SOCIAL MEDIA & THE ACTIVIST: THE OPENING UP OF CHINA

By David Donaldson
Photo of a man in a green field of grass holding an iPad

Human rights can be a difficult topic. At Right Now we understand that there are grey areas, that these issues provoke discussion – there isn’t always a clear answer. So we aim to create places where we can talk about this, sometimes with people from different walks of life to us. Our work is underpinned by an understanding of the importance of a human rights framework, but we are curious about fresh perspectives and are willing to have informed debates. For this reason, creative responses to human rights themes are especially important to us. Art is often a wonderful way to broach difficult topics – it has the power to engage the heart and the mind, particularly at moments when arguments simply seem to entrench long-held beliefs.

In light of this, Right Now have collaborated with HRAFF to commission essays responding to the issues raised by two films, Words of Witness and High Tech, Low Life.

Read the essay about Words of Witness, by Rebecca Harkins-Cross.

More of Right Now’s coverage of HRAFF.

By David Donaldson

The internet has made a huge difference to the political culture of China, greatly facilitating the cultural liberalisation that tends to coincide with a capitalist economy. But although the internet provides a tool for the convenient dissemination of information, making it easier to spread dissident views, Chinese authorities continue to prove their great skill at persecuting and censoring activists.

The bravery of the two protagonists in High Tech, Low Life, Zhou Shuguang (aka Zola) and Tiger Temple, is remarkable and inspiring. The desire of these men – and others like them – to expose the injustices frequently covered up by local officials, even in the face of police harassment, plays a vital role in the gradual opening up of China. Bloggers and Weibo ( the Chinese Twitter) users are more and more providing a voice of accountability that has so long been lacking on the mainland.

Nonetheless, high profile activists continue to be harassed and imprisoned by the authorities. When uprisings spread across the Arab world in 2011, many, including blogger Ran Yunfei, were detained pre-emptively. The outspoken Ai Weiwei was jailed for several months in 2011, ostensibly on charges of tax evasion. The poet Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, remains in jail. According to High Tech, Low Life, there were 68 Chinese citizens in jail for “online activities” as of 2012 – and this of course does not include the many more detained for non internet-related political offences.

But there are signs that the situation is slowly improving – although many activist blogs are blocked on the mainland, activist Huang Qi notes that “the officials who need to know can access it”, and do. Feedback indicates that more and more, the Chinese government is being forced to address issues which even ten years ago would have been swept under the carpet, out of a fear that angry, well-connected petitioners will eventually rise up against the government.

The existence in China of a Constitution that nominally ensures freedom of expression makes this job slightly easier. Article 35 of the Constitution specifically states that Chinese people should enjoy freedom of speech, as well as freedom of the press and assembly. Constitutional amendments in 2004 also enshrined private property and human rights in the Chinese legal system.

The problem lies in large part with the fact that the complete lack of accountability in the political system means that there is no-one to hold officials responsible when they do break the law. For this reason, much contemporary activism is centred around calls for the government to obey its own laws.

In the days before blogs and social media, intimidation by local police could be enough to stop petitioners in their tracks. But there have been several successful internet campaigns over the past decade which have seen corrupt officials arrested for bribes, disappearances, and murder. It has also allowed eagle-eyed netizens to pick out photoshopped images of politicians ostensibly inspecting public works, and, amusingly, tally the number of luxury watches worn by officials on supposedly modest wages. In the absence of an independent judiciary or a democratic system, the internet is increasingly enabling ordinary citizens to hold politicians to account.

Many hold hopes that the new General Secretary, Xi Jinping, will lead a reform program encouraging respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Blogger Huang Qi told the New York Review of Books earlier this year that the situation is improving: “Probably just before Xi took over [in November 2012] the change was noticeable. In the past, at least 99 percent of people who were petitioning the government were detained and sent to some sort of facility. But now those who are detained are maybe just 10 percent.”

But an incident at the beginning of this year indicates that the government may increasingly be losing the ability to dictate terms when it comes to calls for greater freedom of speech. The Southern Weekly protests, in which the staff of China’s most outspoken newspaper went on strike over the provincial government’s decision to directly intervene in editorial matters, rather than relying on the customary system of self-censorship, were the first of their kind since the Tiananmen protests in 1989. The incident played out in the newspaper and across microblogs, with one Weibo message, a pro-free speech Solzhenitsyn quote from actress Yao Chen, being re-posted 30,000 times in an hour.

On its own this incident may have had little tangible effect on press freedom in China, but it demonstrates that there is a fine balance between what is and is not acceptable when it comes to censorship. Publishers know that if they push too hard they face imprisonment, but the government too knows that if it pushes too hard, it faces a popular backlash. Given that the government’s legitimacy is mainly based on its capability to provide stability, many Chinese politicians are aware that such a move could severely undermine its own power.

Things are slowly improving in China, and many of these changes are thanks to ordinary people like Zhou Shuguang and Tiger Temple, who are willing to dedicate themselves to giving a voice to those disenfranchised by the Chinese system. But the future is uncertain. As political commentator Zhang Lifan told SMH’s John Garnaut earlier this year, “Everybody knows that the system stands naked and that the system is aware that the public knows that it is naked. The question is whether it wants to put on clothes, or not.”

Watch a trailer of High Tech Low Life .

Buy a ticket to High Tech Low Life at HRAFF: 8:30pm, Wednesday 15 May 2013

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