China’s digital protesters aren’t confined to Hong Kong

Power to the people. EPA/How Hwee Young

As the last remaining protesters were being cleared from Hong Kong’s streets, many Westerners lamented the silencing of what they saw as China’s only pro-democracy voice. To them, the umbrella movement was a stand against the totalitarian regime run from Beijing, and was a predictor of future popular dissent that the Chinese authorities may face.

Yet many Western China-watchers forget that looking directly at political resistance within mainland China can be far more telling than what is taking place in Hong Kong.

One reason for this oversight is that in mainland China, dissent and protest do not always gather momentum on the streets. Instead, they start on the web.

Tear down this wall

China’s government is famed for the iron-fisted approach it takes to policing the internet, the so-called “Great Firewall of China”. From blocking foreign websites such as Facebook to censoring chat forums and paying people to discuss pro-Chinese Communist Party topics, the CPP goes to great lengths to keep its citizens from accessing all sorts of politically sensitive digital information.

But of course, ideas are infinitely more difficult to suppress than an angry mob – and despite the government’s efforts, they are spreading fast.

China’s online community is growing at a breakneck pace. Whereas 8.5% of citizens were connected to the internet in 2005, 45% are online today. The advent of mobile phones in particular has rapidly expanded the country’s internet user base, since many people in the countryside cannot afford a computer or fixed internet service.

Crucially, the exploding population of internet users are connecting with each other via messaging boards and messaging services – and in such numbers that policing their speech is almost impossible.

From the web to the streets

QQ, an instant messaging service, is a popular forum for group chats. Searchable groups have been created on it for discussing every facet of daily life, and that includes points of political discontent. The vast number of discussions seen on QQ cannot realistically be constantly monitored, and their users are able to share frustrations with particular political policies – such as the “one child policy” – or with the political system as a whole.

The spread of internet access has helped scale up expressions of political discontent across mainland China. Only ten years ago, open protest might have been limited to local areas, on topics such as local government land-grabs. These sorts of protests were contained, scarcely challenged the political order, and targeted local government officials, not the central CCP.

But now, QQ forums have connected dissatisfied citizens across China, providing an outlet for their frustrations. And those frustrations are transitioning more and more into protests.

For example, on a forum I follow, I read about a protest held in Zhejiang province a month ago. It was mounted by parents angry at illegal fines for having two children, which were being charged despite the government’s promise to relax the policy in the province.

Just a few years ago, this protest would have remained confined to a local area, among parents who knew each other in their everyday lives. Yet the participants in this protest were quite clearly not only from Zhejiang province, but from neighbouring provinces as well. And judging by what I read and saw posted in photos on QQ, the success of the protest spurred parents in other provinces to hold their own provincial governments accountable for illegal fines.

Thanks to internet penetration, local political victories in one province can now have a knock-on effect in other provinces, driving national change.

Big picture

0f course, online discussions are not limited to incremental policy changes. Some QQ forums discuss broader human rights violations, or discontent with the political system at large.

One hot topic is the Chinese government’s role in Hong Kong. The umbrella movement is not only discussed, but also supported; some people openly mock the government’s anti-Western rhetoric about Hong Kong. Another hot topic is the CCP’s role in leading a nationalist movement against Japan, with many participants openly criticising the government for whipping up nationalism to distract the Chinese population from domestic issues.

And if recent protests such as those in Zhejiang are anything to go by, as China becomes more connected to the internet, there will be increasingly more opportunities for discontent to transition to the streets.

Wake up

Observers outside China have still not cottoned to this. Hong Kong’s umbrella movement captured the West’s imagination because it was steeped in Western values. But dissent in mainland China is multifaceted, and by no means is everyone involved demanding a liberal democracy. Many citizens simply want fairer policies, less corruption, and reduced inequality between the countryside and cities.

To understand how protest is really changing China, Western observers need to let go of democracy as their only metric for change – and to pay serious attention to the vibrant culture of dissent and debate going on in spite of the Great Firewall.

This, not more visible street protests such as those in Hong Kong, will be the real challenge for the CCP in years to come.