TED Conversations

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?


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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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