Uses and abuses
The internet's capacity to highlight the best and worst of human nature has been on display during the past few weeks. The Shanxi slave labour scandal emerged only after a group of fathers whose children were missing posted an anguished letter on the popular Tianya forum appealing for help.
So overwhelming was the response that the traditional media were spurred into action. That, in turn, forced the authorities to do something about a situation they had been ignoring.
It's just the latest example of the way the internet has supplanted the mainland media as the vehicle for breaking news the government would prefer to stay unreported.
But while this was happening, the internet's dark side was on display, too. Mobile phone footage of two students being beaten by their classmates at a Guangzhou middle school - for supposedly stealing - was posted on the Net, allegedly by one of the people participating in the attack. The fact that their assailants were proud enough of their actions to want to display them to the world makes for an unwelcome contrast with the righteous indignation of the netizens who helped bring the plight of the Shanxi slave labourers to the world's attention.
Public outrage can quickly turn into mob rule in the online world, though - as the Beijing students who in May used a mobile phone to record their taunting of their geography teacher discovered. Soon after they posted the film on the internet, their identities were revealed and they became the target of netizens who embarked on a campaign of harassment, even though the students had already been punished by the school.
In the Middle Ages, we pilloried people by putting them in the stocks. Now, we do it online. The difference is that, these days, we live in a global village, so everyone can see your humiliation. But what links the expose of the Shanxi slave scandal with the cases of school violence is that they show what happens when power is exercised without responsibility.
Officials and police in Shanxi turned a blind eye to the abuses going on under their noses. Indeed, some seem to have collaborated with the owners of the illegal brickworks. That displays an astonishing arrogance, the same sort of conceit that sees local governments in poor rural areas spending huge amounts of public money on extravagant buildings that wouldn't look out of place in Beijing or Shanghai.
As for the children who use their mobile phones and the internet to humiliate their contemporaries and teachers, they are also exercising power without considering the consequences. Their age is a poor excuse for that, given that teenagers are driving the internet's every advance. But when they see adults in positions of trust abusing their power, it's no wonder they follow suit.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist