A Test of the Internet's Free Speech Promise: China and Tibet

I haven’t seen any evidence that the internet was an important facilitator of the organization of the protests in Tibet, but citizen reporting on the events in Lhasa beginning March 10 made heavy use of the internet. The interesting question is whether perspectives other than the official view are getting through to discussions inside China. There is a common belief that one of the biggest potential benefits of the internet is its ability to thrust free speech on a country whether the government likes it or not. The internet is thought to be just too porous and too amorphous for blocking to be successful for long – another site will carry the blocked content and technology will circumvent the blocks or get ahead of censorship.

It is clear how events were communicated to the world, through both traditional main stream media correspondent reporting (now first hand foreign correspondent reports are impossible (see Rose Luqiu’s and Ming Pao’s entries)), and the internet including: human rights reports; YouTube videos of the violence; cell phone videos; and pictures; and summary sites for example. The interesting question is whether the internet has facilitated communication about these events within China in a more open way than Chinese officials might prefer. For example, there are Chinese citizen reports that the news is forbidden to carry any stories related to the protests, YouTube has been blocked since March 15, same with Google news, and there are reports of internet searches returning results that include only the government version of events. For a fantastic discussion of Chinese media censorship see this OpenNet Initiative blog post.

Bothbloggers and twitter style posts (Fanfou and Jiwai in China) are reporting in real time on the events in Lhasa. Fanfou appears to be just such a technology that the Chinese government is not blocking completely. Some Fanfou users seem to be posting information the Chinese government might be sensitive about (such as “troops have now been dispatched toward Tibet. Wuhouci Rd. going both north and south have been completely sealed off…” and “Faint, it looks like we really are at war. Ximianqiao St and Wuhouci Rd. are all blocked off”, with posts like “For the most part Tibet related webpages are all closed” and “If Tibet is really rebelling, tomorrow we won’t be allowed to discuss this topic…” (both posted March 15). And posted on March 16: “Baidu Baike has locked out the term “Tibet” wiki has partially blocked the term” and “Can’t visit youtube, I wanted to see videos of the Taiwan traffic incident, Tibet incident, the UN referendum (in Taiwan), arggghh.” Translating and collecting these tweets has been the work of Davesgonechina as he encourages people in the West to engage the Chinese through Fanfou and Google’s Chinese/English translation tools.

It seems much of the Chinese blogosphere is censored within the PRC. Popular blogs in China such as EastSouthWestNorth were quick to report eyewitness accounts although in this case the poster says “note: This blog post was copied from elsewhere; attempts to post this blog post in China ends with eventual deletion.” Another report from within the PRC, at the the time of the protests, calls the Chinese blogosphere “a wind of peace, richness and harmony” with “movie stars’ and beauty’s pictures, seven-colored front page, but nothing related to what’s happening in Tibet, except a tiny link “Tibet” under the headline “traveling”” at Bokee.com, the self proclaimed “No.1 global Chinese BSP (blog service provider).” Blog readers from within China acknowledge the availability of information from the blogosphere that is not available in the main stream press.

Most reports of blogs and twitter style posts note that there is anger from Chinese citizens toward Tibet, and toward Western support of Tibet (such as Richard Gere’s call for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics). As Rebecca MacKinnon writes “John Kennedy has translated chatter from Chinese blogs and chatrooms that generally runs along the lines of: those ungrateful minorities, we give them modern conveniences and look how they thank us…” Many commentators are concluding this is the inevitable result of a state controlled media, but I suspect this is too facile. As discussed above, it appears there is some information on the internet that does not appear in the main stress press in the PRC. It is not a crazy notion that the events in Tibet might solidify grassroots Chinese support of official Chinese behavior, even if the press is fully transparent. The fact that information is getting through is vitally important, even if public opinion appears to be unswayed, or swayed in ways the West might not understand.

Just the fact that some of the communication on blogs and on twitter-like sites that would ordinarily be a target for censorship appears within the PRC is an enormous success for those who champion the internet as an unstoppable force for free speech. This step, albeit an involuntary one, toward the open and free flow of information should not be overlooked in media analysis of the coverage of Tibet.

Crossposted on I&D blog

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