The CCP can count on Online Vigilantes and the Internet to stop it.
The name Tiananmen square, for the majority of Chinese people today, is probably only synonym with one of the top tourist attractions in the capital Beijing. A must-see location where to snap a selfie or a picture of their smiling kids with the background of either the famous portrait of Chairman Mao hanging at the entrance of the Heavenly Gate (at the north side of the square) or the leader’s imposing Mausoleum (in the south side).
Despite the often-long queues at the heavily guarded access points, for the average Chinese tourist a visit to the square is always worth it, a priceless Kodak moment to share with family members and friends on social media.
Millions of other people however, especially outside China, on hearing the name would probably have a different reaction.
For those who were either in Beijing between May and June 1989, or simply glued on TV screens around the world watching the events unfolding in China during those chaotic weeks, the name Tiananmen Square immediately evoke a different set of images that have become iconic in the thirty years that have passed since the Chinese government put an end to a series of student protests at the capital’s most famous square and all around the country.
What took place in the square in the night between 3 and 4 June was a violent military clampdown that ultimately cost the lives of thousands of young protesters.
The image and the video of a line of armoured tanks advancing menacing on one of Beijing’s main thoroughfares being stopped by a single man holding what appeared to be a couple of shopping bags have become not only one of the most epoch-defining moments of the past century and a shared collective memory for millions of people, but also an immediate recognizable indictment of the madness of totalitarian power.
The events of June 1989 in China, the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, were considered by many observers unquestionable good omens for the whole world. De facto, the beginning of a new era: the end of organised state-violence led by ideology and the irresistible advancement of democracy, the best of the possible forms of governments.
Thirty years later, the omens no longer look so irrefutable. The world is still a violent place and an endless stream of images of ideological-driven violence is now a key part of our daily diet of infotainment. But what about China? Has it changed at all? Or, at least, has it become a better place for its citizens?
The Communist Party has tried hard to rewrite its history and erase the memory of the June 1989 ‘incidents’ (as Beijing prefers to refer to it). And, in any case, it seems to believe that there is no need of atoning for the past, the present speaks for itself: the economic boom, the ongoing reduction of poverty, and the country’s recognised international status as both a military and economic super-power demonstrate how well the country, hence the Party, has done. Many Chinese would probably agree with the Party’s assessment.
But what about those citizens with dissenting views, some would probably ask? Has their quality of life improved?
Well, do they really have so much reason to dissent? Some would be tempted to quip back. Other would also reinforce the argument by pointing out that, after all, there has not been anything like the Tiananmen square ‘incidents’ since 1989: nor for sheer volume of the demonstrations, neither for the degree of violence that defined its suppression thirty years ago.
The absence of major public onslaughts of civilians, however, is not in itself the irrefutable proof that the government of Beijing has finally relaxed its grip on power and opened up to critique, let alone, move on to become a fully-fledged western-style democracy. This is not yet, and most certainly it will never be the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama had famously forecasted in the aftermath of the collapse of communism.
Moreover, violence is still very much part of the repertoire of the CCP’s exercise of power. The Chinese authorities use it often and abundantly (ask the Muslim Uyghur population of the Xinjiang autonomous region where allegedly more than one million people are kept segregated in political re-education camps for their dissenting views).
But violence is now employed more selectively and never on camera, the Party knows all too well that the public relations disaster of Tiananmen square that took years of clever diplomacy and economic advancement to recover from can never and shall never happen again.
When in 2014, the streets and squares of Hong Kong were occupied by thousands of students demanding free and fair elections and more social justice for the former British colony, Beijing never openly intervened directly, let alone sent in the tanks or the army.
Wisely, the local authorities’ response to the so-called Umbrella uprising never escalated in the full outburst of violence many had feared initially, comparing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong to that of the students in Tiananmen square in 1989.
Ironically, it was in fact the absence of bloody acts of violence that got the Hong Kong movement its name: when the students began using their colourful umbrella to defend themselves from the pepper-spray and tear gas the police had employed to disperse them.
In the night between 3 and 4 June, in Tiananmen square, had been bullets and bayonets. Nobody died in Hong Kong in 2014, though many were arrested and later prosecuted; the number of those who lost their lives or were severely wounded in 1989 in Beijing and all over the country are still a matter of great contention, with some eye witnesses estimating to be in the thousands — an estimate the government has always denied, alleging the death were few and the thousands wounded were in fact mostly soldiers.
