China's civil society: breaching the Green Dam

About the author
Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper. In 2006 he was the recipient of a Lettre Ulysses award for reportage on his experience at Bingdian

China's ministry of industry and information technology (MIIT) announced on 8 June 2009 that all computer manufacturers would be required, from 1 July, to install the Green Dam filtering software on machines sold in China - in order to "protect the psychological health of the young." The unprecedented measure met with uproar. Internet users were virtually unanimous in viewing this as an attempt to control access to information. The more tech-savvy swiftly uncovered the truth - the software's lists of words to filter included two thousand related to pornography, yet a full 6,000 sensitive political terms - including the names of the two software packages most commonly used by Chinese internet users to reach blocked websites. The authorities' true intent was exposed. 

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's articles in openDemocracy:

" Xiamen: the triumph of public will" (16 January 2008)

"China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

"China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

"China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008)

"China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008)

"China's digital nationalism: Kung Fu Panda under fire" (16 July 2008)

"Death in Shanghai, law in China" (15 September 2008)

"China's power, China's people: towards accountability" (29 September 2008)

"China's stalled transition" (19 February 2009)

"The CCTV fire: a voice without restraint" (5 March 2009)

"China: democracy in action" (19 March 2009)

"China's Tibet: question with no answer" (16 April 2009)

"Tiananmen: the legacy of 1989"  (4 June 2009)

Opposition took a range of forms. Some well-known intellectuals called for the details of the policy-making process to be made public so its legality could be checked. Some called for an "internet boycott" on 1 July. Most notable was the "2009 declaration of the anonymous netizens": this started with greetings to the internet censors and went on to describe the internet as an unstoppable force of history that charted human society's future direction. There was too an element of direct challenge: "for the freedom of the internet, for the advancement of internetisation, and for our rights, we are going to acquaint your censorship machine withd systematic sabotage and show you just how weak the claws of your censorship really are." 

The MIIT, faced with opposition both at home and overseas, announced on 30 June 2009 that it was postponing its plans. But it is clear that in effect the decision has been to abandon them altogether. In breaching the Green Dam, China's internet users have scored their greatest victory yet.

The root of unrest 

This is an unusual year for the Chinese authorities. It is the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, and also of many other sensitive events - among them the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, and the fiftieth anniversary of the uprising in Tibet. The unrest in Xinjiang has highlighted the multiple sources of tension and insecurity in the country. In anticipation of possible outbreaks of trouble, "stability maintenance offices" have been set up throughout the country. 

Normal rules would see the media keep a tight lid on bad news, artificially creating an celebratory atmosphere. But the times seem to be a-changing - since the start of 2009 there has been a steady stream of "internet incidents", with more impact than in years past. These "internet incidents" are first exposed online, with the traditional media then joining in, ultimately leading to sustained national exposure. In the first half of the year there have been ten such incidents, including this Green Dam debacle. An obvious common feature is that internet users express fierce scepticism about official explanations - and in each case officialdom has ultimately lost (see "China's leaders, the media and the internet", 4 July 2009). 

China's system of government lacks real elections and media oversight, thus allowing officials to act as they please. They give no thought to the people, recognise no legal limits, and consistently ignore and harm the public interest. One of today's most important social phenomena is that protestors are often not directly affected by the incidents they protest about. For example,  the suspicious death of a hotel cook named Tu Yuangao in the city of Shishou, in Hubei province brought tens of thousands onto the streets and into fierce confrontation with police (in the end, almost 10,000 armed police had to be drafted in to pacify the city). 

Why? A local official involved in trying to calm the situation said: "it wasn't just about one death - it was the release of deep social tensions that had been building over the long term." The official added: "in Shishou almost everyone can see illegal gambling joints, drug dealers, thieves, robberies, unsolved murders, official involvement in or protection for entertainment venues, excessive traffic fines and fees, and police misconduct and contempt for the public. The people are disgusted." 

The incident, therefore, can be seen as the outburst of local discontent with the government. Indeed, all mass protests are bound to be due to local governance - and central government knows it. In 2009, county party secretaries and public-security chiefs have been summoned to Beijing for training - though how effective this is remains to be seen. These aren't simple issues of technique; at root the cause is the people's loss of confidence in government. As soon as conflict breaks out, the people simply do not believe official statements. 

The catalyst for change 

These incidents, caused by long-building discontent and mistrust, require huge resources to end - and also shake the foundations of power. And perhaps that is the real reason online opinion is starting to receive official respect. The authorities have seen that rapid development and generally improving standards of living have been accompanied by increasing discontent and mistrust of the government, perhaps even among the majority of the public. The balance between nation and society, between government and people, has been lost. There can be no solution if changes are not made in the system of government. 

True reform will not arrive until the pressure is such that the party's highest leaders realise there is a crisis of governance, and in the coming ten years, online conflict between the authorities and the people will become more common (see "The Weng'an model: China's fix-it governance", 30 July 2008). This is historically unprecedented. Historically, public affairs have been the business of the emperor or officialdom, with the people concerned only with their own households. This kind of arrangement produces only the humbly obedient, or the unruly mob - but never the citizen. The party's rule has destroyed society more thoroughly any previous force in Chinese history. But nobody expected the internet to become the most effective way of fostering a new civil society.

Online, the Chinese are learning to care about events far beyond their immediate circle, rather than regarding them as none of their affair. Fierce online debate is making the Chinese accustomed to hearing a range of opinions, to respect rather than seek to eliminate their opponent. A new citizenry is arising. In the long term, there can be no better catalyst for political reform.

Also in openDemocracy about China in 2009:

Perry Link, " Charter 08: a blueprint for China" (5 January 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China in 2009: a year for surprise" (14 January 2009)

Wei Jingsheng, "China's political tunnel"(22 January 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China's giant struggle" (5 February 2009)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's anniversary tempest" (24 February 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China local, China global" (11 March 2009)

Henryk Szadziewski, "Kashgar's old city: the politics of demolition" (3 April 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China's coming struggle for power" (14 May 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China's Tiananmen moment: the party rules" (3 June 2009) 

Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2009" (4 June 2009)

Yitzhak Shichor, "The Uyghurs and China: lost and found nation" (6 July 2009)

Henryk Szadziewski, "The discovery of the Uyghurs" (10 July 2009)

Kerry Brown, "Xinjiang: China's security high-alert" (14 July 2009)

Dibyesh Anand, "China's borderlands: the need to rethink" (15 July 2009)