In a further sign of the growing influence of the Internet in China, and growing fears about the technology among local party officials, authorities in the southern city of Xinyi (信宜) apprehended three men accused of circulating “rumors” on the Internet about a serial rapist. Columnist and CMP fellow Yan Lieshan criticized the action today in Southern Metropolis Daily [more from ESWN], saying Xinyi officials showed no apparent concern for their own negligence in failing to issue timely warnings to the public (police have admitted a series of rapes in Xinyi between March 19 and May 31 this year, with a suspect taken into custody on July 3), instead misdirecting their focus to allegedly exaggerated Web postings. [PHOTO: Screenshot of New Express coverage of arrest of rape suspect in Xinyi, July 7, 2007, via news.21cn.com].
News of the arrest and pending case against the three Web users recalled the recent Haicang PX story in Xiamen, in which city officials said they were mulling local curbs on Internet use after new media played an instrumental role in organizing popular opposition to a proposed chemical plant in the city. An official from Xiamen’s commercial bureau recently told media that “after opposition to the PX project, the government [in Xiamen] felt that content on the Internet should be [more tightly] controlled.”
In his editorial, Yan Lieshan said China was “at a crossroads” and that greater acceptance and protection of public speech was needed in order to fight corruption and other evils. “If we want to change the state of affairs under which good cannot stamp out evil, the most effective and economical means is to give citizens a greater right to know, right to speak and right to monitor (知情权、发言权和监督权),” he said.
The key question in the Xinyi Web user arrests is whether netizens should be held personally accountable for the accuracy of their postings. In the Xinyi case, it seems, there was a basis for the postings, and it is Yan Lieshan’s contention that, in the absense of official information on the case, it might in fact have been the buzz created by the three Web users in question that “moved the killer to show some restraint” (使犯罪分子有所收敛).
Selected portions of Yan Lieshan’s editorial follow:
There’s no need for me to conceal the fact that my original intention was to complain of the wrongs against the three Web users [in Xinyi]. But that’s not all. I’ve already used this example to show that there is much greater danger in exposing local scandals. I could find a heap of examples just searching the Internet. I’m talking not just about informing and exposing of illegal activities, but of normal speech concerning local public affairs …
It goes without saying that there are many abnormal or backward things happening in the political life of our society these days – corruption and bribery, trifling with impunity with [one’s official] post. But it’s those who inform, who expose crimes that live in fear …
I’m completely with Professor Cai Dingjian on this point, that media are an instrumental factor in promoting social change, and that the government has a responsibility to respect the media and thereby the will of the people. What needs to be added is that the media he’s referring to includes, of course, the new media and the Internet (postings, blogs, streaming video, etc.), including all of those citizens (interactive writers) who provide the media with information, viewpoints and “buzz” (人气).
It could be said that China’s social transition is at a crossroads. If we want to change the state of affairs under which good cannot stamp out evil, the most effective and economical means is to give citizens a greater right to know, right to speak and right to monitor.
[Posted by David Bandurski, July 13, 2007, 4:39pm]