Social media and ¡revolución! In China. Really.

posted at 11:36 am on April 12, 2012 by Erika Johnsen

Good morning, all! While Ed steps out for a bit this afternoon, we thought I could mosey on over from my natural habitat at Townhall.com/Townhall Magazine and introduce myself .  I’ll open with one of my most enduring opinions, with which I would hope many can easily sympathize: communism is a miraculous feat of human stupidity. Can I get an amen?

Communism is not, and never has been, about constructing a fraternal society in which everyone shares equally in the blessings and burdens of life on earth, or whatever farcical hooey it is its proponents insist it can accomplish. It’s about keeping the few people in power, in power. In the search for a society that’s really based on preserving the supremacy of the 1%, look no further than the “People’s” Republic of China, where the small, entrenched ruling class shepherds the miserable masses from on high. And while it is true that, in recent years, China has started to see the emergence of a middle class, this is because China is coming to terms with the fact  that open and free societies are demonstrably the most conducive to economic growth and prosperity. You aren’t going to see a lot of ingenuity or innovation from your populace when you’ve got them in strangled in a centrally-planned chokehold.

However, as things stand, the Chinese regime is very much still in the business of protecting the status quo, which is why there are so many bureaucratic controls on the media and the Internet – a little information and idea-sharing is a powerful thing. Last month, charismatic Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai (incidentally, the father of the young communist ‘princeling‘ who took Jon Huntsman’s daughter on a date – their family is often described as China’s equivalent of the Kennedys) was ousted from the party. Then, earlier this week, the state media announced that Bo is being completely stripped of his Politburo and Central Committee positions and that his glamorous wife is a suspect in the mysterious death of a visiting British businessman. Cue the social media explosion:

“Amassing illegal funds, killing people, what else did they do?” Deng Fei, a journalist with the magazine Phoenix Weekly wrote on popular Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo in one of the earliest reactions to the news.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency and the country’s state broadcaster reported the events simultaneously at 11 p.m. on Tuesday evening. Sina Weibo published the Xinhua item on its official newsfeed in a post that was reposted nearly 50,000 times in its first 15 minutes.

The biggest political crisis to face Beijing since a military crackdown on prodemocracy student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the downfall of Mr. Bo is also the first such crisis to unfold in the era of social media.

In the days following the March 14 announcement that Mr. Bo had been stripped of his position in Chongqing, unsubstantiated rumors of a split in the country’s central leadership leading to preparations for a coup began to swirl online, leading the government to order the country’s two largest microblog operators, Sina Corp. and Tencent Holdings Ltd., to temporarily shut down comments. Beijing has since pressured Internet companies to do more to control the online conversation, publishing multiple editorials in the state media warning about the dangers of rumors. …

Censors appeared to be working overtime to control the flood of commentary, with Sina Weibo continuing to block searches for Mr. Bo’s and Ms. Gu’s names and engaging in wholesale erasure of comments even on its own official posts.

“Tonight, Sina’s little secretaries are probably so busy they’re spitting blood,” one Weibo user wrote, using common Internet slang for the company’s in-house censors. “Who allowed rabble like us to possess nuclear-level weapons like a mouse and a keyboard?”

China is shortly due for one of their once-a-decade leadership transitions, and it appears that there are at least two factions starting to form in China’s upper leadership: those who might favor some government reform and restructure to allow for some socio-political liberalization, and those who continue to loathe Western-style democracy and are hell-bent on maintaining the current state of affairs. Bo tended toward the more traditional side of the spectrum, and it’s unclear whether the well-known power-couple’s demise was a downfall of their own doing, or an orchestrated takedown of a more insidious nature – and because of China’s powerful media censorship, the world may never know. What is clear is that the harmonious veneer China presents to the world is getting increasingly difficult to maintain, especially with the ability of social media to fuel unrest, and the communist regime knows it. Bloomberg is already reporting that, in the wake of the Bo coup de grace, the country is preparing for a smoother, more market-based transition of power:

Bo’s removal may foster more stability in the world’s second-biggest economy ahead of the 18th Communist Party Congress, said Ronald Wan, a Hong Kong-based managing director at China Merchants Securities Co. The congress later this year will pick a new party head and Politburo. Bo, 62, threatened to upset China’s consensus-dependent leadership if he remained in the inner circle, said Jonathan Fenby, China director of the U.K. investment-research service Trusted Sources. …

Chinese share prices rose in the two days since Bo’s dismissal was announced, with the Shanghai Composite Index (SHCOMP) gaining 0.4 percent as of 11:29 a.m. after gaining 0.1 percent yesterday, and global investors considered China’s sovereign debt to be less risky in trading today.

It’s a safe bet to say that, albeit very gradually, things are changing for the better in China, and that the irrepressible might of social media is playing a positive role in the cause for liberty.


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