return to ICG Spaces home    ICG Risk Blog    discussions    newsletters    login    

ICG Risk Blog - [ Beijing moves to preempt flash mob behavior for any purpose, be it civil, commercial, nationalistic or anti-state, during the Olympics ]

Beijing moves to preempt flash mob behavior for any purpose, be it civil, commercial, nationalistic or anti-state, during the Olympics


As part of an all-state asset effort to produce a Disney-like Olympics experience to the world, Beijing is preempting flash mob/smart mob behavior for any purpose, be it civil, commercial, nationalistic or anti-state during, and perhaps after, the August venue. The tell tale is in a Fallows' Atlantic article:

[N]ew limits will apply on how many messages can be sent from each phone each hour. The limits are high enough that they won't affect ordinary users but would make it harder to send a mass broadcast... Short messages are the main way people can react to news in a hurry -- or organize actions in response. If you want to hold a meeting or rally or just get a lot of people to the same place at the same time, SMS is the way to go. So if you limit SMS, you've cut the main communication tool for individuals trying to act as a group...

The surprise is that the authorities have waited so long. China has a rising and vibrant protest movement that the authorities have spent considerable effort to suppress both in the field and in the press:

These "sudden incidents" or "mass incidents," in official parlance, are presenting Chinese officials with a serious problem that goes beyond the negative image of China they project to the outside world. The sheer numbers are noteworthy. In August 2005, the country's public security minister, Zhou Yongkang, announced that some 74,000 such events had taken place in 2004, an increase from 58,000 the year before. According to Zhou, 17 of the 74,000 involved more than 10,000 people, 46 involved more than 5,000 people, and 120 involved more than 1,000 participants. But many believe the actual figures are higher.

While many of these are lesser events, rising locally by word of mouth without communications technology, many are extremely potent in terms of their public reaction. See The Case of Dai Haijing for the public reaction to the obtuse official handling of the gruesome murder of a favorite teacher. The number of total incidents are now put over 100,000 per annum. It is this volume that forms the backdrop of uncertainty for the CCP.

The 2005 anti-Japanese watershed: state sponsorship loses control


The CCP found that even when it instigated a nationalistic street response to Japanese application for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Japanese history textbook minimizing Japanese wartime atrocities, and Japanese objection to a tripartite agreement between national oil companies of China, the Philippines and Vietnam for seismic exploration of the contested Spratly Island Group (also here, here and here), that it could not contain the public fury of a population armed with cell phones offering voice, email and SMS. (Readers wanting to reprise these events are recommended to look at the endnote bibliography, starting here and here for events and here for the longer term context.)

Writing in Autonomous Chinese 'smart mobs' outside of Party control, 4/26/2005:

While many have noted the risk to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of promoting nationalism as a distraction to social and economic matters, the recent near miss of nearly "losing control over xenophobic crowds" in promoting anti-Japanese protests must have driven home the risk to both the CCP as governor of the nation and to personages and factions within the CCP... I submit that technology stole a march on CCP leadership:

[While] police and Ministry of State Security agents had closely monitored the activities of various "anti-Japanese" NGOs - which were responsible for organizing protests and internet petitions - Beijing had far from adequate control over the extent to which such "people-level" organizations would go... "Hu and a number of his PSC colleagues have come to the conclusion that the authorities' ability to control nationalistic outbursts has declined markedly compared to [1999 when Beijing was] largely successful [in stopping] the anti-U.S. protests a few days after the embassy-bombing incident."

Diplomatic analysts in the Chinese capital said Beijing was nervous over the fact that, owing to the internet and other sophisticated forms of organization and mobilization, several relatively new and inexperienced groups were so successful in turning out the crowds. The analysts said many protests in recent Chinese history... started out as expressions of patriotism. Once the genie is out of the bottle, however, it would be difficult even for the CCP to prevent mass movements from suddenly becoming anti-government in nature.

Spontaneous smart mobs independent of government control have come to China's youth where an approximate 100 million internet users grow at 30% per annum and 350 million (27% of China's 1.3 billion people) own cellphones for voice and text messaging...

