The Chinese Communist Party survived a brutal civil war with the Nationalists, battles with American forces in Korea and massive pro-democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. But now it may finally have met its match – the Internet.
The collision between the Internet and Chinese authorities is one of the grand wrestling matches of history, visible in part at www.yuluncn.com.
That’s the Web site of a self-appointed journalist named Li Xinde. He made a modest fortune selling Chinese medicine around the country, and now he’s started the Chinese Public Opinion Surveillance Net – one of four million blogs in China.
Mr. Li travels around China with an I.B.M. laptop and a digital camera, investigating cases of official wrongdoing. Then he writes about them on his Web site and skips town before the local authorities can arrest him.
His biggest case so far involved a deputy mayor of Jining who is accused of stealing more than $400,000 and operating like a warlord. One of the deputy mayor’s victims was a businesswoman whom he allegedly harassed and tried to kidnap.
Mr. Li’s Web site published an investigative report, including a series of photos showing the deputy mayor kneeling and crying, apparently begging not to be reported to the police. The photos caused a sensation, and the deputy mayor was soon arrested.
Another of Mr. Li’s campaigns involved a young peasant woman who was kidnapped by family planning officials, imprisoned and forcibly fitted with an IUD. Embarrassed by the reports, the authorities sent the officials responsible to jail for a year.
When I caught up with Mr. Li, he was investigating the mysterious death of a businessman who got in a financial dispute with a policeman and ended up arrested and then dead.
All this underscores how the Internet is beginning to play the watchdog role in China that the press plays in the West. The Internet is also eroding the leadership’s monopoly on information and is complicating the traditional policy of “nei jin wai song” – cracking down at home while pretending to foreigners to be wide open.
My old friends in the Chinese news media and the Communist Party are mostly aghast at President Hu Jintao’s revival of ideological slogans, praise for North Korea’s political system and crackdown on the media. The former leaders Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji are also said to be appalled.
Yet China, fortunately, is bigger than its emperor. Some 100 million Chinese now surf the Web, and e-mail and Web chat rooms are ubiquitous.
The authorities have arrested a growing number of Web dissidents. But there just aren’t enough police to control the Internet, and when sites are banned, Chinese get around them with proxy servers.
One of the leaders of the Tiananmen democracy movement, Chen Ziming, is now out of prison and regularly posts essays on an Internet site. Jiao Guobiao, a scholar, is officially blacklisted but writes scathing essays that circulate by e-mail all around China. One senior government official told me that he doesn’t bother to read Communist Party documents any more, but he never misses a Jiao Guobiao essay.