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New media in China: between evolution and revolution

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New media is gaining global popularity and transforming the global information landscape. It is simultaneously shaping and being shaped by societies. In some countries new media is at the centre of a revolution, and in others it is just  part of an evolution. This organic interaction is being undertaken with full force in China, the country with the biggest population in terms of people and new media users.
In a conference entitled “The role of the new media and the transformation of social management”, academics and media professionals from Hong Kong, Macau, Mainland China, as well as an exiled June 4 Incident student leader, exchanged views and debated the role of new media in China’s social and political development.
At one of the sessions of the two-day conference that took place last Thursday to Friday, Chan Kin Man, Director of the Centre for Civil Society Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, gave a speech on new media’s role in the election of the Chief Executive in the former British Colony last month. He pointed out that while many people used new media, such as the Internet and online cell-phones to gain access to information on the election, most people still placed more trust in traditional media such as newspapers, TV or radio as news sources.

New media against censorship

Chan Kin Man’s views were shared by other participants, who raised the point that  people in open and free societies tended to have more confidence in traditional media because of their stricter standards  concerning confirmation and reporting of fact; however people in countries with limited or no freedom of speech mostly relied on new media as a source of information - allowing easier access to news unfettered by the authority.
In Mainland China’s case, the traditional media are all under state control and the public has little choice but to resort to new media such as micro-blogs and other online platforms, as well as cell phone MSM for information.
That may serve as one of the explanations for China being the country with the most Internet users - 456 million according to Wikipedia - itself one of the most iconic examples of new media.

One of the most crucial factors of Wukan’s success is the local young people’s skilful use of new media to communicate the village’s views to the world outside including the central authority

New media as a democratic tool

In rising democracies such as Hong Kong, new media is also used as a means to exercise people’s power. Local universities organized a “universal suffrage” election of the Chief Executive by casting ballots through the Internet and MSM. The practice prompted alarm in the pro-Beijing circle because, according to Chan Kin Man and Hong Kong analysts, it constituted a major challenge to the current practice of electing the Chief Executive by a 1200-member committee, which was widely regarded as “small circle” election. The “new media election”, however, was botched by computer hackers on the day of voting. Analysts said that the result of the virtual universal suffrage would have caused much pressure on the small circle election because members of the election committee would face pressure to be in line with the choice of the public, or face a crisis of legitimacy for the committee and the new Chief Executive.
New media has tremendous influence among the public and in some cases  even plays a crucial role in  major social and political developments including the overthrow of the Egyptian government in 2011 and earlier revolutions in other Arab  countries including Tunisia. In his speech entitled “The Chinese State and the Internet: Towards a Renewed Social Contract?” Eric Sautede, a lecturer at Macau’s University of Saint Joseph, said the Egyptian revolution has also been termed a “Facebook revolution” for the crucial role the social network Facebook played in connecting the people and congregating the people’s power eliciting the collapse of the Mubarak regime.  
Sautede stressed, however, that numerous Internet users did not necessarily mean a successful revolution. That was why the Egyptian revolution did not happen in China. At the conference he showed a world map made up of the locations of Facebook users across the globe: “This is the first world map without China,” he elaborated. The map was sketched by the social website, which is banned in China.


Wukan protesters

Wukan – successful example of new media

One of the reasons, speakers at the conference said, is the strict control and policing by the authority. But they also pointed out that new media users are very good at evading state supervision by changing user identities and keywords of contents; platforms of publication; and other creative means. Another weakness of new media is its susceptibility to hacker attacks. One of the most famous figures in this field in Mainland China, who chooses to have his identity open, is Wan Tao. In 2005 he talked to the major portal in the Mainland, Sina.com.cn, about his attacks on Japanese and US official websites, and the election campaign website of the pro-independence former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian. The IT savvy speaker attended the conference and elaborated some of the technical skills adopted by Internet users and police in circulating and in the prevention of circulation of some of the sensitive materials on the new media.
This hide-and-seek game was manifest to the full in the recent Protest of Wukan, a small village in Guangdong Province, in which the villagers rallied against seizure of their land by local government. 
Zhang Jieping, a journalist who covered the incident which took place late last year, addressed the conference on how young people in the village made skilful use of new media, including micro-blogs, MSM and DVDs, to break through the siege by state media and local police, and got their message across to the outside world, including the policy makers in Beijing. The event caught worldwide attention and media coverage, and ended in a mutual compromise by villagers and the provincial authority, which admitted mistakes in handling the dispute and promised to return the confiscated land and to crack down on corruption as well as election flaws. A democratic election was held in February this year in which some of the protest leaders were elected as the village leaders.
“One of the most crucial factors of their success is the young people’s skilful use of new media,“ Zhang told the conference. (Macau Daily Times also has a question-and-answer column on the last page with an observer in Wukan about the reason this uprising did not result in a fully-fledged revolution.)

“Protest of Wukan” is a successful example of skilful manipulation of new media. If this communication platform had existed in 1989 between the students and the authority in Beijing, would the June 4th Incident have yielded a different outcome?

Protest of Wukan vs June 4 Incident

The episode was compared by many in Hong Kong and the overseas media to the June 4th crackdown on student protests, which are still a taboo today in the mainland. Cai Chongguo, one of the main student leaders in the movement in 1989, who later led an exiled life in France, was also present at the conference last week. As one of the few persons at the centre of the incident, the now grey-haired scholar gave his insights into the psychology and strategies of mass movements in the mainland, including the one in Wukan, and its comparison with the Tiananmen Square Crackdown.
Cai lamented the absence of new media 23 years ago, when state media was the only mass media. He said the mistrust between students and Zhongnanhai escalated to rage and hostility after official media released distorted reports on the students’ movement, including downplaying the scale of the rally by saying there were only about 1,000 protesters, while in fact there were 100,000. This distortion had aroused much dissatisfaction among the students and workers.
In Wukan’s case, state media also reported that there were only 400 protesters and the issue was resolved completely, while in fact the village was in the middle of a heated uprising that saw thousands of dissidents taking to the streets. But the local people managed to release the correct information through new media to local and overseas journalists, helping to avoid the misunderstanding that led to the bloody outcome in Beijing. Cai also accused state media in 1989 of a biased focus on some students’ subversive slogans or requests: “Some of the students with low political awareness shouted these slogans after hearing other people chanting them, without thinking of the possible consequences,” he said. That also served to further alarm in Beijing over the security of its sovereignty.   
Wukan villagers seemed to have learned their lesson; they did not only avoid any provocative slogans or banners, protesters even waved national flags during their march to show their support to the central government. The message was said to reach the authority successfully. Speakers at the conference stressed the Wukan episode as a typical example of China’s social and political evolution. 
Émilie Tran, an assistant professor at the University of Saint Joseph, who is also the president of the Macau Association for Social Administration Studies which organized the conference, hopes this kind dialogue will provide a platform for academics from different regions and backgrounds to share their perspectives and research results: ‘We are trying to bring practical impacts to social evolution in China through this kind of action research’’.  
She told Macau Daily Times that the participants in the conference were from a wide spectrum of backgrounds including some think tanks which meant that the views in the meetings would be channelled to many levels of society in the region, including the policy makers. The association, set up last year, would continue to roll out similar events in the future.

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Responsible Right of Expression — In the interest of freedom of expression, coupled with a true sense of responsibility to encourage community dialogue, the Macau Daily Times offers its readers the opportunity to express their opinions on new-related matters through this website. All opinions are welcome. However, we reserve the right to remove comments that are deemed to be obscene, or are merely insults written under the cloak of anonymity. MDT