On Wednesday evening, Exercise Book, a user of the Sina Weibo microblog, posted a message for his 2.5 million followers: “I’ve finally figured out where the safest place in China is…”
The message was anything but cryptic. Only hours earlier, state-run Chinese media began reporting what much of the world had known for almost a week: Legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who is also blind, had escaped from house arrest in Shandong Province and was granted refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Chinese netizens were quick to jump on the startling news, and by 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, they’d posted more than 4,500 comments to Exercise Book’s Weibo post. At least a third of the responses speculated where the safest place in China was, with the vast majority guessing the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
As subtle, uncensored rejoinders to Chinese official statements go, this was powerful. Nonetheless, Exercise Book and his followers likely didn't see the U.S. as a proverbial “beacon of hope.” Rather, like other netizens across China’s microblogging platforms, they were using the best means available to criticize the Chinese Communist Party and government.
To be sure, parsing Chinese public opinion from the country’s fractious but tightly regulated and censored microblogs is a tenuous act. Chinese microbloggers represent the most educated and wealthiest strata of society, and less than one third of the Chinese population. Meanwhile, microblog censors -– at the behest of Chinese internet authorities -– delete posts perceived as harmful to the party and government while restricting searches on sensitive topics. Therefore, the name “Chen Guangcheng,” and terms that might be associated with him, such as “blind lawyer,” do not bring up results.
In the case of Chen Guangcheng, that’s convenient: He is not a household name in China and very few netizens appear to be familiar with his activism against forced sterilizations and abortions that led to years of persecution and home detention. His daring escape to Beijing, followed by his refuge at the U.S. embassy and the ensuing diplomatic tussle, have not created big news in China. State-run coverage of Chen has mainly focused on his presence at the embassy, with some criticism of the U.S. -- and a little schadenfreude at its current diplomatic predicament.
But as stripped down as those official Chinese reports are, they seem to have struck a nerve with a sizable number of Chinese netizens who re-tweet them -– and comment on them -- by the thousands. (Note: Censors, for the moment, give comment threads wider latitude than actual posts, or tweets.)
On Wednesday afternoon, Xinhua, China’s state-owned news agency, posted a Chen-related message to its official Sina Weibo account:
Foreign Ministry spokesman … Liu Weimin said the Chinese side demands that the U.S. apologize, thoroughly investigate the matter, deal with the responsible parties, and ensure that no such incidents recur … The United States should reflect on its own policies and practices, and undertake concrete actions to safeguard the Sino-U.S. relationship.
By Thursday morning, that tweet had been re-posted more than 6,000 times and garnered nearly 2,000 comments -– many of which jumped on the suggestion that the U.S. “reflect.”
One of the most biting responses was from an anonymous microblogger in Hangzhou, who suggested that Chinese behavior toward Chen Guangcheng is the real threat to U.S.-China relations. It’s a devastating critique that, if posted separate from a comment thread, would almost certainly be deleted:
The United States asked China to apologize, undertake a thorough investigation to deal with the responsible parties, and ensure that no further such incidents recur … China should reflect on its own policies and practices, and undertake concrete actions to safeguard the Sino-U.S. relationship.
Nonetheless, from an official Chinese perspective, there’s a big difference between criticizing individual government officials' decisions, and criticizing the structure and legitimacy of the Communist Party and its government. As this second Chen-related post from Xinhua showed, the former is occasionally tolerated and the latter is not:
[Foreign Ministry Spokesman] Liu Weimin said, "I would like to once again reiterate, China is a country ruled by law, the legitimate rights and interests of its citizens are governed by the Constitution and the law and, at the same time, every citizen is obligated to abide by the Constitution and the laws, to safeguard national security, honor and interests."
This has received 2,000 re-tweets and 35 comments. Any attempt to add a new comment to the 35 is met with the message: “Sorry, the content is in violation of relevant regulations and policies and cannot be published.”
The message, for netizens, is clear: Do not criticize the system.
Critical comments on the Foreign Ministry’s views on the rule of law in China exist on microblogs, but they are reserved for the actions of individual officials.
For example, the independent Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper in Guangzhou posted the same news to its Sina Weibo account, but received comments such as this scathing one from a user with the English-language handle GhostInTheHell:
Excuse me, national rule of law spokesperson, it appears that Mr. Chen's name is promptly deleted [from microblogs], according to which law? Again asking, your Honor, Mr. Chen's house arrest of several years, was according to which law? Beating him was according to which law? Harassing his family was according to which law? Not permitting him to receive medical treatment was according to which law? Not allowing his daughter to attend school was according to which law?
Answers to those questions won’t come soon, but it’s also unlikely that the questions will stop. China’s netizens are becoming savvier about their news, their rulers and the role they play in making the latter responsive to the former. Wednesday night, NB Jianbo, an entrepreneur in Ningbo, a boomtown south of Shanghai, summarized that new role in an affecting tweet that referenced news about Chen Guangcheng and several additional “sensitive” news stories from recent weeks:
We are concerned about these events … not for the purpose of undermining social stability, but only because we are concerned about the state of the country, the state of society, and because we are patriotic.
So far, there are five comments to this post. The second is the most eye-catching, however. It technically reads: “The Communist Party won’t let us be patriotic.” But in place of the characters for Communist Party, it uses a small hammer and sickle character.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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Adam Minter at firstname.lastname@example.org