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Social media is the new opposition in China

Chinese dissidents are finding a voice through microblogs. The country may be the world’s most regulated internet content, but that has not stopped government opponents exponentially increasing support for their cause to unprecedented levels.

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Yu Jianrong is one example. After spending years fighting for rights of China’s rural poor and even denouncing numerous officials, he took a step that expanded the reach of that campaign exponentially, opening a Twitter-like microblog account.

Chinese state censors blocked Twitter in 2009, but several homegrown versions emerged with enhanced services such as photo and video embedding, and proved wildly popular amongst China’s 457 million web users – the largest of any country on the planet.

Sina.com, an infotainment portal, now boasts more than 100-million microblog users.

As the Chinese government assembled again in Beijing this week, experts believe social media’s influence of the socio-political landscape in China will no longer be confined to anecdotal reports of social media activism.

“Current technology has altered the social environment. Everyone has a microphone. Everyone is a news headquarters,” Jianrong, when discussing microblogging in a recent Chinese media interview.

As professor of rural issues at a top state research centre in Beijing, 48-year-old Jianrong has deftly walked a fine line to highlight perhaps China’s hottest political issue today – the plight of the country’s rural low income population.

“In the long run, pressure cannot maintain stability and could cause new instability. It is tantamount to quenching a thirst with poison,” he said in one post.

The real-time exchange of ideas is pushing the boundaries of Chinese censorship and provoking clear, but moderate, government responses.

In fact authorities took up several recent cases of officials committing crimes after they went viral on microblogs. Prominent social media platforms in China include Douban, Kaixin001, QZone and RenRen.

“Microblogging is a great leap forward in terms of public opinion and speech, and Yu is not the only one using them in this way,” said Xiao Qiang, editor of the China Digital Times, a US-based site focusing on internet news from China.

“China’s official media usually don’t touch some of these issues. So someone like Yu Jianrong can say more than official media can.”

The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in a recent report that microblogs had helped make the internet “the principal arena where the battles for freedom of expression” in China are fought.

So far the official response has been to both embrace yet censor microblogging.

Authorities have censored news and discussion of the Jasmine uprisings in the Arab world as well as anonymous online calls for protests in China.

But a government white paper last year singled out microblogging’s value in keeping authorities honest and growing numbers of officials and government departments have jumped on the bandwagon, opening their own accounts.

The official Xinhua news agency said last week that microblog debate had “underlined the Chinese people’s willingness to participate in talks on the country’s future.”

“Nothing short of a communications revolution is taking place” in China, Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

“Mobile phones and the internet are profoundly transforming how citizens see themselves and their degree of tolerance for the arbitrariness shown by the state.”

Microblogs in the People’s Republic had begun to feel the weight of a heavier government crackdown, following the publication of a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) claiming social networking websites are used as tools of “political subversion”.

The research published by CASS in early July 2010, claimed microblogging and social networking platforms, such as Facebook, helped spur on the ethnic riots in Xinjiang in 2009, in which 200 people were killed and 1 500 injured.

Despite opposition from the government, the tactics of social media users is targeted at getting out Chinese citizens as well as capturing global attention.

Protesters in China are also being strategic. Many planned public protests take place on Sunday afternoon, meaning media coverage in Europe all Sunday, acknowledges state-owned media publication, the China Daily.

When it comes to news in Europe, Sunday is traditionally the quietest news day, ensuring more coverage on Chinese opposition efforts. So the China ‘protests’ had few competition from other things happening in the world.

With the US even further behind in time, the China ‘protests’ happening at night, U.S. viewers get the complete story in the morning, allowing commentators or “talking heads” the chance to discuss the issue throughout much of the day.

So how have Chinese authorities planned to counter the seemingly impossible project to manage social media use amongst its 457 million internet users? If you can’t crackdown on the net, use it to your advantage. This certainly seems to inspire some of the thinking in Beijing. Chinese government officials are now joining the social media space.

With domestic Twitter-like microblog platforms used as a means to push the government’s own agendas, David Bandurdski of the China Media Project asks the question, are Chinese officials becoming “network authoritarians”?

According to the Wall Street Journal, hundreds of public security bureaus in China have launched their own microblogs as part of an attempt to better connect with the country’s tech-savvy online population.

So far, the strategy has been met with some success. “Safe Beijing,” the official microblog of the Beijing public security bureau, has attracted more than 330 000 followers since its debut in August 2010.

Politics in China may be evolving to a new stage: no longer is it just a battle between the state and social media users, but rather the government and its internal opponents battling it out through social media.

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