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In Cyberspace, China's People Find Their Voice

By Ian Bremmer

In cyberspace, unrest in Tibet, an earthquake in China's Sichuan province and the Cannes Film Festival can make for an explosive mix. Chinese bloggers have seized on a suggestion from actress Sharon Stone, who speculated to reporters manning the red carpet in Cannes that China's devastating earthquake, which killed at least 68,000 people, may have been ordained by "karma." Citing Beijing's treatment of ethnic Tibetans, she suggested that "when you're not nice . . . bad things happen to you."

The reaction across China was instantaneous. Legions of bloggers demanded a boycott of Stone's films and the products she pitches. The actress has apologized, but luxury retailer Christian Dior, with whom Stone has a modeling contract, quickly removed her image from its Chinese stores.

The story illustrates an important point about today's China. Though state officials continue to carefully monitor Internet traffic for anything they fear might threaten their monopoly hold on China's politics, the sheer speed and scale of the blowback to Stone's comments reveals that an ever-growing number of China's people are becoming more active in the public life of their country -- in ways that are both encouraging and potentially destabilizing.

This year was to be Beijing's moment of triumph. The upcoming Olympic Games were expected to showcase the country's emerging self-confidence and the surge of national pride that comes with three decades of rising wealth and economic expansion. But the international spotlight has created opportunities for the Chinese government's vast array of critics -- of its authoritarian politics, human rights record, policies toward Tibet and Darfur, and the environmental crisis that runaway growth has unleashed -- to air their complaints.

The Olympic torch relay became a fiasco, and a series of foreign leaders have publicly considered calls for Olympic boycotts. Many China Internet users have responded with charges of an international (particularly U.S. and European) conspiracy to embarrass China in its moment of glory. Then came the May 12 earthquake, the worst to hit China in 30 years. Sharon Stone's suggestion that China may have gotten some sort of cosmic comeuppance triggered a firestorm of public anger and wounded pride.

Here's the key: Most of these spontaneous bursts of nationalist anger aren't coming from the Communist Party elite but from ordinary citizens, now more active than ever in the life of their country. Nowhere is the phenomenon more obvious than in cyberspace.

China now has some 210 million Internet users, a number expected to double within two years. There are about 49 million bloggers and 75 million online bulletin board posters who produce about 10 million new posts each day. For those around the world who champion freedom of speech, this is mainly a positive development. It reveals that China's people are finding new outlets for free expression that transcend officially sanctioned opinion.

But it's worrisome for the Chinese government, which now has less control over information and communication within the country. The Chinese leadership was concerned enough about domestic perception of its disaster relief efforts that government officials held an extraordinary, real-time online exchange with Chinese Internet users to explain why the quake destroyed so many schools and so few government buildings.

The Communist Party's response to the earthquake has been highly praised, both within China and abroad. Much more impressive has been the response of China's people. Financial help has poured in from citizens across the country. More people than ever have volunteered their time and labor to help ease the suffering of the quake's victims. Chinese journalists and independent bloggers have played a big role in coordinating the flow of aid and support.

Bloggers have also focused public attention on foreign efforts to help. Several have posted lists of multinational companies offering substantial financial support. Others have posted lists of those who haven't chipped in as generously -- and called for boycotts of the products they sell. The result has been an informal bidding war between rival companies hoping to prove they can be counted on for help when China needs it.

Since the late 1970s, the Communist Party has benefited from two bold strategic gambles. The first was Deng Xiaoping's decision to experiment with large-scale capitalism. The second was a later decision to begin to open Chinese society. China's economic expansion has become a familiar story, one the Olympics will reveal to an even wider international audience. Less well understood is the leadership's willingness to relax its grip on personal freedoms.

We shouldn't exaggerate China's openness. There is still no tolerance for criticism of the Party's political dominance. Critical discussion of the three T's -- Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen Square -- remains off limits. Tens of thousands of security officials monitor the Internet for challenges to Communist Party rule and aggressively pursue those who generate them. But China's people now have more freedom than ever to choose where they live and work, how they manage their personal lives -- and to organize fellow citizens around common interests, aspirations and even grievances.

The most volatile new area of free expression -- and the most potent source of social mobilization in the country -- comes from forceful public assertions of wounded national pride. These outbursts often help China's leaders redirect public anger away from Party officials toward foreign targets like Japan or the United States. But China's senior leaders monitor large-scale nationalist demonstrations carefully, ever aware that shifting winds might suddenly blow a gathering storm in their direction.

The earthquake and its aftermath reveal a problem for the leadership: Chinese public sentiment will never again be so easy to manage. Independent actors have proven they can organize an enormous number of people at lightening speed. The quake and its aftermath have tightened informal bonds among civil society organizations and the online community. In the future, these newly coordinated groups could focus their efforts on issues the government doesn't want them talking about -- rising inflation, environmental damage and official corruption.

The twin surges of nationalism and grassroots-level activism pose some interesting questions. If China's government becomes more directly responsive to the will of its people -- a result devoutly to be wished by many both inside and outside the country -- would China adopt a friendlier approach to foreign governments, companies and citizens? Or might it choose a more aggressive, even confrontational, foreign policy toward Japan, the United States and the European Union, in particular?

Would the Chinese government become more tolerant of ethnic minorities like Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs? Or less tolerant? Would China continue to try to grow in harmony with the existing international system? Or might pressure on the state to satisfy public demand for a more assertive policy approach lead the Party to challenge many aspects of the current global order?

For the moment, no one can answer these questions with confidence. But the day is coming when they will matter more than ever -- for China and for the world.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy and the author of "The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall,". He can be reached via e-mail at research@eurasiagroup.net.

Copyright 2008, Tribune Media Services Inc.


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