Even the most benign organized public events give an order-obsessed public security apparatus concern. Take this modest flash mob event:

On Sunday afternoon, a small group of young people gathered at the Hongqi Street in city Changchun, northest China's Jilin Province. These young people, in matching clothes, and each holding a guitar, stood in line and began to sing a pop song. And suddenly, they dispersed.

Protests from fenqing to middle class

The authorities are highly attentive to young nationalists known as fenqing, or the 'angry youth' among other translations:

"These people have been trained in an authoritarian system. They are at the same time victims of an authoritarian system, but they also behave in an authoritarian way towards others and are incredibly self-righteous... We should be more tolerant and respect the right of people to disagree with us but these people do not understand such values."

The definition of fenqing has morphed:

  • Cultural Revolution: urban-dwelling students who were sent to the countryside to toil with peasants and became embittered towards a society that had stolen their futures.
  • 1980s: students and intellectuals who shaped the movement for greater social and political freedoms that ended when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square
  • 2000s: patriotic, xenophobic, nationalistic and, in some cases, violent in their defence of the motherland. This latest incarnation has partly emerged as the result of government policies implemented in reaction to the events of 1989, after which "patriotic" indoctrination became an even more important element of the education system.

Beyond the fenqing, the Chinese middle class are rising, albeit more politely, against what they see as local government inattention and inaction to their needs.

The CCP in Beijing was forced to take notice, overruling local party cadres in the process, of a 2007 popular middle class resistance in Xiamen that, in the face of local party control of the press, used blogs, cellphones and text messaging to oppose a multi-billion dollar chemical plant believed to be harmful to the environment. (Also here)

Mere months later, the bourgeoisie of Shanghai emulated Xiamen in 2008 to express its "discontent over a planned extension of the city's magnetic levitation, or maglev, train" through residential neighborhoods, and at excessive cost.

This author doubts that the state security apparatus could have failed to notice that an "online 'flash mob' and not the Russian government" was responsible for DDoS attack against the Estonian state.

Bulletin boards, SMS and the Human Flesh Search Engine


Bulletin boards do much of the heavy lifting before SMS takes over:

[A] large part of the organization is done on the Internet in China, specifically on BBSes. While the BBS (bulletin board system) is something outdated and antiquated in the US Internet, it has been a very important part of the Chinese Internet, and I would argue, it is growing and becoming more influential. For the Chinese government, it is a headache because in spite of Chinese government regulations, it is largely unregulated. For western corporations it is a good place to gather information but is useless for advertising, but for many Chinese it is the most important part of the Internet (along with online gaming and their IM client, which is most likely to be QQ or MSN Instant Messenger depending on their age and demographics).

Most westerners who come into the China Internet market have no idea of its power and influence, and instead think that the Chinese Internet is largely the same as the US market, but it isn't. The Chinese government doesn't really like BBSes because it really is free (as in free speech), and is the breeding ground for all kinds of weird stuff. And while it is important for gathering buzz on products (as CIC, based in Shanghai, does) for corporations, nobody has really been able to monetize it. And, western journalists fail to monitor it, which is why they miss on so many big stories, and end up giving credit to some sinister Chinese government policies.

And China's Human Flesh Search Engine:

The types of group-forming [Clay Shirky] describes are sometimes called crowdsourcing and flash mobs. For those of us in China, we might better know crowdsourcing as the Human Flesh Search Engine, the increasingly frequent phenomenon of online crowds gathering via China's bulletin board systems, chat rooms, and instant messaging to collaborate on a common task. The Human Flesh Search Engine shares many of the same characteristics of Shirky's networked social collaboration: Enabled and made cost-effective by technology, channeling an existing motivation that was not possible to act upon as a group before...


China's Human Flesh Search Engine is a poor translation (yet a popular and visceral description) of the Chinese phrase ren'rou sou'suo... and was, for a day, Google's homepage for its Chinese edition (the page can still be found online here). The fact that day was April 1st should tell readers it was meant as tongue-in-cheek (and may not entirely be a joke - a number of search engines have tried human-assisted search and relevance checking), but it put a name to a movement that has been happening online in China for some time: Online collaboration by Netizens to search via the power of China's massive 225 million Internet users.

