.

But despite authorities' persistent efforts to control the Internet, the rising tide of online opinion is a fact of life in Chinese society now and will continue to play an influential role in expanding the space for free expression and even in creating social change. The transformative effect of the Internet has already set China on an irreversible course toward greater openness and public participation in its social and political life.



By Xiao Qiang

Lu Yuegang, the deputy director of the news center for China Youth Daily and the paper's principal reporter, published an open letter in mid-July on the New Century Net Web site. Mr. Lu also served as chairman of the China Association for the Study of Nonfiction and has won several prizes for his reportage. In my view, this document is the boldest voice to come from Chinese journalists and could shake up the media reform and control landscape in China.

With extraordinary courage, Mr. Lu has challenged Zhao Yong, the secretary of the standing committee of the Communist Youth League, who has direct political authority over China Youth Daily. The open letter directly responded to Zhao's speech at a meeting with the middle-level cadres of China Youth Daily in late spring. At the meeting, Zhao tried to exert new control measures over the paper, which is one of China's oldest and most progressive newspapers. In response, Lu wrote:

"Your Excellency said that in order to guarantee the permanent position of power of the CCP, we must depend on two weapons: guns and pens. We understand this.... But Your Excellency has forgotten: That is the political philosophy of a revolutionary party.... The logic behind this philosophy is not only to control the pen but to have this control backed by the gun.... Whoever wants to question or to resist will be shown a gun.

This resulted in decades of darkness, in which the lies repeated 1,000 times became the truth. Since 1949, there were nonstop political movements, and for more than 20 years people struggled to make a living. One of the main lessons of this is that the CCP has been operating as a revolutionary party ... thereby causing the disaster of the Great Leap Forward (1959-1962) in which at least 27 million died, the 10 years of devastation (the Cultural Revolution), and the tragedy of June 4th....

In the 21st century, the ruling party's 'two weapons theory' can almost be interpreted as: In the midst of humanity's unstoppable trend toward democracy, the CCP wants to keep its power by controlling public opinion and by violence..... (But) the need for a transition from a revolutionary party to a ruling party has long ago been raised by visionary people outside and inside the party, including from within the Hu (Jintao)-Wen (Jiabao) leadership.

Political reform is an urgent issue, not only concerning the fate of the CCP but also the prosperity and happiness of the Chinese people.... In the era of the Internet and globalization ... we regrettably have to tell Your Excellency that your 'theory of two weapons' is a theory of idiots." (translation by Xiao Qiang)



Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, who was Singapore's first prime minister from 1959 until 1990, will become prime minister next month. His comments are adapted from an interview for Global Viewpoint with Tom Plate.

SINGAPORE -- There is a certain hubris in Chinese society right now because it is changing so fast. People believe they are going to continue at this pace. But they have some very big problems to overcome.

The rise of the middle class will have an impact. They are well informed and in contact with the outside world. Their Internet use has grown phenomenally, and they will have interests that will have to be accommodated. It doesn't mean they will all get one vote each. But the Communist Party cannot run the country and ignore these middle class interests at the same time.

That is why (former) President Jiang Zemin came up with "The Three Represents." This may sound like just a new Communist slogan, but it is really a profound change. All of a sudden the enemy of the proletariat -- the capitalists -- can join the Communist Party! The Marxist formulation has been turned inside out. Jiang was only being pragmatic. He was trying to find a way forward without losing control.

China's leaders are still ambivalent about the Internet. They want to use it for its economic value, but they are still worried about the political impact. They are still trying to control inflow, blocking Web sites from abroad -- and going about it more intelligently than we had thought possible. But they can't stop the flow totally. Even internally within China, free information is generated and circulated widely over the Net.