Barely two months after Xi Jinping was named China's new leader, the Twitter generation seemed to be gaining the upper hand over the nation's status quo regime. Ham-handed censors rewrote an editorial in the newspaper Southern Weekend without notifying the editors—and even managed to add a glaring historical error. Censorship is routine in China, especially for liberal periodicals such as Southern Weekend, but this time the editors went ballistic. They cried foul on Sina Weibo, the country's popular microblogging platform, and wrote an open letter calling for the removal of the provincial propaganda chief. Voices of Netizens joined in support with signature petitions online. Protesters appeared in the streets of Guangzhou.
The event smacked of the Arab Spring, when authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and northern Africa fell to rebellions that were in part inspired by social media. Indeed, the Guangzhou protesters managed to obtain concessions from the authorities, who reportedly granted the newspaper more autonomy in its future operations. The incident marks a new degree of openness in the way state authorities deal with online and street protesters. Some observers have said that it may signal more radical political change to come. That is not likely, however.
To be sure, for more than a decade China's ruling Communist Party has been under pressure from the rise of information technologies—the Internet, blogs, social media. Westerners tend to see what is going on in China as a battle of rebels against an autocratic state. Yet it would be more accurate to think of China's social media revolution as a Tai Chi–style contest—a long entanglement of slow advances and tactical retreats whose result is not determined by a few strong blows. State authorities and contentious citizens are engaged as if in a half-choreographed war dance, constantly shifting their positions to avoid or absorb their opponent's force while awaiting the opportune moment to attack.
The technology that gives citizens more power to interact and organize has also given the central and provincial governments a great deal of power to obfuscate and confuse. To contain Internet dissent and protest, China aggressively censors Web sites. New regulations or crackdowns are often implemented after new outbursts of online protest. This was the case when the first policy to regulate electronic bulletin boards took effect in 2000. When crude sanctions failed to curb online dissent, the government turned to a more subtle measure: sprinkling anonymous Internet commentators to promote the party line throughout the blogging community. According to a report issued by the official news Web site People's Daily Online, more than 60,000 government accounts were active on Sina Weibo alone by the end of 2012. With its enormous resources, the government can have its Web sites pour out large volumes of information that serve to inundate dissent.
Netizens and activists fight back by being creative. To avoid keyword filtering, they discuss sensitive issues by using historical allusions, word games and similar methods. Some gain access to blocked Web sites such as Twitter by using software and proxy servers. They adapt, compromise, retreat or push back by carefully gauging the circumstances and seizing opportunities. Their numbers are rising. In December 2010 China had 63 million microbloggers out of 457 million Internet users. Today more than 300 million Internet users are microblogging.
This rising tide of online dissent has in recent years compelled the state to give more recognition to the legitimacy of opinion that is expressed online. Yet the Southern Weekend brouhaha exemplifies more of a give-and-take between rebels and authorities than a simmering revolution about to boil over. Sina Weibo quietly tightened its surveillance and filtering. Police showed up to the protests in Guangzhou, but there was no violence, and the affair ended peacefully. No party official got the sack.
This article was originally published with the title The People's Standoff.