A longtime blogger from Shanghai spoke at Hong Kong University today, so I went to hear his take on the importance of the Internet to China, the future of the Great Firewall that the government uses to block online content, and the fate of the Chongqing nailhouse. Isaac Mao discovered blogs in 2002, and since then has become a big advocate of the power of free speech online to help Chinese society. He pointed to Zhou Shuguang, who writes under the name Zola, as a “blogger hero” for his coverage of the nailhouse. “The grassroots media has shown its power to participate” in Chinese society, Mao says. “This includes some big issues. Even though we don’t have democracy in China … we can use social media to show this power.”
Mao credited bloggers like Zola credit for covering the Chongqing story in detail even when some Chinese state media backed off the story. That brought up an interesting point about how the unwillingness of the official press, or even outright government prohibitions on coverage, creates voids that bloggers are eager to fill. “When traditional media kept silent, the grassroots media became more important to such cases,” he says.
And he believes that power will grow, as new technologies weaken the ability of the Chinese government to censor the Internet. Within 3-to-5 years, there will be a “total system to make the Great Firewall useless,” he says. Of course, he readily admits he’s an optimist. Many people once said countries like China would never be able to control the Internet. Nailhouse aside, they’ve done a pretty effective job thus far.