Chinese protesters linked by technology

Cell phones, computers supply communications grid for demonstrations

April 25, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEIJING - The thousands of people who poured into the streets of China this month for the anti-Japanese protests that shook Asia were bound by nationalist anger but also by something more: They are China's cell phone and computer generation.

For several weeks, as the protests grew larger and more unruly, China banned almost all coverage in the state news media. But it hardly mattered. An underground conversation was raging via e-mail, text message and instant online messaging that inflamed public opinion and served as an organizing tool for protesters.

The underground noise grew so loud that last Friday the government moved to silence it by banning the use of text messages or e-mail messages to organize protests. It was part of a broader curb on the anti-Japanese movement but it also seemed the Communist Party had self-interest in mind.

"They are afraid the Chinese people will think, `OK, today we protest Japan; tomorrow, Japan,'" said one Asian diplomat who has watched the protests closely. "But the day after tomorrow, how about we protest against the government?"

Other non-democratic governments are already learning that lesson. Cell phone messaging is providing an important communications channel in nascent democracy movements in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. Ukraine's Orange Revolution used online forums and messaging to help topple a corrupt regime.

Few countries censor information and communications as tightly as China, which has as many as 50,000 people policing the Internet. Yet China is now the largest cell phone market, with nearly 350 million users, while the number of Internet users is about 100 million and growing at 30 percent a year.

The result is a constant tension between a population hungry for freer communication and a government that regards information control as essential to its power. Anti-Japanese protesters have been able to spread information and loosely coordinate different marches in a country where political organizing is illegal.

"That has to put the government on guard," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley, who said the organizing effort was even more notable because no one had been able to identify any leaders.

To be certain, these protests may not be a reliable predictor of any future popular movements. They basically endorse Communist Party policy rather than challenge it. Public antipathy for Japan has made it easier to mobilize people. And, perhaps most significant, the government sent signals for weeks that the public interpreted to mean that the marches were "politically safe."

But the scale of the protests did seem to surprise the government.

"Chain letter" e-mail messages and text messages urged people to boycott Japanese products or sign online petitions opposing Japanese ascension to the United Nations Security Council. Information about protests, including marching routes, was posted online or forwarded by e-mail messages. Banned video images of protest violence in Shanghai could be downloaded off the Internet.

"Text messages, instant messaging and Internet bulletin boards have been the main channels for discussing this issue," said Fang Xingdong, chairman of www.blogchina.com, a Web site for China's growing community of bloggers. "Ten years ago, this would have been unthinkable."

In Shanghai, local police even sent out a mass text message to cell phone users on the day before that city's raucous protest.

"We ask people to express your patriotic passion through the right channel, follow the laws and maintaining order," the message said. Some marchers interpreted the message as a signal to proceed, while other people took it as a warning.

In early 2003, text messaging and the Internet played a major role in helping people pass reliable information - and also unfounded rumors - about the outbreak of SARS at a time when the government was covering up the disease.

In the anti-Japan protests, people have sent chain letters to friends via e-mail. Typical is a 23-year-old professional in Shanghai who asked to be identified for this article by her English name, Violet. She uses an instant messaging service on her work computer to communicate with 50 people on her contact list.

Before the Shanghai march, one person on Violet's contact list sent her links to vote no in online polls about Japan joining the Security Council. Violet voted and then forwarded the links to more than a dozen other people on her list.

She also received an instant message to join the Shanghai protest and recruit others. But she said the day before the protest, her cell phone buzzed with the mass message sent by the Shanghai Public Security Bureau. She decided not to march.

The next day, though, friends on her contact list sent her Internet links to photographs of the protest that were banned in newspapers. Even her boss took a look.

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