Chinese voices find outlet in microblogs

Yu Jianrong has spent years advocating the rights of China`s rural poor and denouncing lawless officials, but five months ago he took a step that expanded the reach of that campaign exponentially.

Updated: Mar 09, 2011, 10:15 AM IST

Beijing: Yu Jianrong has spent years advocating the rights of China`s rural poor and denouncing lawless officials, but five months ago he took a step that expanded the reach of that campaign exponentially.
Since opening a Twitter-like microblog account in October, the outspoken professor has emerged as a trail-blazer in harnessing the medium -- which barely existed here a year ago -- as an avenue for public expression.

And as the country`s docile parliament meets this week in Beijing, online voices like Yu`s are increasingly stirring the real public debate -- and they are voices the ruling Communist Party will have to listen to, experts say.

A professor of rural issues at a top state think-tank in Beijing, Yu, 48, has deftly walked a fine line to highlight perhaps China`s hottest political issue today -- the depredations suffered by the country`s lower classes.

"Current technology has altered the social environment. Everyone has a microphone. Everyone is a news headquarters," Yu, a former lawyer, said of microblogging in a recent Chinese media interview.

From his digital soapbox, Yu, who is invited to address officials across the country on proper governance, has publicised his lecturing of authorities who mistreat or suppress the populace.

And he has called in recent blog postings for real constitutional democracy and an end to oppression.

"In the long run, pressure cannot maintain stability and could cause new instability. It is tantamount to quenching a thirst with poison," he said in one post.

In January, he delved into another charged issue -- persistent abductions of children who are often sold as labourers or forced to beg -- by launching a separate blog to help parents find missing kids that became a media sensation.

The two microblogs on portal Sina.com have nearly 800,000 combined followers.

Micro-blogs, like the rest of China`s Internet, are heavily censored.

But Yu has avoided muzzling by stopping short of directly criticising top leaders -- he instead focuses on officials` failure to follow "rules". He also refuses foreign media interviews, which could be seen as provocative.

"I think you understand China, so you must know that these issues are just too sensitive," Yu said in declining an AFP request.

After Chinese censors blocked Twitter in 2009, several homegrown versions emerged with enhanced services such as photo and video embedding, and proved wildly popular with China`s world-topping 457 million web users.

Market leader Sina.com told AFP it now has more than 100 million microblog users.

The real-time exchange of ideas is pushing the boundaries of Chinese censorship and provoking clear, if so far modest, government responses.

Several recent cases of official abuses or miscarriages of justice were addressed after they went viral on microblogs.

Yu`s abducted-child microblog -- which employs the photo-embed feature to allow parents to post pictures of missing kids -- prompted a flurry of state media coverage and a new government pledge to address the problem.

And while no certain link can be made, Yu`s microblogging on the rights of China`s rural poor coincided with escalating government promises to address the issue ahead of the parliamentary session.

"Microblogging is a great leap forward in terms of public opinion and speech, and Yu is not the only one using them in this way," said Xiao Qiang, editor of the China Digital Times, a US-based site focusing on Internet news from China.

"China`s official media usually don?t touch some of these issues. So someone like Yu Jianrong can say more than official media can."

The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in a recent report microblogs had helped make the Internet "the principal arena where the battles for freedom of expression" in China are fought.

So far the official response has been to both embrace yet censor microblogging.

Authorities have censored news and discussion of the "Jasmine" uprisings in the Arab world as well as anonymous online calls for protests in China.

But a government white paper last year singled out microblogging`s value in keeping authorities honest and growing numbers of officials and government departments have jumped on the bandwagon, opening their own accounts.

The official Xinhua news agency said last week that microblog debate had "underlined the Chinese people`s willingness to participate in talks on the country`s future."

"Nothing short of a communications revolution is taking place" in China, Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

"Mobile phones and the Internet are profoundly transforming how citizens see themselves and their degree of tolerance for the arbitrariness shown by the state."

Bureau Report