Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Freedom of Internet Access and Democracy

By Tianjun HouPublished May 1, 2013

Compared with the USA, the Chinese people need more power to convert their ideas in social media into action to achieve democracy.

Last week, there were two cases about gay marriage going on in USA. Many of my facebook friends change their profile photos as the equal sign to support the gay marriage. Some people gathered in Washington DC to show their support outside the Supreme Court. I think people’s attention on gay marriage will die away as time goes on but revive in June when the Supreme Court makes their decision. In this case, I see two important components of democracy, freedom on the Internet including access to information and speaking out opinions, and people’s action power.

When American people are focusing on the gay marriage debate, people living in Shanghai, China are fighting with the 6000 sick dead pigs that were dumped into the Huangpu River. As the Huangpu River is one of the major water supply sources of the city, people worried that the dead pigs will pollute their drinking water. Although the government has promised that there will be no problem about the civil-use water, there are so many comments about the news on Chinese social media. People either comment or share these news on renren (Chinese version of facebook) and weibo (Chinese version of twitter). In the past three years, those social media have done a really good job in informing citizens of what was going wrong in the city. The city government can no longer block the information from the people. However, unlike the first case, no one has the intention to state their opinions clearly or do something to fix the problem. People made statistical jokes about this issue or indirectly criticized the government. But soon, when Xi Jinping, the new president of China, and his wife visited Russia on their first abroad trip, the public attention was diverted away from this issue. Only one week after the pig accident, no more follow-up reports can be found in any newspaper in China. No one knows whether the government has taken all the pigs out of the river, how they did it, or how the government plans to deal with the dead and sick pigs. Perhaps a more important question to ask is what to do to prevent further dumping of dead pigs into the Huangpu River. Nobody cares any more.

This is not an individual case. The same happens in other environmental cases in China. Just two days ago, it was reported that in a village of Henan province, the farmers used wastewater from a mill to grow wheat. They didn’t dare to eat the wheat themselves and they sold all the wheat out of the village. The news immediately got a lot of sarcastic criticism from the social media, and shared by a lot of people, and then went away. Air pollution in Beijing has followed the same media phenomenon.

Chinese government used to limit its citizens’ access to online information. This situation has improved a little bit because of the rise of social media. However, compared with US, what China needs most is much more than just access to information; people need the power to convert the information into action. Unfortunately, those social media users only stop at criticism because they think it is impossible for individuals to change the status quo. What individuals can do is to come together and voice as a group. For years, I have never seen such determination among Chinese people and no one really believes that change can happen through the efforts of people. The confidence in people’s power is called to facilitate the change of Chinese society.