The following is a translation of this post from Chang Ping’s blog.
A few days ago I received an invitation from the US Embassy saying that an advance briefing for would be held simultaneously via video in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, mainly discussing Sino-US relations and President Obama’s visit to China. Because I was busy, I didn’t attend, but I read the Twitter updates of attendees. From these updates, it seems “tearing down walls” on the internet was a focal point of discussion. To use the language of the government, it’s a problem of freedom of information and freedom of speech. Many of the attendees hope that this visit of Obama’s can help push forward the opening up of the internet in China.
There were also those in attendance who feel that the “problem of tearing down walls [on the internet, i.e., internet censorship] really doesn’t represent the mainstream [opinion], most Chinese people don’t worry about freedom of speech, they only worry about freedom of business and the freedom to travel to America” [to do business]. The embassy replied: listen to the voices of those outside the mainstream media, that is exactly the purpose of the advance briefing. This response, while wonderful, also quietly changes the conception of “mainstream”. The former was talking about the majority of the Chinese people, the latter was talking about the media that’s controlled by the Chinese government.
Actually, regardless of whether it’s “mainstream”, regardless of the specifics, it’s impossible to avoid talking about the problem of freedom of speech on the internet. This small-scale meeting was broadcast live by the American side, and the Chinese officials had no choice but to temporarily allow access to twitter, so this [meeting] itself was a nominal challenge to the usual way of doing things. Moreover, [look at] who was invited: “famous bloggers”. Immediately following that, the American embassy in Guangzhou announced the details of Obama’s town hall meeting with young people in Shanghai; this was seen as one of the results of the advance briefing with bloggers. There’s even information that during Obama’s meeting he’ll have a secret meeting with a [famous] internet personage. At the same time, netizens discovered that some once-banned foreign websites like Picasa and Blogspot have recently been unblocked.
The importance Obama places on the internet is undeniable, as he himself was a beneficiary of the internet during the 2008 presidential election. Moreover, freedom of speech has always been a principle American presidents must stress. But whether or not he can really help Chinese netizens to break down the “Great Firewall of China” is still in doubt. I feel some Chinese netizens have set their hopes too high, and fear that they may end up disappointed. First of all, the internet isn’t the purpose of Obama’s current trip. From the topics already announced, climate change, economic equilibrium, hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, the revaluation of the RMB, etc., will be the focal points of his discussions with Chinese leaders. Secondly, while being interviewed by a Reuters reporter a few days ago, Obama suggested that China and America are cooperative partners and also competing opponents in a friendly way. Because of this, he can’t really take an unyielding position on freedom of speech or human rights.
However, I don’t deny the effectiveness of international pressure, nor do I look down on netizens (even if they aren’t the mainstream) for expressing their passions so strongly on this issue. At the same time, the underlying structure of Chinese society is slowly changing. These factors could come together at any time to greatly expand the scope and power of [free] discourse. After attending the China Blogger’s Conference last week, this feeling is even stronger.
Lianzhou [site of the blogger conference] is in the northwestern part of Guangdong province, with underground rivers, gorges and other excellent natural sights. It also has the literary tradition left by men like Han Yu and Liu Yuxi, but still, such a group of people [as were at the blogger conference] is rarely seen. The internet lovers, scholars, and reporters came from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong, as well as the USA, France, England, etc. The local tourism and government boards were notified that this group of people has great publishing power on the internet, and their coming was not only the arrival of tourists but also a good advertising opportunity. Because of this, local officials welcomed the meeting, and they were assisted by China Telecom. The meeting was set up by the entrance to a cave/underground river; sponsoring companies provided a support car and set up internet in the area, and the meeting’s coverage of twitter, blogs, etc., was broadcast live.
What was interesting was that, from another angle, the meeting was still as “sensitive” as ever. The night we got there, the hotels were strictly required to provide information on their guests; the local PSB chief came and took a list of everyone staying in the hotel, then sat in the lobby guarding until deep into the night. On the second day of the conference, people were saying over forty police officers came, someone was videotaping it. The meeting not only had invited some “sensitive” [i.e. controversial] netizens to participate, but also spent a lot of time discussing how to use internet technology to pursue freedom of speech.
But this really wasn’t a political meeting; the attendees also discussed how to best use technology for commerce, for the public good, and for spreading science. To put it precisely, everyone is using the internet to search for better ways of living.
Actually, the meeting itself is a way of living. It is loose and spontaneous, but the attendees paid their expenses themselves, and the workers were all volunteers. It made me think of a music festival, most people come here to feel happy and to seek like-minded folks.
Because of all this, I saw a new power developing upwards from the bottom layer of society. Those who hold this power both hope that politicians will reform and open up the internet and use the internet to build their own lives. Political slogans are gray, but the tree of life is green.