I suspect we in the west would be wise to learn some tricks from Chinese netizens to avoid our ever more intrusive governments.
By IBTimes Staff Reporter, May 5, 2012 12:32 PM EDT
Last month, a section of sidewalk in downtown Beijing, by all outward appearances sturdy and stable, crumbled below a woman who was absent-mindedly walking by. Within seconds, she was burned by scalding hot water pipes below and couldn't be saved before emergency personnel arrived on the scene.
Although tragic, in most large countries this story would disappear under the radar, covered in-depth perhaps by local TV stations but not by national media -- a one-day attention grabber at most.
But in China, it became an unofficial cause celebre, drawing rapt interest on Internet forums and micro-blogging services. In response to the accident, a flood of messages appeared on popular Chinese Web-portal NetEase's forums. Many offered condolences, but a significant number strayed into broader social commentary.
Typing on a cell phone in Guangdong province, more than 1,300 miles away from Beijing, one person left a macabre online note addressed to the dead woman: "Hopefully in your next life you will be born in another country."
From Jinan in Shangdong province, about 260 miles away from the capital, another commenter said that "in China, food isn't safe, housing isn't safe, even walking down the street isn't safe."
And a person from relatively well-heeled Jiangsu, which now has the highest per capita GDP of any province in the country, left a particularly melancholic note: "In a dark empire, simply walking down the street might result in you falling [into a hole] and losing your life."
As the rumbling back and forth of these active Chinese netizens show, a relatively minor incident can quickly go from being an anodyne anecdote about poor workmanship on Beijing streets to an excuse for expressing undercurrents of anger and disappointment in day-to-day life.
More than anything, this episode reveals how China's fast-growing Internet community is finding new ways to get around speech restrictions and expanding the boundaries of political and social commentary in the virtual world, even as its members remain hesitant to discuss such sensitive issues out in the open.
New Virtual Frontiers
On the whole, the discontent that many Chinese people feel about their challenging lives has been absent from official discourse. Despite (or perhaps due to) more than a decade of breakneck growth and soaring per capita incomes, the air is filthy and the tap water largely undrinkable in major Chinese cities. Food safety and contaminated products is a persistent concern, while housing prices remain out of reach for the average newlywed couple. And millions of newly minted drivers can't go very far in their cars, as gridlock is a common sight in China's densely populated urban areas.
But if Chinese citizens are grumbling about these conditions, you won't be able to read about it very often in the state media. And, at least in the recent past, you would not find it freely discussed on the Web either. The Chinese government has established complex language algorithms that remove anything on the Internet considered overtly disparaging of the country's authorities.
Even so, Chinese netizens are becoming harder than ever to handle and manage. For one thing, the sheer number of statements criticizing the government in direct or subtle ways is overwhelming, forcing Communist leaders to limit their censorship aspirations to the more egregious examples of verbal disobedience. This may evolve into a spiraling problem as China has more Internet users than any other nation: 500 million people in a country of 1.3 billion were connected by the end of 2011. More than 60 percent of these Internet users have a micro-blog.
Making the government's attempts to regulate the Web even more difficult, China's Internet community is creatively circumventing blocked keywords and restrictions by using language tricks and substituting seemingly innocent characters with different meanings but similar sounds for lewd or forbidden phrases.
An example involves the héxiè (河蟹) or "river crab," two characters often used on the Internet as a substitute for héxié (和谐) or "harmony," providing a creative and effective way to get around censorship on criticizing government policies on social order.
Instead of writing "society is becoming less harmonious" or "you've been a victim of censors protecting social harmony" -- comments that would almost certainly be caught by government algorithms and deleted -- netizens would instead say "your comment has been river crabbed" or "there are less and less river crabs these days." Concerned that automated and human censors may be catching up with this deceit, some Chinese netizens now use the term shuǐchǎn (水产) or "aquatic goods" in place of "river crab."
Another approach employed by netizens is to squat on overseas websites. For example, posting on President Barack Obama's Google + page, Chinese people ask seemingly obscure but ultimately pointed questions about issues and problems back home.
"Do you like the taste of shoe leather?" says one Chinese commenter, referring to the recent pharmaceutical scandal in which rotten leather scraps were used to create cheap medicinal coatings.