After Egyptian Revolt, Chinese Gov Vows No Re-tweet
Discussion about the role of social media in the Egyptian Revolution has been by turns insightful and inane, swinging back and forth between profound principles and trite truisms. One of the least interesting (and yet most oft-remarked) truths to emerge from all this sound and fury is that social media didn't "do" the revolution all by itself; it's interesting to see how many people left furiously mistyped indignant comments to that effect in response to articles which never made any such claim, including my own.
In other contexts the same argument might read "railroads didn't conquer the American West -- their passengers did" or "electricity didn't invent the light bulb, Thomas Edison did." But, yeah: there's no denying the blindingly obvious truth behind these assertions. And if anyone needs more evidence, we can just compare places where social media has played a role in successful revolutions (like Egypt and Tunisia) with places where it has run headlong into an authoritarian brick wall.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Cuba, which has remained quiescent despite having many of the key elements for a popular uprising. This week brings news that over a dozen nascent protests planned by Chinese dissidents using social media have been quickly (and on occasion violently) dispersed by overwhelming police power. According to the New York Times, the Chinese government blocked micro-blogging sites and Internet search engines, while mobile users suddenly found themselves unable to send texts to more than one person at a time. The Chinese government also sought to cut off access to Chinese-language social media hosted outside China, including sites like Boxun.
Egyptian authorities employed tactics at least as severe as these, but failed to stop the uprising, and probably even contributed to its gathering momentum. By contrast Chinese officials -- no doubt haunted by memories of Tiananmen Square -- are clearly determined to crush any pro-democracy protests long before they have a chance to metastasize into a true popular revolt.
The key difference lies not in the dissidents' social media strategies, but in the two regimes' degree of willingness (and ability) to use violence against protestors. The Egyptian army refused to turn its guns on its own people -- but it would seem Chinese security police have no such qualms.
That said, there's no question that social media has helped bring events in China at least this far. Some of the first stirrings of dissent were inspired by a homemade video documenting the plight of a blacklisted blind lawyer and his wife, which circulated on the Internet. By the same token, Chinese officials have shown more than a passing familiarity with the new-fangled social media sites, and clearly understand the potential threat posed by social media -- prompting cyber-officials to descend on offending sites and services before the latest trouble even began.
In the past I've also written about the Chinese government's well-grounded fear of social media. In July 2010, for example, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released a report, titled "Development of China's New Media," sounding the alarm over the subversive potential of online social media, which the authors warn is being used by Western governments (including the United States) to foment political unrest inside China. Among its key suggestions: "We must pay attention to the potential risks and threats to state security as the popularity of social networking sites continues to grow. We must immediately step up supervision of social networking sites."