Caught in an ‘Authoritarian Moment’

BEIJING — New York Times writer, Didi Kirsten Tatlow, reports that when Xia Shang, a writer, wanted to commemorate the deaths of 58 people in an apartment building fire in Shanghai last week, he turned to the Internet for help.

Mr. Xia’s offer to buy flowers for the victims, posted on his microblog, was taken up by thousands of netizens. But he quickly found himself at war with the country’s Internet police. First they deleted his post. It was back up hours later, but then seven of them showed up in person at his home and took him away for questioning. Mr. Xia was released after two hours’ interrogation at the police station by “three or four” men he says belonged to the “Internet security police.” The experience left him angry.

“As a tool, microblogs and things will definitely speed up democratization in China,” he said. “But it’s not as free as you might think.”

Mr. Xia’s experience was a striking illustration of how freedom and repression are spreading simultaneously in China, an apparent contradiction that is growing as individual and Internet- and cellphone-based communications challenge authoritarian norms.

On one side are some of China’s 420 million online citizens, pushing the boundaries of free speech, increasingly straying into forbidden territory by organizing online — even on politically sensitive issues, like the fire in Shanghai. Many accuse the city authorities of tolerating lax safety standards and colluding in construction industry corruption, saying such lapses led to the disaster.

On the other side is an ever-growing effort by the authorities to block these challenges. Xiao Qiang, editor in chief of China Digital Times, based in the United States, estimates that “way above 50,000” government employees, uniformed and nonuniformed, monitor the Internet, deleting posts, tracking offenders and crafting new policing technologies. Citizens are also paid to patrol the Internet, and China’s sophisticated “Great Firewall” blocks large amounts of information from entering the country.

The result is a growing push-and-pull that raises the question: How long can it last? And which side will ultimately win?

In a new book, Johan Lagerkvist, a senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, says the central paradox of China’s Internet is that control and freedom have grown in parallel, since it became commercially available.

Yet, “Parallel growth in control and freedom rarely last long,” says Mr. Lagerkvist in “After the Internet, Before Democracy.” Social contracts crumble under the impact of social change.

In an interview, he wouldn’t predict when change would come.

For now, China is caught in an “authoritarian moment,” he said. But even the growing financial resources of the Party-state will not keep it there indefinitely.

Generational change is working against it. Young officials in their 30s and 40s are different from their predecessors. “I can sense a change. They have a more pluralistic outlook,” Mr. Lagerkvist said.

“When they leave their offices, they are more private persons than the older bureaucrats. They have hobbies,” going online to ask questions, like “What do you think of this car?” or about fishing in Tibet.

“Young people want to find out things that people like them in other parts of the world want to find out. And when they are stopped, they will become angry, because they feel their space is being constrained, and they ask, ‘Why?”‘

The growth here in personal freedoms during the last three decades of economic reform has been striking. Entrepreneurs, property owners and consumers are demanding — and getting — rights that were once nonexistent.

Ideas have flooded in, too. From improved mental health care to raising poodles, once-banned ideas and hobbies are now commonplace. The Internet is a major motor in that growth, as people communicate easily across the country and beyond national borders.

Based on past growth, by the end of the year, as many as 460 million Chinese may be online, surfing, blogging, microblogging, social networking and instant messaging, on subjects ranging from dating to democratic reform, forming public opinion groups that the government increasingly needs to take into account.

Five years ago, just 103 million were online, according to the state-backed China Internet Network Information Center. Today, 277 million use mobile phones to access the Internet, a sector growing particularly fast.

Of course, most Chinese aren’t online to express dissent.

“When you go to an Internet cafe, most people are there to play online games,” said Mr. Lagerkvist.

The government is also working to create an online “nationalist information sphere” to counter the growth of individual freedoms, though Mr. Lagerkvist has doubts about its reliability.

Increasingly, people are crossing the line, and the virtual struggle spills over into real life daily, as Mr. Xia’s experience showed.

Mr. Xia posted his offer to buy white or yellow chrysanthemums — traditional mourning flowers in China — about noon on Saturday, the day before the ceremony at the site of the blaze. By 3 in the afternoon, 1,654 people had replied, he said. Then the Internet police stepped in.

“When I checked again at about 4, the post had gone. Taken down. I thought, ‘O.K., so I’ll buy 1,654 flowers.”‘ Later that evening, unexpectedly, the post was back up.

“Maybe someone saw it and said, ‘Hey, that shouldn’t be stopped.’ I don’t know,” he said.

That’s when the police came by. Curiously, said Mr. Xia, they seemed less bothered about the flowers than the fact that he also had posted an item about rumors that a small fire at the building earlier in the day had not been properly put out, leading to the later inferno.

Despite the interference, Mr. Xia continued with his flower campaign. By Sunday morning, the message had been reposted about 8,000 times. He settled on 1,800 flowers — an auspicious number — and posted again, saying these would represent “my 10,000 online friends.” He asked for volunteers to help lay the flowers. “I couldn’t lay 1,800 on my own.”

Hundreds of netizens showed up, said Mr. Xia, and the flowers were all laid that afternoon, contributing to the sea of white and yellow at the street junction where mourners gathered.



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