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Can Social Media Bring Free Speech to China?

Despite the Chinese government’s best efforts to block the spread and influence of social media, it appears that its stranglehold on information is slipping, forcing the government to take steps toward reform. Earlier this month, the Twitter feed administered by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began to report on the dangerously toxic air quality in the capital. The New York Times reported on the government’s efforts to shut it down:

The existence of the embassy’s machine and the @BeijingAir Twitter feed have been a diplomatic sore point for Chinese officials. In July 2009, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, Wang Shu’ai, told American diplomats to halt the Twitter feed, saying that the data “is not only confusing but also insulting,” according to a State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks. Mr. Wang said the embassy’s data could lead to “social consequences.”

Despite these requests, the feed remains open to this day and is again reporting on hazardous and “beyond index” readings over the last several days. The Twitter feed confirms what Beijing residents already knew: smog levels in the capital are dangerous and are only becoming worse. Two years ago the feed infamously called that day’s pollution levels “crazy bad” when it was reported that the levels had surpassed the scale of the EPA’s Air Quality Index. Earlier this month, the feed registered readings of 755, far above the Index’s upper limit of 500. What was considered “crazy bad” by the U.S. Embassy two years ago is now becoming the city’s new normal. The Atlantic reported on the shift from the state-run national media’s reporting on the crisis, in which the presence of social media was credited with a surprising degree of frankness from officials:

Why, then, would the Chinese government allow such candor on the pollution question? Social media plays a role. Prominent Beijing real estate developer Pan Shiyi regularly tweets information about pollution to his several million followers on Sina’s Weibo [a microblogging site similar to Twitter], and the flurry of similar comments by more ordinary users has brought the pollution issue into the open. At a basic level, the government understands that once an issue hits critical mass, there’s little point in perpetuating the myth any further.

To downplay the pollution levels would have required the state-run media to ask Chinese citizens to completely ignore reality and sources on the readings from trusted social media accounts like those of the U.S. Embassy. Another test of the ability of social media to bring about change in China is currently taking place with the case of a blogger, Zhu Ruifeng, who has forced government officials to face the improper sexual and corrupt behavior of some of their peers. The Wall Street Journal reported on the phenomenon last week:

Officials running into trouble over sexual exploits isn’t new in China, but interest in their illicit sexual affairs of officials has recently soared, fueled by social media, the proliferation of pocket-size video cameras and rising public concerns over officials’ misbehavior.

Unfortunately, in this instance, it appears the Chinese government is striking back against Zhu’s reporting; police made an appearance at the blogger’s door last night. The Washington Post covered the intimidation:

“If tomorrow I still end up being taken away by Chongqing policemen,” Zhu said in his last message of the night, “I hope all of you will continue supporting me.”

That post was quickly deleted, apparently by censors.

The Post also explained the far-reaching implications of Zhu’s case: “If local authorities are allowed to punish whistleblowers, experts warn, the anti-corruption campaign will lose what little momentum it has gained in the past two months.”

The Chinese government’s response to outcry over Beijing pollution was heartening and it was hoped that with the increasing prevalence and power of social media, the government would have to bend more frequently to public opinion. The situation with Zhu could demonstrate the limits to the government’s new-found flexibility. How Zhu’s readers respond to his muffling has implications not only for his case and the latest anti-corruption campaign, but also for the future of free speech in China. 


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