Death by a Thousand Blogs
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: May 24, 2005
LI xinde--The New York Times
The Chinese Communist Party survived a brutal civil war with the Nationalists, battles with American forces in Korea and massive pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. But now it may finally have met its match - the Internet.
The collision between the Internet and Chinese authorities is one of the grand wrestling matches of history, visible in part at www.yuluncn.com.
That's the Web site of a self-appointed journalist named Li Xinde. He made a modest fortune selling Chinese medicine around the country, and now he's started the Chinese Public Opinion Surveillance Net - one of four million blogs in China.
Mr. Li travels around China with an I.B.M. laptop and a digital camera, investigating cases of official wrongdoing. Then he writes about them on his Web site and skips town before the local authorities can arrest him.
His biggest case so far involved a deputy mayor of Jining who is accused of stealing more than $400,000 and operating like a warlord. One of the deputy mayor's victims was a businesswoman whom he allegedly harassed and tried to kidnap.
Mr. Li's Web site published an investigative report, including a series of photos showing the deputy mayor kneeling and crying, apparently begging not to be reported to the police. The photos caused a sensation, and the deputy mayor was soon arrested.
Another of Mr. Li's campaigns involved a young peasant woman who was kidnapped by family planning officials, imprisoned and forcibly fitted with an IUD. Embarrassed by the reports, the authorities sent the officials responsible to jail for a year.
When I caught up with Mr. Li, he was investigating the mysterious death of a businessman who got in a financial dispute with a policeman and ended up arrested and then dead.
All this underscores how the Internet is beginning to play the watchdog role in China that the press plays in the West. The Internet is also eroding the leadership's monopoly on information and is complicating the traditional policy of "nei jin wai song" - cracking down at home while pretending to foreigners to be wide open.
My old friends in the Chinese news media and the Communist Party are mostly aghast at President Hu Jintao's revival of ideological slogans, praise for North Korea's political system and crackdown on the media. The former leaders Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji are also said to be appalled.
Yet China, fortunately, is bigger than its emperor. Some 100 million Chinese now surf the Web, and e-mail and Web chat rooms are ubiquitous.
The authorities have arrested a growing number of Web dissidents. But there just aren't enough police to control the Internet, and when sites are banned, Chinese get around them with proxy servers.
One of the leaders of the Tiananmen democracy movement, Chen Ziming, is now out of prison and regularly posts essays on an Internet site. Jiao Guobiao, a scholar, is officially blacklisted but writes scathing essays that circulate by e-mail all around China. One senior government official told me that he doesn't bother to read Communist Party documents any more, but he never misses a Jiao Guobiao essay.
I tried my own experiment, posting comments on Internet chat rooms. In a Chinese-language chat room on Sohu.com, I called for multiparty elections and said, "If Chinese on the other side of the Taiwan Strait can choose their leaders, why can't we choose our leaders?" That went on the site automatically, like all other messages. But after 10 minutes, the censor spotted it and removed it.
Then I toned it down: "Under the Communist Party's great leadership, China has changed tremendously. I wonder if in 20 years the party will introduce competing parties, because that could benefit us greatly." That stayed up for all to see, even though any Chinese would read it as an implicit call for a multiparty system.
So where is China going? I think the Internet is hastening China along the same path that South Korea, Chile and especially Taiwan pioneered. In each place, a booming economy nurtured a middle class, rising education, increased international contact and a growing squeamishness about torturing dissidents.
President Hu has fulminated in private speeches that foreign "hostile forces" are trying to change China. Yup, count me in - anybody who loves China as I do would be hostile to an empty Mao suit like Mr. Hu. But it's the Chinese leadership itself that is digging the Communist Party's grave, by giving the Chinese people broadband.