Social media brings hope and frustration for Chinese activists at home and in exile

Beijing's controls and veterans' reluctance to master technology limits its potential as a tool

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 5:26am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 7:14am

Since the dawn of the information age, it has become clear that social media can be a powerful force for social change.

From Tunisia to Taiwan, new technology has been key to organising protest movements and motivating people - especially the young - to get involved.

But for those pressing for change in mainland China, attempting to harness social media poses challenges, and not just because Beijing is well aware of the power of social media and draws "red lines" that internet firms and users cannot cross.

Many exiled dissidents are from the era of typewriters and attempting to adapt to the new technological landscape has been challenging; many have elected not to learn the "language" of the internet.

"I even can't contact some of them via e-mail," said Dr Yang Jianli, a veteran activist now living in the US state of Virginia.

Activists among the Chinese diaspora have long debated their role in advancing democracy in China, and within a broadly defined movement that includes exiles, faith-based groups and dissidents turned academics, there is no single platform to unite them.

Yang said that for some of his peers, both in China and abroad, the internet and especially social media held the key. Yet "it is no surprise that some [cannot keep pace with the] fast changing characteristics of the cyberworld", Yang said.

The internet has been credited with spawning and spreading a number of social and political movements. The Arab spring in the Middle East and North Africa may not have been possible without the internet.

China was not immune to the online rumblings. Beijing moved quickly to douse dissent at the time of the Arab uprisings in early 2011 while acknowledging it would have to address grievances to avoid a similar mass movement at home.

Authorities blocked websites widely used in the Arab revolts. And homegrown social networks have been subject to increasingly heavy policing. Initially, the target was gossip about political leaders or internal party affairs, but censorship has been expanded to general "rumours" deemed a threat to social stability.

Official concern about the internet reached a peak in 2010 and 2011, and authorities moved swiftly to quash online dissent. One of the nation's most popular social media tools, the microblogging service Weibo, temporarily banned or permanently deleted over 100,000 accounts.

Weibo claimed the move was intended to "clean up" accounts that spread "illegal" information.

WeChat, a social network on which 400 million users share short messages, has also participated in the internet cleansing. WeChat began cracking down on the accounts of some of its most popular and vocal bloggers. Dozens of accounts were closed overnight in March in what became known by internet users as the "WeChat Massacre". It was the largest purge of its kind since the platform went online in 2011.

Wen Yunchao, a prominent online activist who has lived in New York since early last year, said despite Beijing's tightening of internet controls, he still believed in the ability of the medium to bring about change.

Wen, 43, known online as Bei Feng, said the Arab spring and Taiwan's Sunflower movement, in which students occupied the island's parliament, showed how the role of leadership among activists was changing.

"People can easily launch a protest if they follow two principles: to understand the public's emotions, and to spread information that can further inspire these emotions via proper online tools," he said. "Sometimes the movements can be self-driven and do not need leaders."

The nature of leadership of civic movements was also changing, Wen said.

"However, I do not think most veterans of the Chinese democracy movement in North America are ready for such change, while some still consider themselves to be leaders," he said.

Zang Xihong, a Canada-based dissident who writes under the name Sheng Xue, agreed that the internet had created a diverse range of leaders.

Wen plans to end his advocacy once campaigners on the mainland are equipped to carry on the frontline work themselves.

"Since the early 2000s, I've spent five to six hours online every day, reading hundreds of articles and posts," he said. "But in the era of internet … many things are decentralising."

Wen said he would step away if his lack of knowledge about recent trends became a liability.