Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

CHINA: Social Networking Sites Vibrant and Thriving Among Activists

Gordon Ross

BEIJING, May 31 2010 (IPS) - Last June, when thousands of Iranians – many organised through social networking websites such as Twitter – took to the streets to protest the outcome of the country’s presidential election, a Chinese English-language newspaper, ‘Global Times’, published an editorial critical of the Western media’s coverage of the protests.

The article said the Western press was giving too much credit to websites like Twitter and others like it. “Not every posting on Twitter has been reliable, and even noted US journalists have said Twitter is more about reflecting a mood than actual facts,” the editorial read.

Less than a month later, the next “Twitter Revolution,” as some in the press had dubbed the Iran protests, looked to be China, where ethnic violence had erupted in remote Xinjiang province. The central government, fearing protesters might use social networking tools to organise, severed Internet access in the restive province and shut down sites such as Twitter and Facebook across the mainland.

Today, those two websites remain blocked, as are others, including YouTube and many personal blogs. But despite China’s ongoing efforts to censor the Net – often called ‘The Great Firewall of China’ – social networking sites and other tools of the Web are widely used by Chinese activists to organise and spread their messages.

“The Internet has changed a lot of things – the way people fight against injustices,” says Zeng Jinyan, 26, the go-to source for information about China’s human rights activists. “Because of the Internet, we have so many supporters and followers. I don’t know how we would do it without it.”

Zeng, who started out as an advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS, became what she calls a “defender of human rights defenders” after her husband, activist Hu Jia, was sentenced to prison in 2006. To disseminate information about her husband and other activists, she uses the very tools the Chinese government tries to block. On Twitter, Zeng has over 6,000 followers.

Despite constant monitoring from authorities, she is still able to widely spread news. Via a Virtual Private Network, which hides a user’s IP address and therefore identity and location, Zeng posts daily updates about her husband and other rights activists through social networking sites and other blogs she writes.

“Most of the time I can’t go out to meet friends. I can’t go abroad to look for support – my passport is confiscated. On sensitive days, I can’t even go outside. The Internet is my only way to connect to the outside world and my friends,” she told IPS.

Authorities regularly cut Zeng’s Internet connection, “but I have other ways to get online,” she said coyly.

She said her mobile phone and other networking sites such as MSN and QQ, a popular Chinese web instant messaging website, are regularly monitored by the government. “My email account has been hacked several times,” she said.

She uses only Skype, a software application that allows users to make voice calls over the Internet, to communicate, and deletes instant messages as soon as they are sent.

Wang Songlian, research coordinator with China Human Rights Defenders, a nonprofit network of grassroots activists, said that despite the government’s best efforts to crack down on Internet activism, networking sites – Twitter in particular – have become important organisational tools for activists.

“By talking about a particular issue over Twitter it becomes a consensus building exercise,” she said. “[Twitter] is an excellent channel for activists to organise and to build a network.”

In recent years there have been a number of cases where activists have used the tools of the Web to organise or spread a message.

In April, after three activists in Fujian province were convicted of “slander” for posting articles and video online urging the government to investigate the rape and murder of a young woman, a group of up to 2,000 Netizens – organised through blogs, QQ, Twitter and other tools – gathered at the district court to voice their support for the activists on trial.

During the Iran protests, Chinese democracy activists launched their own campaign, known by its Twitter tag ‘#CN4Iran’, or ‘China for Iran’, to express solidarity with the Iranian opposition and condemn their own government’s complicity in the violent crackdown.

Earlier this year, Feng Zhenghu, a prominent Chinese human rights defender, became a cause célèbre for spending three months in Tokyo’s Narita airport after Chinese authorities denied him entry to his homeland. Through blogs and social networking websites, Feng’s story went viral, and in February, Chinese authorities granted him permission to go home.

“The Internet allows activists to exchange information in a timely way, and allows us to give one another mutual support and solidarity,” Wang Yi, a Beijing-based human rights activist, said in an interview conducted with IPS over Skype’s messaging system. Internet tools, including Twitter, Skype and QQ, “allow me to find friends and supporters not only all over the country, but all over the world.”

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