It remains to be seen if a resourceful Chinese interest group will find a way around the SMS limitation imposed by the authorities, but Beijing has increased its odds of a Disney production.


Everything changes tomorrow

James Fallows

The Atlantic

19 Jul 2008 12:01 am


Tag Archives: What is Fenqing

What is a Fenqing?

Thinkwierd's Blog

June 10, 2008 - 12:50 am


China's Human Flesh Search Engine - Not what you might think it is...

China Supertrends

May 25, 2008 3:56 pm


What Tibet and Carrefour Can Teach Us About the Chinese Internet

The China Vortex

May 9, 2008 at 10:11 am


China's angry youth vent their feelings

By Jamil Anderlini in Beijing


Published: May 2 2008 17:15 | Last updated: May 2 2008 17:15


JOURNAL: Tibet, Protests, and Insurgency

John Robb

Global Guerrillas

Saturday, 29 March 2008

NOTE: See the reader comments to Robb's post in relation to this topic


Spratly Islands: Dangerous deals in Dangerous ground

Mike in Manila

March 9, 2008


China: Coveting Neighborhood Energy Resources

Written by Administrator

Paracels & Spratlys

Monday, 04 February 2008


Shanghai's Middle Class Launches Quiet, Meticulous Revolt

By Maureen Fan

Washington Post

January 26, 2008


Estonia attacks down to online 'flash mob'

Russian government not to blame, says F-Secure

Written by Iain Thomson in Helsinki

27 Sep 2007


"Flash Mob" Puzzles Bystanders

China Org CN

( August 7, 2007)


Green Protests Suspend Chinese Chemical Plant

by Shai Oster, Wall Street Journal

Wen Bo

China Program

Pacific Environment


Text Messages Giving Voice to Chinese

Opponents of Chemical Factory Found Way Around Censors

By Edward Cody

Washington Post

June 28, 2007



Susan L. Craig


Strategic Studies Institute

ISBN 1-58487-287-X

March 2007


Daily Brief Comments September 2006


September 2006


The Case of Dai Haijing

Why do students demonstrate in China?  First of all, please remember that high school student demonstrations do not happen that frequently and so there must be something extraordinary.


August 26, 2006


A Real Peasants' Revolt

They're rioting in China.

by Jennifer Chou

The Weekly Standard

01/30/2006, Volume 011, Issue 19


The Anti-Japanese Demonstrations in China

A Long History



Weekend Edition

April 23 / 24, 2005


Anti-Japanese Demonstrations Appear "Staged"

By Zhao Zifa

The Epoch Times

Apr 18, 2005


Violent anti-Japanese protests resume in China

Christopher Bodeen
Associated Press
April 17, 2005


China rejects calls for apology


Published: 2005/04/17 11:43:53 GMT


In pictures: China protests grow

BBC News

Last Updated: Sunday, 17 April, 2005, 16:04 GMT 17:04 UK


Chinese Authorities Temper Violent Anti-Japan Protests

Students Cancel Mass March in Beijing

By Edward Cody

Washington Post

April 16, 2005



Chris Myrick

April 16, 2005


China warns against Japan rallies

BBC News

Last Updated: Friday, 15 April, 2005, 07:31 GMT 08:31 UK


U.S., U.N. warn on China, Japan


April 15, 2005 Posted: 0643 GMT (1443 HKT)


Anti-Japan Fury Spreads Through China's Streets

By Bruce Wallace

LA Times

April 11, 2005


China blames Japan for tensions

BBC News

Last Updated: Monday, 11 April, 2005, 05:39 GMT 06:39 UK


China rally prompts Japan protest

BBC News

Last Updated: Sunday, 10 April, 2005, 05:06 GMT 06:06 UK


Chinese angry at Japan's UN bid

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes

BBC News, Beijing

Last Updated: Monday, 4 April, 2005, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK


Spratly Islands: The Tide of Trouble Rises


March 31, 2004 | 2359 GMT


Spratly Islands

Global Security


The Spratly Islands:  A Threat To Asian Regional Stability

K. Scott Holder, Defense Intelligence Agency

CSC 1995


Gordon Housworth

Cybersecurity Public  InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  


  discuss this article

<<  |  May 2020  |  >>
view our rss feed