Small Victories for China’s Netizens But Are They Still Losing the War?

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Deng Yujiao, the pedicurist/karaoke bar waitress (like everything else in this story the details keep changing) who stabbed and killed a Communist Party cadre after he tried to force her to have sex with him (these exact details also very fuzzy) has been freed by a court in her native Hubei Province. (Here’s the latest official version from the China Daily) Meanwhile the government’s attempt to force computers makers to install what was alleged to be a pornography blocking program called Green Dam Youth Escort (our story here) on all new computers from July 1 is cratering under a torrent of criticism and a good deal of gleefull abuse by outraged netizens. (See here for some of the cartoons circulating around the web, often involving the scantily clad “Green Dam Girl” and “Grass Mud Horse,” a homonym for a very rude curse in Chinese.) It seems highly likely that, mirroring past similar episodes, the authorities will quietly  let the whole issue fade away. In another less noticed case, a policeman in Harbin who was one of six who beat and killed a college student (the incident was caught on video and widely see on the Internet: our take and the video links here) was sentenced to life in prison. A colleague got 12 years.

All good news and testimony to the growing power of the internet to bring transparency and justice to China, right? Certainly a great many Chinese web surfers think so. Here’s a typical comment from an anonymous poster at the forum “Let’s remember the great power of the netizens. It was their keen eyes and collective voice that brought about justice and ideals. Finally we can proudly say that the Deng Yujiao case is a victory of the netizens.” I guess it is a victory of sorts. Deng herself expressed her appreciation to netizens for their support. And it’s undeniable that cases like these would probably have been buried by local officials in the past. But how much are these real victories demonstrating the power of the net rather than testimony to the extremely smart way the authorities throw the occasional bone like this to netizens while never loosening (and indeed actually tightening lately) their iron control of content on the web. Take any really important issue that the government doesn’t want aired it’s simply wiped from existence. Sure some web users try to get around the censorship and control but eventually they give up and move on. The issue of whether or not many more schools collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake than other buildings because of shoddy construction and related corruption is a primary example. Reference to this was systematically deleted over and over and now pretty much exists only in the artist Ai Weiwei’s blog, when it is available. (His original blog bears the dreaded words 此博客已被关闭, this blog has been closed” if you try and access it now; see here for our past postings on his efforts to tally the number of children who died in the earthquake including an interview transcript and details of his latest run ins with the police). Ai is the exception that proves the rule. He’s only still able to keep at his self assigned task, as he himself says, because he’s so well know. And there’s still no guarantee that he won’t cross that invisible line and get hauled in. Even this issue isn’t remotely as sensitive as the big ones like Falungong, Tibet, questioning the authority of the Party etc, which even mavericks like Ai are far too savvy to raise on the web or elsewhere (He laughed when we asked him if he would address some of those topics and said he didn’t have “suicidal tendencies.”)