By Daniel D’Amico
Online activism has played an important role in Chinese society in recent years. It has influenced lawmaking and has put pressure on the government to change past decisions. Some believe that this kind of activism has a profound effect on Chinese society, while others think it makes little change. Whether online activism is positive or not, it has been around for a while; and despite attempts by the government to stifle it, it continues to be seen.
There have been multiple cases in which clicktivism has led to change in one way or another. An independent investigative agency known in China as the “Human Flesh Search” led to the imprisonment of certain people who would have otherwise gone unnoticed. The agency was responsible for the imprisonment of Yang Dacai and Li Qiming, one a corrupt official and the other the son of the deputy director of the Baoding City Public Security Bureau. Similarly, Weibo, a Chinese blogging website similar to Twitter, led to the arrest of Li Tianyi. He was a suspect accused of leading the rape of a woman and was going to escape imprisonment due to his status. All of these people were exposed through online activism and were brought to justice for their crimes.
Conversely, public sentiment led to the pleading for some individuals to be released from custody. Yang Zhong, one of the first arrested for publishing rumors online, sparked a large amount of online protest, leading to his release. Also, Tang Hui was sentenced to the “re-education through labor” system after constant petitioning of officials who had not been persecuted. Not only did public outcry lead to her release, but it also led to the abolishment of the “re-education through labor” system in China, according to the New York Times.
Despite these instances, clicktivism is not always effective or beneficial in making change. Sometimes, it simply does not produce any significant results and at others, it produces negative results. According to The Diplomat, the “Human Flesh Search” has led to violent acts. One of these instances includes a girl committing suicide when she saw her personal details online. This is one illustration of the degree to which online activism can be harmful to those whom it talks about.
At other times, online activism yields little to no results. For example, when the high speed rail accident occurred in 2011 in Wenzhou, news of it was spread by online activism, but rumors were also spread. There was a rumor proven to be false concerning an Italian man dying in the accident. Very little action was taken by people in response to the crash, as well. Han Han, a popular social and political critic, states, “I was reading all the accounts on microblogs. Subsequently, I kept checking downstairs, expecting hundreds of thousands of people to march in protest,” according to the site wagingnonviolence.org. This further shows how not only negative rumors arose from the situation, but also a lack of other forms of activism.
Some critics admit that clicktivism can be effective when coupled with other forms of activism. Garth Moore, U.S. deputy director of ONE, an international campaigning and advocacy program, describes clicktivism as, “a means to an end, just like phone calls, handwritten letters, and in-district meetings,” according to the ONE website.
For many years, the Chinese government has tried to have more control over various online groups and protesters. It seeks to limit the “Human Flesh Search” due to its harmful potential and cyber vigilante-like actions. The government also took certain precautions to avoid future public outcries. The posting of “rumors” has become more highly censored, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Those that posted “rumors” that have been viewed more than 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times can be arrested. These changes make it harder for clicktivists to spread information about events or people that expose or spread awareness about important topics since what is considered a “rumor” is up to the government’s interpretation.
The President of China himself, Xi Jinping, also addressed the situation. In a comment made in August, he stated that he wishes to stress principles which are “for the upholding of the people’s democratic dictatorship, the socialist path, the party leadership and Marxism-Leninism and ‘Mao Zedong thought.’” This further emphasizes the increasing efforts of the government to stifle online activism.
Whether online activism is or is not effective and to what extent has been a frequently asked question for many years. Both critics and supporters, see it as a good starting point on the path towards increased freedom. Despite the government’s efforts, it does not show any signs of stopping soon.