Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chinese Internet no threat to regime

China's Internet Imperils Corrupt Officials, but Not Regime

AOL News

TAIPEI, Taiwan (Oct. 28) --
The Chinese Internet has been abuzz over a hit-and-run incident involving the young son of a high-level security official in Hebei Province, outside Beijing.

The episode shows how quickly outrage over abuses by privileged Chinese officials can come to a boil, as well as the power of Internet-fueled popular pressure in today's China.

Still, many experts caution that while the Internet has become an outlet for anger against local officials, it is not a significant threat to the Chinese Communist Party's grip on power.

What sparked the uproar was not only the hit-and-run itself, but the young man's lack of remorse and high-handed attitude. "Go ahead and sue me, I'm Li Gang's son," he reportedly said, just after the accident.

The Oct. 16 accident left one student dead and another injured, according to Chinese media reports translated at Chinahush.

The "human flesh search engine" -- a Chinese-coined term referring to the collective efforts of angry Internet users -- found and posted personal information on the young man, including photos. The police later arrested Li Qiming, the son of high-ranking public security official Li Gang, according to the Global Times.

Father and son have since both given blubbering apologies, but unsatisfied observers say they're crying "crocodile tears." Some have even posted running commentaries analyzing the duo's facial expressions to prove they were faking it. (See translations at EastSouthWestNorth here.)

It's not the first time angry Chinese Internet mobs have targeted local officials and their relatives.

In the summer of 2009, millions of Chinese Web users rallied around a 21-year-old pedicurist in Hubei Province who stabbed to death a local official, claiming he was trying to rape her. Amid the outcry, her original charge of murder was changed to a lesser charge.

And in 2007, an online video game, in which players kill and torture corrupt local officials, became an Internet sensation.

Despite public outrage, though, corruption by local officials appears to be on the rise. The China Daily reported that prosecutors handled 6,375 cases of "malpractice" or "abuse of power" by civil servants in the year leading up to November 2009, a 6 percent increase over the previous year.

And observers caution that the central government is still able to keep a strong grip on the Internet to head off any organized challenge to its rule. If anything, the Internet has become a useful tool for helping Beijing monitor and purge bumbling local officials who hurt the party's image.

"China is pioneering a new kind of Internet-age authoritarianism," Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on China's Internet, said in testimony to Congress this year. "It is demonstrating how a nondemocratic government can stay in power while simultaneously expanding domestic Internet and mobile phone use.

"In China today there is a lot more give-and-take between government and citizens than in the pre-Internet age, and this helps bolster the regime's legitimacy, with many Chinese Internet users who feel that they have a new channel for public discourse," she said.

"Since the openness of the Internet allows the tracing of every online activity, fear of arrest and imprisonment ensures that the impact of that monitoring is likely to be strong," Junhao Hong, an expert on China's Internet controls at the University of Buffalo, told the Science 2.0 website. "So at the moment, at least, the Internet is not a real threat to authoritarian regimes."

According to the human rights group Dui Hua, China arrested an estimated 1,150 people in 2009 for "endangering state security" and imprisoned 1,050 of them -- a far higher number than most previous years, though a decline from the spike in such arrests in 2008, when China hosted the Olympics.

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