This is a 1976 Cultural Revolution poster from chineseposters.net. It celebrates Chairman Mao's 1966 call to arms: "bombard the headquarters." He egged on the Red Guards to go after corrupt and venal officials who:
"...have stood facts on their head and juggled black and white, encircled and suppressed revolutionaries, stifled opinions differing from their own, imposed a white terror, and felt very pleased with themselves."
One might be inclined to use similar words to describe the officials whose holiday video from a taxpayer-financed African junket recently got uploaded onto the internet. Click here for the full video.
When I watch China's human flesh search engines in action I often think of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards. Unlike the Red Guards they're not really being manipulated by one charismatic leader (yet); they're just acting on their own. Like the Red Guards, the intent of today's cyber-vigilantes is idealistic; they believe in their absolute moral righteousness. Sometimes they expose corrupt and venal officials who deserve to go to jail. Other times they conduct moral witch hunts against people whose behavior may not be very admirable but what crime did they commit exactly and who is to be the judge?
It is very exciting that the Internet is making it increasingly difficult for Chinese government officials to behave irresponsibly, abuse taxpayer funds, or commit crimes without being exposed. The question is, where is this all headed?
Mao was frustrated that he could not adequately control the Communist Party bureaucracy, who he believed had grown too fat and happy and "bourgeois;" so he unleashed the Red Guards on them. Today many Chinese complain that the central government has lost control over provincial officials to some extent, and county officials to a great extent. The central government is fairly well regarded by the public while local governments are widely hated. How will this loss of control by the center over the localities be handled? Via real reform of political institutions and mechanisms of justice so that government at all levels can be held accountable by the governed in a fair and systematic manner? Or through an updated form of cyber-populism (cyber-bonapartism?) in which people are empowered to speak out and to act against injustice in many cases when such actions don't hurt the power of the top leadership - but without the institutions or rule of law or real reforms that would underly a commitment to build truly accountable, transparent, and representative political institutions?
In the 1990's, some hopeful officials in the Ministry of Civil affairs advocated direct, competitive, secret ballot elections as the solution to social unrest and corruption. Programs to institute such elections at the village level were celebrated in the West as a sign that China might eventually be capable of democratizing. Studies at the time indicated that villages with fair and competitive elections had less unrest than those that didn't. But the efforts to bring free, fair and competitive elections to all villages throughout China were abandoned by the early 00's as China's top leadership transitioned from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao. Dreams that such elections might be possible at the county level or in the cities were also abandoned. Talk to officials today who were involved with village democracy efforts at the time and they'll tell you they see no hope of the local election efforts being revived under the current leadership.
Will the Chinese people rise above cyber-vigilantism and use the Internet to build a just and fair society governed by accountable leaders? Or will the majority be be happy to wield their new-found powers of online speech in random fashion? That's really up to them. People like Liu Xiaoyuan and Yang Hengjun and a number of others have been raising such questions. It's hard to know whether people beyond the elite intelligentsia will pay attention to such concerns.
This is why the suppression and censorship of Cultural Revolution history in China is so dangerous. If people could freely write and debate about what happened under Mao, history would have less chance of repeating itself.
The last two images in this post are part of a fabulous collection of Cultural Revolution posters belonging to this blogger.
UPDATE: Bill a.k.a. "niubi" was quick to point out on Twitter that he doesn't think the situation today could "go anywhere comparable" to where it went in the Cultural Revolution. I do agree. I apologize if I gave the impression that I think we're going to see an exact repeat of history. That's not the point I meant to make. The point I'm trying to make is that just because people have an expanded ability to speak truth to power thanks to new technology, that doesn't automatically lead to a more just society in the long run unless you have institutional change. I wonder whether people will be so distracted and excited about the ability to use the Internet to speak truth to power that they'll have less interest in such institutional change. Whether the latter scenario results in a desirable state or not is up to the Chinese people to decide, of course. If that's what a majority of Chinese truly believe works best for them - if there's a way of determining what the majority of Chinese people really want - well I guess that's their business. Like Yang Hengjun said today, if the Chinese people really want human rights, at the end of the day only they can give it to themselves...
FURTHER UPDATE: Before I wrote this post I hadn't seen Joel Martinsen's excellent post over at Danwei, Harnessing Human Flesh Search Engines for Government Use. That adds yet another layer of issues.