Arseny Knaifel

Student - B.A. Chinese Studies, FU Berlin

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To what extent and in what way do microblogs impact public opinion in China? Can they be seen as a precursor of free speech?

With over 500 million internet users, China has the world's largest netizen population. According to Sina, China's largest microblogging service Weibo has over 250 million users.

Vast reactions after the Wenzhou Train Crash in 2011 are seen to be a major contributing factor to the layoff of China's Minister of Railway spokes Wang Yongping. Pictures of Taiwan's recently reelected President Ma Ying-jeou proclaiming victory in the rain had Weibo users gazing across the straits with envy at a one man one vote democracy. Messages often reach millions of people before being censored.

In times where media and internet censorship in China is at it's peak, with a leadership change on its way in late 2012, what is the role of microblogs in China? Are they pushing the boundaries of what is accepted in public discussion or are they being instrumentalized as a release valve to decrease social tension? What good examples of their impact have there been in the past? What developments can be expected in 2012 and the following years?

  • Feb 15 2012: Hey, as im chinese here i would comment on the question. currently in china microbolg is most popular internet tool for netizen interreacting to each other. but, it is not only tool of speech freedomly. bolg, space, message, chatroom, all those are not prohibit. people talks about govement and policy all the time but actually no much time to talks about it. As the video shows chinese in china people are struggle to make money and to creat their life in a better way. people not really have much concern about what govement allow us to say or not but we say something within our own benifits. pls do not misunderstand Ms yanglan's topic, this topic was talked about how is the young generatuion being lived in their own way. It is not something about speech freedomly or not. In matter of fact people in china speech in the inerenet are virous topics would believe goverment able to manage what they say and stop them all the time, actually there no blog at all ! on other hand would you say very bad thing when you income from 30-50RMB increasing to 2000-3000RMB? althrought there is bad saying it is because we wish goverment to updating and achiving more. so, not the goverment control our speech but speech badthing become less. There is no boundries and limitation. Some of midea has worngly reported and mislead people to wrong way to understand chinese goverment and policy~ trust me democaracy maynot only put up in one way, It is going to suitble for china situation in chinese democaracy way and just as communism only change to chinese communism or chinese socialism only has provened that we are on the right track~
  • Feb 8 2012: When we think of the economic changes in China in the last forty years, we must recognize
    That there has been change.
    It will continue in China as the tides continue in the ocean Unfortunate
    That the pce in many facets is too slow by our standards,: human rights, working conditions, wages etc. but on the other hand look at the railways, rate of major buildings, graduate education, retail development.....change will come.
    The time of it will coincide with the will of the governing administration......which is so inflexable
  • Jan 29 2012: I don't think the freedom of speech is essentially linked up to democracy. Like our experience in HK. We always have freedom of speech, but neither the colonial status or Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China give us right to have democratic election. The reason of ban inconvenient ideas is simple, avoid uprising from the communities. Case of Middle East is a good point. Thus it is very easy to understand, any speech of idea (like in micro-blogging) could gathering power in the communities and arouse as an uprising threaten to the government. Thus, it is ban. Because the government cannot afford it. As the size of China, I guess the world cannot afford China become a state of Middle Asia now. The population involved is huge,the uprising could happen in every single province (at least), meaning many uprising under different leadership and claiming different governance ideas fighting each other. And it is not at all able to be under control, no any single party could have full control once the current power shaken in China. From the experience of Middle East now, if old regime collapse means a peaceful transition to "democratic" country? Then the civilians are going to have promising future? I am not sure! Let's see!
  • Jan 29 2012: Well, I think this topic is pretty interesting, however, it also very hard to explain. I don't know whether youhave been to China before, if you did so, you may see the great improvment on the right of free speech( although there are still a long way to go). I feel that something like Weibo which can disseminate information quickly play inevitable roles in the improvement. We have more possibilities to appraoch truths with the help of our netizens.
    One the other side, I believe this kind of development will last. Truely, in our life, we have more chances to give opinions on political affairs.
    There is one more thing I wanna mention, that is what is freedom. Freedom is based on order, not something extreme. Many people criticized limitation on Chinese Internet, well, I admit that I hope this kind of situation may change, but this may not become the reason to attack something about human rights. Yeah, I adimit we really need to improve this field, but not in this radical way. Thanks.
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    Jan 25 2012: That's a great point. I would argue that there is a difference in the roles of freedom of speech in the US and China though.

