Ten years later: Chinese dissidents using Net

Despite the absence of public mourning in mainland China to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, dissenting voices are still alive and well online.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
5 min read
Despite the absence of public mourning in mainland China to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, dissenting voices are still alive and well on the Internet.

Increasingly, dissidents in mainland China and abroad are using the Internet--especially email--as a conduit to voice their ongoing protests surrounding the 1989 incident. The Internet has proven itself to be a quick and efficient tool to foster discussion and share information barred by the government surrounding the incident.

"The Internet itself is democracy," said Chai Ling, a former student leader in 1989 and now a Web entrepreneur who has started her own Web company, called Jenzabar. "That's why people like us who fought for freedom and democracy in China ten years ago naturally embraced the Internet."

On June 4, 1989, Chinese government troops and tanks in Beijing violently crushed a two month-long student-led demonstration in Beijing. The students, joined by laborers and citizens across the country, called for political reform and an end to widespread government corruption. Hundreds were killed or injured during the swift crackdown.

Ten years later, the Chinese are enjoying a higher standard of living and greater freedoms both economically and politically. Although many Chinese have moved on from the Tiananmen Square incident, the crackdown left an indelible imprint in the minds of former demonstrators and family members of victims. To this day, the government maintains the crackdown was necessary to crush a "counter-revolutionary" movement and ensure stability in Beijing. Chinese dissidents at home and abroad want the government to acknowledge the victims as patriots and national martyrs.

Spamming for change
Many dissidents and pro-democracy activists have found that email as a powerful way to deliver messages and initiate campaigns.

One of these email campaigns is run former student leaders from 1989, including Wang Dan, a high-profile dissident who gained notoriety last year when he was exiled from China. His group in January started a global email petition calling for the Chinese government to reevaluate its verdict on the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Another group member, Liane Lee, estimates that 20,000 out of the 100,000 signatures obtained since the campaign launched were obtained through email and the organization's Web site June4.org .

The group also has linked up with other human rights groups such as Amnesty International, the Academy of Sciences, the International Labor Congress, and Human Rights in China to put to its petition on their Web sites.

Lee, now a radio correspondent for Radio Free Asia, was among the waves of students from Hong Kong that flew to the mainland to aid demonstrators in Beijing by providing medical supplies and tents. Her experience in 1989 has continued to fuel her determination to reach out to as many people as possible, especially in the mainland.

"For the past ten years I've kept doing all this work to bring justice to those responsible for the massacre," said Lee. "I do it for the victims' families."

Human Rights in China, a nonprofit organization based in New York, also has turned to email to get its word out. Prior to the June 4 anniversary, the group sent out a number of mass emailings featuring articles written by dissidents as well as press conference alerts for prominent dissidents.

The mass emailings are not isolated to groups based in the United States. Activist groups in almost every province in China are creating mass email lists, according to Zhang Weiguo, a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Zhang was a journalist in Shanghai before he was jailed for his pro-student stance during the demonstrations. He was jailed twice before coming to the United States in 1993.

He added that activists in China are using email to communicate reformist ideas and to gather signatures for petitions. Email is also becoming more widespread among university students, who are using it to communicate with each other and with their professors.

But according to Michel Oksenberg, a professor of political science at Stanford University, email remains limited to elite pockets of academia and business. And many of the issues that dissidents are promoting, such as democratic reforms and human rights, seem outdated and almost insignificant.

"The issues of concern for the Chinese populace are not necessarily the issues of a decade ago," said Oksenberg.

Nationalism is becoming a more powerful political cry than democratization, as evidenced by the outrage following NATO's recent bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The day after the bombing, many Chinese Web chat rooms and message boards were flooded with angry messages condemning the bombing.

Thus, many dissidents are seen by the Chinese as pawns of the United States, Oksenberg added.

"Their close association with United States, and the United States' use of them detract from their message because the Chinese are in a more nationalistic phase," he said. "It is an anger not just over the Belgrade bombing, but the perception that the U.S. is bullying China, especially on human rights issues, and that Chinese dissidents are seen as one of the sources of American misperceptions of China."

Freedom--with limitations
While the Chinese government says it is ready to embrace the power and opportunity of the Internet, it remains in a quandary over how to control it, according Oksenberg.

On the one hand, China wants to feed the growing numbers of information-hungry business people that are trying to become internationally competitive. But on the flip side, many government officials fear what they see as the potential consequences that could arise with the free flow of information. The government thus continues to curb the flow of information coming into the country, such as blocking politically sensitive email and news from Web sites such as those by the New York Times and the Washington Post.

One step that China has recently taken is the shutting down of many Internet cafes in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. According to Zhang, the government justified the move because people were accessing pornographic Web sites.

Despite the government's attempts to regulate the Internet, many have found ways around the barriers.

"The Chinese are caught in all the tensions that are brought on by this amazingly powerful instrument," said Oksenberg. "The Chinese government cannot totally control it even if they constrain the channels."

Surfing for a new China
Some dissidents and exiled student leaders from the 1989 movement--including Zhang--are creating Web pages commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown. Zhang's Web site, New Century Net, publishes essays from Chinese scholars that would not be published in the mainland. June4.org also uses considerable input from exiled students. The site contains graphic images of the crackdown, articles written by prominent dissidents, and links to other organizations seeking change.

Other dissidents, such as Chai Ling, are taking a less confrontational approach to change: They are becoming Web entrepreneurs. Chai, who recently earned a degree from Harvard Business School, started her Web company, Jenzabar, which provides a Web-based intranet application to universities.

While Chai wishes to separate her business from her 1989 activism, she says the Internet will become the main democratizing force in China. Businesses in China will need more information to operate.

"The Internet would eventually function to break down control of free information flow, and break down the monopoly on free speech," said Chai.