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//CGCS visiting scholar Mengshan Ren examines social mobilization on the Internet in China.
The internet is the most vigorous and popular media in contemporary China. Compared to other media, such as daily newspapers, magazines, TV and radio, the Internet attracts less censorship. With more and more people using smart phones, including the lower strata of society, the internet has more influence than ever.
Individuals in China have used the Internet to mobilize social power and exert pressure on local governments or companies. In the sociological sense, certain groups doing this could be labeled a “social movement.” However, in China, they do not have all the characteristics of a typical social movement. Cases in recent years have shown the different aims of online mobilization, which I divide into three styles: individual interest, collective interest and public interest. Here are examples of the different styles and an analysis.
Individual interest and online mobilization
On March 2007, a post spread on the internet about “nail houses,” old buildings that real-estate companies seek to demolish. One couple, Pin Wu and her husband Wu Yang were not satisfied with the compensation they were offered for the destruction of their building. As the following image shows, their apartment building was left standing alone as their neighbors accepted compensation from the local government and real estate company.
The couple posted pictures on the Internet and protested. Wu Yang flew a national flag on their building, and Pin Wu held the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, while the protest was covered by the media. The performance had a dramatic effect.
These pictures spread quickly through the internet and “Netizens” expressed anger at the demolition of the building. Many people criticized the local government and the real estate company. These comments and coverage put huge pressure on the local government and the real estate company and ultimately the couple succeeded in their mobilization. In order to acquire and maximize their interest, they utilized the internet to mobilize social force to benefit their negotiations with the real estate company.
Collective interest and online mobilization
“Collective interest” in China is the interest of multiple individuals. For example, the people in one factory or one village are in a “collective organization.” The collective interest can also be described as a “community,” but normally a community is not organized. All the peasants live in the same village from generation to generation and maintain the same collective land. The ownership of the land belongs to the collective, which is the village community. The peasants have a land-lease contract with the village committee, which is the autonomous government body. For most purposes, the ownership of the land belongs to the peasants.
With developing urbanization, local governments need more and more land for factories and real estate companies, so the land leased by the peasants was taken back by the village committee, under the direction of local government, and sold to the factories or real estate companies at high prices. The compensation given to peasants was much lower than the revenue to the village committee and therefore the peasants began to argue for more compensation.
When the interests of the peasants is inconsistent with the interests of local government, it can result in “Shangfang,” which means the peasants attempt to claim their rights by bypassing the local government, going to the higher authorities such as the provincial or central government. However, the village committees blocked the petition to a higher government authority in every possible way.
In recent years, many peasants have utilized the internet to claim their rights and interests. They posted the petition on BBS and in comments on top websites, such as Sina.com, Qq.com, Netease.com, and Xinhuanet.com. Additionally, they asked relatives working in the city to write articles and post them online. Occasionally, they attracted attention using unorthodox public-relations tactics.
For example, the villages in Dadong Village, Luolong District, Luoyang City in Henan Province, wrote “A Letter to Obama From the Chinese Peasants.” The letter claimed that Dongyue Han, who was the director of Dadong Village committee, and his family profited from the collective property. Of course, President Obama had no relation to this village, but the peasants used Obama to attract the netizens’ interest.
The aim of the online mobilization was to pressure the local government into forced compromise. At the same time, they hoped the media would attract the attention of the higher government, who would then command the local government to compromise.
Public interest and online mobilization
Other forms of online mobilization aim to the capture public interest beyond personal and collective aims.
The successful Free Lunch for Children Program, which aids students suffering from hunger, is an example. The aim of this program is to raise money for the students’ lunch at elementary schools in poor regions in China, such as Guizhou, Sichuan, Guangxi, and Xinjiang, .
The founder of this project Fei Deng, a journalist at Phoenix Weekly, launched the program on April 2, 2011. There were 500 journalists and dozens of newspapers and magazines advocating that everyone donate ￥3($0.5) for the students. This program is now supported by thousands of people and corporations.
By Jan. 18, 2013, the total donations to the program reached￥43,014,006.82 ($6,937,742) and provided 1,737,227 free lunches for students. Because the program was totally and wholly transparent about the donations and expenses, the management team won the trust of donors and many individuals and corporations, including some officials, who have been willing to donate to the students, leading it to become a successful program
The program even influenced the policy of the state. On October 26, 2011, the State Council of China decided to start the implementation of a rural compulsory education students’ nutrition improvement program. The central government of China pledged to provide ￥16 billion ($258,000,000) annually as subsidies for meals for 26 million students in minority and poor counties.
With continued development of the Internet, more will utilize it for social mobilization for individual, collective and public interest goals.