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Autonomous Chinese 'smart mobs' outside of Party control


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.

While China has punished Japan and reduced its chance of gaining a permanent seat on the UN Security Council in the near-term, thereby delaying Japan's effort to morph itself into a "normal" state whose duties require its self-defense forces be converted into conventional armed forces, there is evidence that China has lost more it gained when one considers that the xenophobic display:

  • "Blamed [China for] "instigating" or at least failing to control the anti-Japanese demonstrations," thereby blighting its foreign policy aims
  • Blamed the "CCP [Fourth-Generation] leadership's apparent mishandling of the crisis," thereby offering an encore to the Anti-Secession Law (ASL) as another reason to prolong the EU arms embargo
  • Opened a possible resurgence of "China Threat" over a quite successful "Peaceful Rise"
  • Alienated virtually all sectors of Japanese society rather than a targeted "minority of right-wing militarists"
  • Impacted, at some level, badly needed Japanese investment and technology transfer
  • Reduced Sino-Japanese relations to a near postwar low

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:

[As] the protests grew larger and more unruly, China banned almost all coverage in the state media. It hardly mattered. An underground conversation was raging via e-mail, text message and instant online messaging that inflamed public opinion and served as an organizing tool for protesters.

"Chain letter" e-mail and text messages urged people to boycott Japanese products or sign online petitions opposing Japanese ascension to the United Nations Security Council. Information about protests, including marching routes, was posted online or forwarded by e-mail. Banned video footage of protest violence in Shanghai could be downloaded off the Internet.

[Demonstrators in the Shanghai march] learned of the march from an Internet posting that included a suggested route for the march and tips like bringing dry food and not bringing Japanese cameras.

Alarmed at the growth of demonstrations fueled by the momentum of electronic chatter and the inability of the authorities to identify any of its leaders, Shanghai police sent out a mass text message to cellphone users the day before the march in Shanghai asking for calm and restraint on the part of the marchers. The Chinese government ultimately moved to silence the protests and marches by "banning the use of text messages or e-mail to organize protests."

New technologies may keep total censorship in China at bay [not to mention the rising number of Chinese having multiple e-mail accounts some of which are with ISPs outside China not subject to filtering]. "The changing nature of web-based communications toward more dynamic and distributed communications, like RSS and P2P, may make things trickier [but not impossible] for the censors in China to keep up."

While public animosity towards Japan and weeks of government signals that the marches were "politically safe" made public mobilization easier and thus not a perfect judge of future behavior, one has to wonder about the Chinese equivalent of an After Action Report that will ask:

"If people can mobilize in cyberspace in such a short time on this subject, what prevents them from being mobilized on another topic, any topic, in the near future?"

Anti-Japanese Protests Pose Long-Term Challenges for Beijing
By Willy Lam
China Brief, Volume 5 Issue 9
The Jamestown Foundation
April 26 , 2005

Short-Lived Strike Reflects Strength of Japan-China Ties
By Edward Cody
Washington Post
April 26, 2005

A Hundred Cellphones Bloom, and Chinese Take to the Streets
New York Times
April 25, 2005

Internet Filtering in China in 2004-2005: A Country Study
Principal investigators, Jonathan L. Zittrain and John G. Palfrey, Jr.
OpenNet Initiative
April 14, 2005

Net Censors Active in China
RED Herring
April 15, 2005

Gordon Housworth

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