Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it can rhyme.” In the case of social media, Chinese citizens are striving to making this statement a reality as they push the envelope to communicate with the outside world through internet forums.
While I have never had the pleasure of traveling to China (it is on my bucket list), I know a number of people who have been and they all say the same thing: “I’ll call you but you won’t be getting any tweets or emails from me.” Yep, don’t even try. In fact, that exact situation happened with Michael Phelps and other swimmers while participating a few weeks ago in the 2011 world championships held in Shanghai. Social network radio silence.
What’s the big deal?
For those who were not old enough to remember, back in in July 2009 there were violent ethnic riots in Urumqui, the capital city of the Xinjiang, that left at least 156 dead and nearly 1500 arrests. Given that Xinjiang is relatively peaceful and hasn’t been a hotbed of religious or political agitation, in an effort to limit the damage of the uprising, the government did what any pr person would do in a crisis situation – they put up a temporary firewall and plotted a reactive campaign to prevent future outbreaks.
But this censorship wasn’t limited to preventing outreach about uprising in just China, it was to preventing the spread of such ideas from other nations. In January 2011, the New York Times reported that China was blocked the word “Egypt” on Sina.com and Netease.com — two of the nation’s biggest online portals. Searching for “Egypt” was also been blocked on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
Fast forward to June 2011 in another effort to suppress information, China blocked searches on Google and microblogs for the names of a where migrant protests have erupted against local authorities.
History Repeats Itself
In July 2011, according to the AP sports writer Andrew Dampf who covered the championships stated, “Unless users know how to create their own virtual private network (VPN) or are willing to spend heavily on roaming fees and post from foreign-based smartphones, access to foreign social networking sites in China is difficult.” Difficult but not impossible.
On the evening of July 23, 2011, a horrific train collision occurred near Wenzhou. A high speed train, due to a power outage was rear ended by another train, causing six cars of the first train to derail, four of which fell down from an overpass. At least 40 people, including 2 Americans, were killed and over 190 were injured. In the nation’s capital, let alone around the country, that would make national news. However, it received little national media coverage and has been mostly covered by Chinese social media “netizens” on Weibo, in part thanks to a little girl with the handle Smm Miao posted a message on the Chinese microblog Sina Weibo leading to over 26 million messages on the tragedy. – a number even the Chinese government can’t filter on a timely basis. Netizens are alleging a cover-up and the world is left to marvel at another strong effort by Chinese citizens to speak out about news or happenings that would otherwise be considered taboo to the standard tourist or athlete.
China is a nation that prides itself on being technologically ahead of the game. As a classmate notes in her post about China’s social media presence in wake of the high-speed train wreck, social media platforms have actually proliferated even with the ban on traditional platforms suck as Facebook and Twitter – with Kaixin, Renren, Tencent, Sina Weibo and Douba among the many microblogging networks with strong followings. That isn’t to say that the Chinese government isn’t watching closely, but given history and the 2012 regime change due to the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) leaders retirement, many are curious how they will prevent another “democratic movement” or information sharing opportunity. Reflecting on the history as it relates to the high-speed tragedy would suggest it might be just around the corner.