The Web was invented so physicists could share research papers. Web 2.0 was invented so we could share cute pictures of our cats. The tools of Web 2.0, while designed for mundane uses, can be extremely powerful in the hands of digital activists, especially those in environments where free speech is limited.
On the Chinese Internet this week we have the ultimate marriage of cute cat blogging and political activism - with some official spin-mastering and government p.r. thrown on top. It's known widely as the "elude the cat" incident.
A man named Li Qiaoming died in a detention center in Yunnan province. The official explanation was that he had been killed in a rough-horsing accident while playing a game of "elude the cat" (a form of hide-and-seek) with fellow inmates. The reaction in local internet forums was skeptical to say the least, with netizens and even journalists in newspapers and political cartoonists chiming in that the whole thing seemed a bit too incredible. People began to post comments in blogs and chatrooms suggesting that the police were engaged in a cover-up. "Elude the cat" with its rich humor potential quickly became a buzzword all around the Chinese Internet.
Local Yunnan officials were worried about things getting out of control - as things did last summer in Weng'an when an angry mob trashed the police station, suspecting a murder cover-up after a young woman turned up dead in the river. So the Yunnan publicity department came up with an idea: they would invite journalists and bloggers to participate in an investigative team. A publicity notice was posted on Yunnan government and local media websites inviting bloggers to sign up. Here's the notice as translated by Roland Soong:
The injury and subsequent death of the Yuxi city Hongta district Beicheng town young man Li Qiaoming in a detention center has received broad media attention, especially on the Internet. The term 'eluding the cat' has become a hot Internet term in a very short time. In order to satisfy the public's right to know, the Yunnan provincial publicity departhment will form an investigative committee with other relevant departments and proceed to Kunming city Puning town on the morning of February 20 to find out the truth about the incident. We are presently looking for four netizens and other representatives from society to serve as members of the committee. You can register between now and 8:00pm on the evening of February 19, 2009." The notice also included a QQ account number and a telephone phone number.
So an "investigative committee" was formed. According to a Southern Metropolis Daily report translated by Roland:
...more than 1,000 netizens applied though QQ and telephone.
Eventually, the investigative committee consisted of 15 persons. There were four representatives from the province political and legal committee, the province procuratorate and the Kunming city public security bureau; three media representatives including the Yunnan Information Times; eight persons from the Internet and other social sectors. It is noted that five of the eight are local Yunnan media workers or have media industry background.
And so they went on February 20th to the jail. QQ has a whole special coverage page devoted to the investigation. Here are some pictures that Netease re-posted from Yunnan TV:
Local media was clearly all over the event which was touted as evidence of government openness and transparency, and willingness to submit to "public supervision." As Oiwan Lam reports in Global Voices, there was much debate online about the impartiality and independence of the bloggers who had been selected. Team members were subject to "human flesh search engine" treatment, with netizens crowd-sourcing and analyzing their backgrounds and identities online, and several of them felt compelled to defend themselves online.
However while some of the inspection team members apparently asked to see the surveillance video tape of the scene, detention center officials refused to allow viewing of surveillance tapes or allow interviews with key witnesses. Liberal bloggers like Yang Hengjun and Liu Xiaoyuan have written critically about the process and outcome, questioning whether the investigation team and the media coverage surrounding it was little more than a dog-and-pony show aimed at defusing public anger building up online. As Oiwan comments: "My opinion (via inmediahk.net) is that the propaganda department is trying to prevent a public opinion bomb from being exploding but it in turn challenges the credibility of police and justice department."
It seems that the authorities have succeeded to some extent, and that enough of China's netizens were impressed by the government's decision to invite bloggers into the investigation. Oiwan translates a BBC Chinese story:
According to Sina's online poll, up till midnight of 20, 87.1% netizens found the explanation of “eluding the cat” incredible, and believed that it must be a lie; 8.2% found the explanation incredible but believed that it might be the truth; only 1.3% believe d the explanation should be the truth.
As for the invitation of Yunnan Netizen to participate in the investigation, 49.7% netizens believed that it is probably a show and it is yet to see the effect of the participation. 45.5% said that the arrangement is creative and can further develop democracy, it shows the investigation is open and transparent.
On this blog I've written before about the idea of "authoritarian deliberation:" The Internet has enabled vastly more social discourse and deliberation on public affairs in China than anybody could have imagined ten years ago; but at the same time China's political institutions are no more democratic than they were ten years ago. Nor has the legal system grown more independent. I've argued in the past that one can imagine a scenario in which, if the Chinese Communist Party is clever and flexible enough to evolve, they may be able to use the Internet to stay in power longer than would have been possible if the Internet did not exist. They would do this by convincing a critical mass of ordinary Chinese people through publicity stunts like the "eluding the cat" investigation that the people's voices can be heard and that "public supervision" of government is possible without needing democratic multi-party elections. I'm not arguing that this would necessarily be a successful long-term strategy, but in the medium term it could generate enough evidence for nationalists to argue in the government's favor, things for the chattering classes to do, combined with sufficient public argument about who is a government patsy, and who is in cahoots with whom, who is telling the truth etc etc., that criticism becomes too diffuse to mount a meaningful challenge - especially when you combine that tactic with sufficient censorship and astro-turfing to skew the conversation in the CCP's favor, plus the arrest of people like Liu Xiaobo and Hu Jia who might otherwise be capable of bringing together the disparate issues surrounding all these local incidents and becoming leaders of national opposition movements. Whether this scenario actually does prevail, or whether another less cynical scenario prevails, ultimately depends on the Chinese people themselves, as Ai Weiwei put it to me in January:
UPDATE: Over at the China Media Project, David Bandurski's post on the subject, How Control 2.0 found its poster boy in Yunnan, is a must-read. He concludes:
We will never have a real civil society, a democratic society, unless people take responsibility. ...I believe the desire for justice and equality is something that people must have in their own hearts. This isn't something that one person can give to another. This is a right that must be exercised. If you don't exercise your right society will be in a difficult state.
In the government handling of the “eluding the cat” case we can glimpse an eerie phenomenon emerging in China: the rise of virtual political participation as a proxy and foil for real political empowerment. Notice, political rights are not on offer to China’s citizens. But if we believe the hype China’s state media are selling us, China’s “netizens” are in political ascent.
If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.