More importantly, perhaps, thirty years down the line, the Party has learned that the best way to avoid a new Tiananmen square catastrophe is to tackle dissent at its roots, to stop it from becoming uncontrollable public contestation of power. The use of the iron fist can make things worse, whereas clever manipulation of public opinion can strengthen the foundations of the Party’s grip on China.
For the survival of the Party is more productive to map and to understand the underlying causes of dissent, in order to help authorities react before public discontent swarms. And in this, the Party has found an unexpected ally in the technological revolution of the last thirty years, which has shown the Party the road to follow to stay out of dangerous political quandaries, all the while maintaining control of the country.
The Party’s greatest ally
In June 1989, few days after the Chinese tanks had stormed Tiananmen square, the former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, in a speech delivered in London, praised communication technologies for the formidable impact they have in eroding the foundations of totalitarian regimes: “technology will make it increasingly difficult for the state to control the information its people receive” and in due course, Reagan argued, “the Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.”
Reagan’s words were somewhat echoed a decade later, in March 2000, by the then U.S. President, Bill Clinton who questioned whether China will ever succeed in taming the Internet.
“We know how much the Internet has changed America. And we’re already an open society.” Clinton observed. “Imagine how much it could change China. Now there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the Internet. Good luck […] that’s sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall.” And then he added: “[their effort] just proves how real these changes are and how much they threaten the status quo.”
Three decades after the events of Tiananmen, those early forecasts have proved to be rather naïve in their assessment of the CCP’s long-term resilience. The downfall of the Party has not materialised, despite China becoming an advanced networked society, with over 800 million Internet users and the largest online market in the world.
The country, however, has certainly changed, because of economic development and, not the least, because of its technological advancement. But the changes did not go towards the direction some had anticipated.
If anything, the economic boom and the technological revolution of the last three decades have helped the Party in two ways: one direct and one rather oblivious.
On the one hand, the exponential growth of user data, together with critical advancement in artificial intelligence and facial recognition software have obviously proved a boon for the authorities in their effort to curb dissent and control the online activities of those citizens who do not align with Beijing. The Orwellian features of China’s surveillance system are all well known.
On the other hand, however, China’s technological leap has forced the Party’s leaders and officials to confront a new type of weakness: in a heavily networked society, nothing is ever set in stone; there are no easy solutions to the Party’s continuous struggle to avoid so-called digital storms, to keep the status quo unchanged, to produce and control public opinion.
For this reason the field of digital communications is increasingly seen by the Party as a vital resource for appraising people’s thoughts, cares, worries and grievances, as a medium that makes it ‘much easier for governments to interact with residents and thus improve their governance.’
“The correct guidance of public opinion benefits the party, benefits the nation, and benefits the people,” Hu Jintao once famously said, before adding: “Incorrect guidance of public opinion wrongs the party, wrongs the nation, and wrongs the people.”
Behind the official hyperbole, such statements hide a more deep-seated awareness about the unpredictability of the future and the vulnerability of the Party within it. Or as Hu’s successor, Xi Jinping, put it, the sphere of digital media should be considered the “biggest variable” in predicting China’s future and, thus, the most serious “worry” in the “hearts and minds” of the whole Party.
The Party’s realisation of its own weakness has not only served as wakeup call to react and change its modus operandi, but it has also taught it an important lesson: this new kind of weakness does not only impact those in power, but it also effects those who use the system, the wǎngmín, as networked citizens are called in China.
At close inspection this new-found weakness can be better described as an inherent quality of the networked environment within which the power relationship between the Chinese authorities and its citizens now takes place.
Though, the country’s rich and expanding media environment is understandably the product of geographical and historical influences, and interlaced with sophisticated Party control strategies, the digital communication networks upon which they depend are, at their core, distributed networks that disavow single centres of control.
The more Chinese people become networked, the easier is for them to learn about the Party and (at least in theory) challenge its clout on China’s political sphere. But, meanwhile, the more data they exchange with the system, the more they become embedded within the system, that is, the more their existence becomes a complex kaleidoscope of bits of digital data.
Thanks to the continuous advancements in surveillance technology and the willing cooperation of large corporation, the service providers that form the backbone of the digital environment the users ‘live in’, all these bits of data, all representing specific wǎngmín, become searchable, storable and, more importantly exploitable by the Party to protect its own interests.
