On the day that three Chinese citizens in the county of Yihuang (宜黄) in Jiangxi province set fire to themselves to protest the forced demolition of their home, I was attending a forum on news design in Shanghai. At the meeting, one of the Chinese editors kept checking his mobile phone to monitor the situation in Yihuang. Thanks to the power of Twitter-like microblog services, he was tracking live a fast-breaking news story 800 kilometers away.
The Yihuang self-immolation story was a landmark in the contemporary history of Chinese media and a bitter victory for the microblog, a new communication technology known in Chinese as the weibo (微博). It has also offered sobering lessons for both the Chinese government and the public.
In recent years, the forced requisition of land and the destruction of homes to make room for development has pitted Chinese citizens against local authorities. While the central government have issued repeated orders to ban such forced demolitions actions, local governments have continued to act recklessly. The Yihuang affair was a particularly egregious example of this.
The ordeal began on the morning of September 10, as the three members of the Zhong family sought to defend their home against forced demolition. They included 59 year-old Zhong Zhifeng (罗志凤), her daughter Zhong Ruqin (钟如琴), 31, and Ruqin’s uncle, Ye Zhongcheng (叶忠诚), 79. In the course of their protest, all three set fire to themselves. Ye eventually died from the burns. The local officials insisted that the eviction was legal and that the victims had been “burned while carelessly handling gasoline.”
For an entire week there was no mainstream media coverage of the story. Online, however, video taken by local residents from the scene of the tragedy started trickling out.
On September 16, as the three victims remained in hospital, Zhong Rucui (钟如翠) and Zhong Rujiu (钟如九), daughters of Zhong Zhifeng, went to the local airport. Their plan was to take a flight to Beijing to petition for central government attention to the family’s case. Local officials responded by dispatching scores of police to the airport to stop them from traveling.
This time they were not alone. Holed up in the women’s restroom at the airport, they used their mobile phones to call a journalist who then posted the news about their plight and the actions of local officials on a popular microblog service. Over the next three hours, Deng Fei (邓飞), a reporter for the Beijing-based Phoenix Weekly, sent out more than 20 microblog posts with the help of a reporter on the ground in Jiangxi. In this way, they were able to report live the situation facing the sisters: ” With the help of internet users who responded to the call, the sisters fled from the airport but have to abort the trip to Beijing.
On September 18, the uncle, Ye Zhongcheng, died of his injuries. By this time, Zhong Rujiu had opened her own microblog account. She wrote shortly after: “Now 70 or 80 people from the government have come and surrounded me, taking away Uncle’s body. After the government took my uncle’s body away, I tried to stop the car of the county head Su Jianguo (苏建国), who was leading the caravan with the body, but Su Jianguo sat totally indifferent. After that, around 40 government cadres from Yihuang dragged me aside.”
Thanks to mobile phones, everyone can now become a news broadcast station in the event of a breaking story. By the following Friday, September 24, Zhong Rujiu had made 253 posts to her microblog, updating the world on the conditions of her family members in the hospital. Her posts drew at least 60,000 followers, with each entry re-posted by an average of a thousand others.
As information sped through microblogs, drawing popular attention to the forced demolition case, the Zhong family’s tragedy reached the ears of high-level government officials. On September 17, the day after the airport fiasco, the government announced that local officials implicated in the self-immolation case in Yihuang were being formally punished. Qiu Jianguo (邱建国), the Party secretary and top leader in Yihuang, and the county’s governor, Su Jianguo, were under formal investigation. The county’s deputy governor, Li Minjun (李敏军), was also removed from his post and subjected to investigation. The next day, the sacked officials make news all over the media. Some newspapers even defied bans by promoting the story to the front-page banner.
Microblogs, which are limited to 140 characters in length, can be sent from mobile phones or computers. Twitter, the original microblog service, has been blocked in China, but major websites have launched their own Twitter clones, and these have become an important alternative channel for information. It is interesting to note as well that 140 characters in Chinese actually makes for much richer content than the same in English.
As a new communications tool, microblogs are real-time, high-speed, fragmented and highly difficult to censor. Chinese journalists are now universally aware of the unique power of the microblog. Chinese new media expert Bei Feng (北风) has described the medium as “fragmented and decentralized communications.” Journalist and blogger Xiao Shu (笑蜀) has said that “observation is a power unto itself, capable of changing China through all-encompassing attention.”
CMP director Qian Gang (钱钢), who launched his QQ Microblog only five months ago, now has a following of 1.7 million. That means that each time he makes a post, he reaches 1.7 million readers who might share his post with still more. His broadcast power has surpassed that of many newspapers.
Microblogs have grown in influence in China. In the past two months, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝) has called for political reform on seven different occasions — in Shenzhen and Beijing, at the United Nations, and while on a state visit to Europe. Wen’s remarks have been handled cooly in China’s traditional media. Then last week, Wen Jiabao restated his support of political reform in an interview with CNN. “I will not fall in spite of a strong wind and harsh rain and I will not yield till the last day of my life,” he said. Savyy Chinese journalists and web users shared his remarks enthusiastically through the microblogs.
Active and vibrant communication online now stands in stark contrast to the strict, deadening controls offline.
In its “Hot Topics” section on the Yihuang tragedy, QQ.com concluded that “rights were fought and won through each microblog post.” In the push to defend the rights of citizens, microblogs have offered a ray of hope, helping to promote civil society in China.
As Qian Gang has said: “So long as we all involve ourselves, no information can be concealed.”