China's netizens and Tibet: a Guangzhou report

Ivy Wang
8 April 2008

Ivy Wang graduated cum laude from Yale University with majors in History and English literature. She has spent the past year and a half in Guangzhou as a fellow of the Yale-China Association, teaching English and American history at Sun Yat-sen University and researching the right to health.

In the weeks since the protests, riots, and government crackdown in Tibet hit the headlines, Chinese coverage of the events has gone through several incarnations. It began life as a terse state press-release, then refashioned itself into a front-page struggle between embattled civilians and scheming "splittists", before arriving at its current manifestation: the public shaming of the purportedly anti-Chinese western media.

On the face of it, these changes have been mandated from the top down. But behind the curtains of China's official media, networks of active internet users have played a key role in shaping the course of the reporting of Tibet. The state-controlled media apparatus has become increasingly, if somewhat selectively, responsive to the noisy participation of the country's netizens.

Breaking the news

The morning that unrest in Lhasa was first reported in the west - 12 March 2008 - I savoured the opportunity of breaking the shocking news to Chinese colleagues in my office in Guangzhou, southern China. "Did any of you see? The Guardian says the protests in Tibet are the biggest in twenty years..."

At that stage, sure enough, my position as the sole reader of English-language news on the premises that day meant I was the only one aware of the unfolding events. My colleagues, all employees of or volunteers at a major international NGO, were surprised. "Can you send me the link?" one asked. "I have a friend who would want to see this." But others were already getting clued in. In the protest's early days, renowned blogger Zhou Shuguang, better known as Zuola, served as an unofficial source for people seeking news from Tibet (his site has since been blocked in China). This was before Xinhua, the state-run news service, even acknowledged the occurrence of demonstrations in a grudging, one-paragraph statement accusing an "extremely small minority of Tibetans" of "plotting to destroy the stability and harmony of Tibet."

Also in openDemocracy on the Tibet protests and China's response:

Ugen, "Tibet's postal protest" (4 November 2005)

Jamyang Norbu, "Tibetan tales: old myths, new realities" (13 June 2005)

/ Tenzin Tzundue, "Tibet vs China: a human-rights showdown" (15 August 2006)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq" (27 March 2008)

Donald S Lopez, "How to think about Tibet" (28 March 2008)

George Fitzherbert, "Tibet's history, China's power" (28 March 2008)

Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind" (1 April 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)

Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan unrest, Chinese lens" (7 April 2008) "In the beginning, the government had been hoping to keep things quiet", my friend Bei Feng, an editor of a major Chinese web portal whose blog was chosen in 2007 as one of China's ten most influential, told me. "But the actions of netizens forced them to widen their coverage." He himself was an example of this sort of net activism. When news of Tibet broke, he employed a strategy he says he commonly uses for sensitive issues, posting a story about it on his blog and then taking it off after only a few hours to avoid being shut down by censors. The window of time is narrow, but gives readers ample opportunity to copy and paste his story into chatrooms and bulletin-board systems

Making the news

That many in China use the term "netizen" to refer to internet users reveals a culture of active web participation in a country where one in four internet users writes a blog and internet addiction is of greater concern than drug addiction. Indeed, the success of protests in 2007 against a chemical plant in Xiamen, which were largely arranged via cellphones and the web, reveals the extent to which politically active Chinese have come to depend on the internet as a forum for discussion, organisation, and the dissemination of information (see Li Datong, "Xiamen: the triumph of public will?" [16 January 2008]).

But not all netizens are "vigilantes" who seek to challenge the party line. The evidence of internet activism in response to the Tibet events suggests that harsh criticism of the west has predominated - a phenomenon that flies in the face of those optimists who believed that benign internet cosmopolitanism would leap blithely over the "great firewall". Social-networking sites such as Facebook, for example, have allowed thousands of Chinese students at home and overseas to join groups such as "Tibet WAS, IS, and ALWAYS WILL BE a part of China" - where members swap grievances, nationalistic proclamations, news updates, and YouTube videos. Meanwhile, Yahoo, Sohu, and other major web portals have provided sounding boards for jingoistic zeal, with calls for a stronger police response and the execution of Tibetan splittists rattling amidst general outrage over the spectre of a territorially divided China.

China's media has reacted quickly to this viral surge. Building off sentiment from such unofficial sources, local news sites and major web portals began to highlight luridly detailed stories of Tibet across their front pages: young women burned alive in shops set ablaze by rioters; heroic individuals risking their lives to save innocent bystanders; and menacing demonstrators wielding stones and swords in search of innocent victims. The internet had provided a platform for individuals of all political stripes to shape the official line. And officialdom responded, with a barrage of accounts that confirmed its version of events - and even, significantly, incorporated the vox populi in ways that helped it regain control over the "Tibet narrative".

What this reveals is that state-controlled media no longer holds a monopoly over the Chinese readership. The most striking example of this has been the website Anti-CNN.com, which has catalogued and condemned the blunders of western reporting of Tibet. Indeed, one Xinhua headline used material from Anti-CNN.com to trumpet: "Netizens indignant, Western reports of Tibet incident stray from truth."

As a result, Tibet became a concern for Chinese people beyond the range of devoted bloggers and net activists. On 18 March, almost exactly a week after I had first mentioned the Tibetan unrest to my co-workers, one of the undergraduate students I teach at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou returned my own question to me: "Ivy, have you heard of the news in Tibet? What do you think?"

Over the next few days, my English-teacher friends shared anecdotes of students choosing to do current-events presentations on the Tibet riots or asking about the events privately after class. A friend working at a top high-school in Changsha, a central Chinese city, recounted: "one of my students told me that the [Dalai Lama] is a flat-out liar and that more autonomy is simply a step toward independence. I had another student compare Tibetans to Falun Gong, and strongly implied that the riots were instigated by a small group of crazy people."

The boomerang effect

But if an inflamed Chinese patriotism dominated early responses to the Tibetan situation, some of Guangzhou's prominent netizens are also hungry for dialogue in China to move beyond the narrow parameters set by state censorship and crudely-harnessed nationalism. While official media published accusations of a Dalai Lama-led conspiracy, at informal discussions around the scuffed wooden table of a dimly-lit bar I heard those who had in the past travelled to Tibet describe vandalised temples and the social marginalisation of Tibetans, and ask who was to blame for the failure of China's policies there. "In Lhasa", recalled one writer who had spent time in both India and Tibet, "the streets look prosperous and free. There are countless shops and department stores. But these all belong to Han people, hardly any of them are run by Tibetans." Others debated the historic basis for China's claim on Tibet or complained about their articles being "harmonised" by censors.

As he offers rice wine to those seated near him, Bei Feng pointed out a failing in the government's favoured method of co-opting anti-foreign sentiment. "What the authorities don't realise is that the people who are using these standards of objectivity to criticise CNN will eventually apply them to Xinhua and CCTV."

"Yes", a listener chimed in. "The common people are very smart. Sooner or later they'll expect more."

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