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Alexander Davenport

Alexander Davenport

Posted February 5, 2009 | 01:16 PM (EST)

Baby Steps: Online Debate, Dissent, and Democracy


Seconds after Wen Jiabao, China's popular Premier saw a Cambridge University student's shoe whiz by him, China's blogosphere exploded with opinions.

Indeed, China's blogosphere has become a popular release valve for the frustrations, joys, and sorrows of a nation of 1.3 billion people. While obviously access to the Internet in China does not perfectly mirror the nation as a whole, Chinese blogs provide a unique and anonymous forum for discussing topics that are typically swept under the table by the state-run media. But more importantly, China's blogosphere has seen a marked enlargement of diversity of opinion in the short period that it has emerged as a crucial social forum in civil society. One incident last year in particular shows a noted broadening of the dialogue and an evolution in the latitude of opinion within the online community.

In late November 2008, two female students of Shanghai's East China Law and Politics University became frustrated that their classical Chinese professor spent class time denouncing corruption and ineptitude in the government. After being rebuffed by the teacher himself, the two contacted the Public Security Bureau to protest. The professor, worried about potential trouble, amended his class accordingly and swiftly. Shortly thereafter, the professor wrote a blistering article discussing his situation. Professor Yang excoriated the students, stating that they had silenced his opinions by handing him over to the police as a "counter-revolutionary." Although the professor never proved that the students ever used such diction nor did the police corroborate this allegation, the political blogosphere on Tienyi, China's high-brow, intellectual political discussion blog lit up.

Yang's invocation of the word "counter-revolutionary" instantly hit a nerve. This word was precisely how intellectuals and academics were termed and disposed of during the Cultural Revolution. Being branded as such portended not only the end of one's academic career, but likely imprisonment, torture, and perhaps even death. Thus, among the academic circles of Tienyi, being termed a "counter-revolutionary" was not only an unacceptable usurpation of the traditional authority hierarchy between student and teacher, but also an offense that hearkened back to the dark days of violence against China's thinkers. Given that Tienyi's clientele is largely academic, the small furor that arose was hardly unexpected. Denunciations of the students and their despicable abrogation of academic freedom sprouted up.

But this incident showed a marked departure from previous online tempests. Before, most notably after the American bombing of the embassy in Yugoslavia, the Olympic torch protests, and CNN's allegedly anti-Chinese coverage of the Tibetan riots, the Chinese blogosphere was a monolithically and vociferously anti-American. Any diverging views were quickly deleted and or shouted down as "traitorous" by fellow online posters.

This time, however, there was a refreshing diversity of opinion. In fact, not a few academics that stood up in support of the students. They pushed back at Professor Yang's allegations, stating the students had not actually used the term "counter-revolutionary." Moreover, these posters stated that the students were simply executing their legal right to censure a teacher who was not teaching what they had paid him to teach. By going through the legally prescribed procedure to rectify the problem, the students actually strengthened the rule of law rather than the lawless academic witch-hunt that prevailed during the Cultural Revolution (that Yang had so clearly invoked to gain rhetorical appeal).

Others pointed out that the students' actions had actually strengthened freedom of speech, rather than stifling it. One opined that the student's concerns should have been initially addressed by the professor for the very reasons he wrote the article in the first place -- freedom of speech: "If we truly believe in the freedom of belief, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, then we must recognize each individual are equal people, each with different beliefs who are equal ... Were there to be no respect for others and their beliefs and ideas, there could be no freedom of belief, freedom of thought, freedom of speech." Truly remarkable words considering that they come from a pro-reform leftist academic not a conservative party cadre.

Indeed, while perhaps anecdotal at best, the whole episode shows a greater debate and dialogue over the freedom of speech, thought, and expression within the online community. Most notable is the surprising diversity and eloquence of the debate among both academics and regular visitors alike. According to a respected socio-linguistics professor at Fudan University, lets call him Professor Li, the episode reveals not only a greater tolerance among the online censors and monitors for the debate of freedom of speech issues, but also a greater acceptance and expression of diverging opinions within the bloggers themselves. Li stated this is a phenomenon that is relatively recent to the online blogosphere. He has seen a subtle, yet noticeable, acceptance of dissent within the bloggers and posters of the online community. In this case, helped likely by the absence of a scapegoat (a la the United States), the Chinese blog circle was forced to debate not on knee-jerk nationalism but on underlying beliefs, deep-rooted values, and the lingering historical vestiges of the Cultural Revolution and its rhetoric. This is a move Professor Li sees as overwhelmingly positive.

Therefore, while the Western media remains besotted with the Charter '08 (the online petition to enact immediate reforms for human rights), it is the smaller, more subtle changes that are actually altering China's embrace of such liberties. Indeed, it is this curious enlargement of the social sphere that the blogosphere provides, coupled with a growing acceptance for dissent, debate, and discussion within it, that is laying the foundation for any future reform. While the West demands change to be swift in bold, Professor Li warns, "China's reform will be evolutionary, not revolutionary." China's evolving blogosphere and its relation to freedom of speech rights in China certainly confirms his humble assertion, for now at least.