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Can netizens knock down the Great Firewall of China?

In the Li Gang incident, Chinese citizens used blogs and social networks to challenge online censorship.

On the night of Oct. 18, two female Hebei University students were inline skating on campus when a car struck them head-on. The impact broke one woman’s leg and sent the other woman flying. The second woman, Chen Xiaofeng, died the next day.

The driver of the car, 22-year-old Li Qiming, was intoxicated and tried to drive away after the crash. When caught by security guards, the young man reportedly shouted, “My dad is Li Gang.” Li Gang was the local deputy police chief. The victim, Chen, was the daughter of a poor farmer.

The story symbolized all that was wrong in China, said Hebei-based blogger Jack Liu. China is a very competitive society, especially among young people trying to get into the top schools and land the best jobs. Often your guanxi, or access to power, decides your fate, Liu said.

“This hits at the hatred for privileged kids already out there,” he said.
In the most extreme case, “social background decides life or death,” said Alice Xin Liu, editor of Beijing-based blog Danwei.org, in an email. “It means that in China you can get away with murder.”

China has a vast online security network known as the “Great Firewall of China.” The Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department tells media outlets what and how to cover stories. A person who ignores the directives risks getting fired, fined or imprisoned.

Blogs in China have censors to erase — or “harmonize” — certain keywords that are “untouchable topics,” said Joey Dembs, senior research analyst at Enovate, a Shanghai-based company that researches Chinese youth culture. These topics include the four T’s — Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, Tibet and torture.

But the Li Gang incident was not immediately censored. Within a day of the incident, the meme “My dad is Li Gang” had already “spread like wildfire,” Dembs said.

Almost instantly, bloggers were talking about the story and, to subvert the censors, using the catchphrase in creative ways. Some netizens posted cartoons in their microblogs where one of the characters cried, “My dad is Li Gang!” over a trivial offense, said Liu of Danwei.org.

Two days after the crash, a blogger announced a contest to incorporate “My dad is Li Gang” into classical Chinese poetry. Six thousand applicants replied and similar competitions sprung up online.

One of the poems read:

The luminous moonshine before my bed,
Is thought to be the frost fallen on the ground.
I lift my head to yell at the security guard,
My father is Li Gang.”

Chinese media tries damage control

In response to the online outrage, the government tried to shape public opinion. The national television network, CCTV, broadcast an interview with Li Gang and his son on Oct 22. In the news story, both Li Gang and Li Qiming are sobbing and apologizing. Li Qiming is handcuffed and his arms restrained in a chair.

The coverage was perhaps intended to elicit sympathy for Li Qiming. However, the victims’ family and the online community saw the coverage as a publicity stunt.
Chinese activist-artist Ai Weiwei interviewed Chen’s father and brother and produced a video called “This is Reality.” The video was repeatedly posted online, deleted by censors and reposted.

A Wall Street Journal blog quoted Ai saying, “In every incident in China, what’s missing are the victims, no matter if it is a natural disaster, or man-made. We wanted the victims to speak out so people get a true sense of what happened.”

What has finally happened to LiQiming is unclear. On Oct. 24, nearly a week after the accident, the state media reported that Li , who had been detained by police, was arrested. Perhaps realizing that the damage control was not working to change public opinion, China’s Central Propaganda Department issued a directive on Oct. 28 to ensure “no more hype” over the incident at Hebei University.

Will greater Internet use lead to greater freedoms?

China has the fastest-growing number of Internet users, currently at 440 million or one-third of the total population, according to official Chinese statistics. In comparison, a Pew Research Center study says 74 percent of Americans are Internet users.

Examples like the Li Gang incident show how powerful Internet access can be, said Patricia Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media at American University, in an email. Censorship by both government and corporate entities will continue to try to filter content. At the same time, “People are increasingly clever at figuring workarounds,” she said.

In the aftermath of the Li Gang incident, it is important to ask if the online outrage translated into legal and political reform, said Madeline Earp, senior researcher for the Asia Program at the Center to Protect Journalists, in an email. Without reform, the dissension simply serves the authorities, she said.

“Citizens feel freer without being able to capitalize on that freedom to express meaningful dissent,” Earp said. “A freer press is not a free press.”

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