Chinese protest with the click of a mouse

By : |April 23, 2008 0

BEIJING, CHINA: In the past few weeks, the Chinese have been anything but silent, faced with what they feel is an onslaught of unfair criticism from the West about their country’s policy toward Tibet and the Olympic Games.

Chinese people began by using blog posts and websites to condemn foreign journalists for what they saw as biased coverage of China’s crackdown on unrest in Tibet, following riots in the region’s capital Lhasa on March 14.

France then became a target for its attitude toward the remote Himalayan region and the Olympic Games, culminating in the latest protests in China in front of stores belonging to the French supermarket chain Carrefour.

                                 

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Throughout all of this, the Internet played a crucial role in mobilising people in a massive patriotic outburst.

Calls to come and protest, with locations and times, were posted on web portals popular with young Chinese.

"Internet and cellphones are powerful ways to connect people, spread information and mobilise political actions, especially among the urban, young and more educated population," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California.

The first sign of online anger came just three days after the Lhasa riots, with calls for "death to separatists" posted on websites.

But it was the Western media’s coverage of China’s crackdown on the riots that set off a spate of online patriotic activities, fuelled by the state-run media’s mass condemnation of foreign reports.

An anti-CNN website was set up by a Chinese entrepreneur, exposing errors in foreign reporting; pro-China videos were posted on YouTube; mass emails were sent to Western media outlets in China; and millions of MSN messaging service users put a heart followed by ‘China’ before their names.

The overseas Chinese community was as active as mainland inhabitants in whipping up condemnation.

"The Internet is a social networking tool, and it is an ideal communication tool for the overseas Chinese community," Xiao said.

"Overseas Chinese go to familiar web portals which are in Chinese, just as foreigners around the world would look at familiar newspapers online," Jonathan Unger, director of the Contemporary China Centre at the Australian National University said.

For Chinese people living on the mainland, the Internet was even more sought after due to its relative anonymity.

"In any media, when people feel safe that they don’t have to disclose themselves, it encourages a lot of different opinions, and this is very important in the context of China," said Wei Ran, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Last weekend, online protests turned into real ones with demonstrations in front of Carrefour stores across the country.

These would never have been on such a large scale had it not been for the Internet, but the technology itself was not enough to make things happen, Wei said.

"If people don’t think strongly about something, then technology will not make it happen. But for a very highly charged issue like the whole Tibet issue, the Internet provides the right medium and technology to make things happen."

The anti-France protests, fuelled by the chaotic Paris leg of the Olympic torch relay and allegations that Carrefour supports Tibet — a claim it denies — are similar to the anti-Japan protests of 2005, according to Unger.

"The Chinese used these (anti-Japan riots) as a way of being more patriotic than their own government. The implication was that their government had failed them in this respect, and by implication in other respects," Unger said.

"And now with the Internet you don’t have to go out in the streets, you don’t have to put yourself in harm’s way, and the movement can be much more massive."

But at the end of last week, China’s state media tried to calm the mood, in a sign the government is wary of the magnitude of the protests.

"In the current situation, Internet censors are purposefully and selectively allowing the nationalist messages to be transmitted without much censorship. This may change tomorrow but so far this is the case," Xiao said.

Wei, however, said it was extremely difficult to control the 210 million Internet users in China.

"Most of these spend two to three hours a day on the Internet. If you tie that all up, it’s a horrible number to oversee."

Source: AFP

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