Furthermore, contrary to what the likes of Reagan and Clinton thought originally, to be a wǎngmín does not automatically means to be pro-democracy or simply anti-Party. The system in this respect seems neutral. The Internet has not become a virtual Tiananmen square where the power of the Party is continuously challenged and eventually taken away from it.
The system and its embedded shared weakness, meaning that no one is ever in a position of full control, can be used by all parties involved in the struggle for power; what in some instances makes networked citizens valuable assets in the fight against authorities’ abuse of power, it can also make them exploitable either as unwitting pawns or dedicated protectors in the hands of those who wants to achieve a wholly different end.
The example of the growing army of Party’s Internet vigilantes illustrates perfectly this point.
For some time now, the Party has not only recruited ‘Internet Red Sentinels’ from within the country’s Communist Youth Leagues, but also encourages all Chinese wǎngmín to be the online guardians of the government’s reputation by monitoring and reporting offending comments, and by writing each week at least one positive comment for each negative comment appearing online.
Over the years, the indefatigable work of these sentinels has often gone beyond reporting, and their zeal in upholding the government’s policies and defending the state from criticism shows the dark side of the networked citizens model: what works to defend citizens from hubris, it can easily become a tool of false propaganda, exploitation, and intimidation.
In the case of China, in particularly, those who stray outside the boundaries of moral decorum or, outright, undermine social harmony, that is, those who go against the government’ moral diktat quickly find themselves on the receiving end of unequivocal acts of online retribution instigated by these self-appointed state’s guardians.
Using the same digital tools every wǎngmín uses, these Internet vigilantes turn people’s networked lives into an exploitable weakness, to thwart and do harm. Not only this kind of crowdsourced online lynching can make the life of social media users hellish, but it has had a chilling effect on what is posted online.
These scrupulous vigilantes search the Internet to find out all they can against the offenders and then “reveal and broadcast the real-life identities of those who had been essentially anonymous online.” The whole phenomenon, “the deliberate marshaling of the forces of the Internet against those deemed harmful to the public good” as pointed out by Audrey Jiajia Li in the pages of the New York Times, is known as “renrou sousuo” or “human flesh search.”
What, in some cases, started as a “morally unambiguous” use of the Internet to denounce the malfeasances of the powerful or of people who had committed despicable acts (such as online posts involving animal torture or killing), it has more recently become the preferred modus operandi of ultranationalists, who spend hours online combing people’s comments “for any sign of unpatriotic sins.”
It is a kind of cyber-shaming with Chinese characteristics, however, it does not only revolve around Chinese users’ comments or remain contained within China’s Internet. As the geography of the Chinese diaspora studying or working overseas expand, so does the sphere of interest of these righteous vigilantes.
They actively monitor the Internet for stories potentially damaging of China’s reputation, they pay particular attention to how Chinese behave and speak of their homeland when they are abroad.
In one of these cases, Yang Shuping, a Chinese student studying at the University of Maryland, drew the sudden wrath of scores of online vigilantes, and then of the state-run media, for “humiliating her country” when, during her Spring Commencement speech, she spoke of her love for Maryland’s fresh air and America’s freedom of speech, which she dared to contrast with her experience of growing up in China with pollution and the government’s tight control of its citizens’ opinions.
“Democracy and free speech should not be taken for granted.” She then warned her fellow students “Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for.”
The backlash against her was so powerful and intimidating, that she was eventually forced to apologise for her words and delete all her Weibo’s posts.
What the example of Internet vigilantes tells us is that not only the Party has learned to adapt to the new environment and use it to its own advantage, to stave off resistance and, at times, erase memories (with the use of an army of censors working day and night to polish the Internet from unapproved content), but also it has been successful in using the system to change its people attitude.
In this increasingly complex technological environment, it becomes very unlikely for protesters like those who gave birth to the events of 1989 to ever gain enough momentum to force the hand of the Party and produce a widespread reaction, that eventually might force authorities to relinquish their power.
The opposite is more likely to be true: a Tiananmen square type of event, like the one of 1989, might never again be given the chance to grow and shape into a fully-fledged protest. And if it did happen two things might follow: Chinese people will never even hear of it, or, if they did, they might lash their anger at the protesters and force them to ask for forgiveness for shaming their country.