    For one, the very essence of American society is built on ideals like democracy and freedom (the concept of freedom going way further than in European states even, where way less people would consider owning firearms an important right). China on the other hand has never (!) experienced democratic elections and it's society roots from Confucianism, where respect towards your superiors in the social hierarchy is of paramount importance. When high numbers of literati and common people questioned a dynasty's rule, it was seen as having lost Tianming, the mandate of heaven, and was overthrown. While I'm not saying that it relates to contemporary China, I think it's worth keeping her history in mind when considering the impact of a fundamental change in society, such as the active implementation of freedom of speech.

    Secondly, microblogs and freedom of speech can play different roles in wealthy developed states and developing states (I will consider China a developing state for the sake of this argument). Specific examples could be the uprisings and revolutions during the Arab Awakening, where social media was a key medium. I personally do not expect a revolution being organized over Twitter in the United States, Germany or the UK in the near future.

    Thirdly, China is not a democracy but an authoritarian state. Governments can't be replaced in periodic elections.

    I would therefore argue that while undoubtably freedom of speech is a great, cost-effective release valve, it's sudden and total implementation in China could possibly bring about more than just that.

    To get back to the main topic: In what way does that apply to microblogs? Is there a middle ground Chinese officials are trying to establish? If yes, what is OK to say, what isn't, and why? If not, what are the concerns and why not ban microblogs at all?
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      Jan 25 2012: I'm basically making the argument, that on the issue of free speech... It's all or nothing. No government is smart or rich enough to censor the internet without destroying it. So, China is now in a situation somewhat akin to America after prohibition... It's illegal to say lots of things... but it's not stopping people anymore.

      I actually think China's history and culture, make free speech even less of a threat there, than here. Most Chinese people, hate their government, less than Americans hate their government. I actually think micro blogs may prove to the Chinese government over time, that free speech is nowhere near as dangerous as they thought it would be. I hope that's the way things are going.

      There is the fear however, that one big government failure could be released to the masses through the blogosphere, and it could knee jerk itself into the dark ages, by ending the internet. The most frightening thing about that, is that many European, and American countries would let them do it, because it would keep labor cheap, thus further lowering the standard of living for working people as a whole worldwide. I hope that's a 1 in a million cynical fear... but I'm not certain. The Dark Ages emerged after Rome fell.

      On America, I would simply suggest that it's not just freedom that America was built on... It was built on hatred and instant distrust, of all governments, including its own. There is no way of looking at the history of humanity as a whole, and seeing this fear as anything but justified... Governments almost never do what's best for their people.

      Also, there is one other country, in Europe, with socialist influences, that has never been defeated in a war... And it's the only country in the world that cares more about gun rights than Americans do. The Swiss. Gun rights make it difficult and expensive, to enforce a police state, or win a land war. I don't like guns... but I'm glad our founding parents did, it's common sense defense.
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    Jan 25 2012: I am in BEIJING . I feel it is a long and difficult process to change !
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    Jan 25 2012: "Are they pushing the boundaries of what is accepted in public discussion or are they being instrumentalized as a release valve to decrease social tension?"

    I think you could replace microblogs, with free speech in this statement, and the discussion would get a bit more interesting. Does freedom of speech actually push the boundaries of public discussion, or is it used as a release valve for social tension?

    I would actually suggest that, that was the whole point of freedom of speech. The reason Americans were given freedom of speech, was not a moral one, but a practical one. Freedom of speech is incredibly cheap, and human beings natural fear of change, and "the other", make it just as effective as censorship. I hope that the Chinese government is reallizing this, because if not, the only other option is the nuclear one, shut down the internet.

    I think that idea is impossible, again, not for moral reasons, but for practical ones. It would cost more to try and run a society that knows you took the internet away, than it would to simply let people have their toy. I hope that all governments have realized this by now... but, I'm not exactly convinced they have.