Oct 10

The Chinese twittersphere

There’s endless back-and-forth over whether or not Twitter really played a significant part in the failed Iranian  “revolution” of June 2009. Did Twitter grosssly exaggerate the opposition strength and help to identify people subsequently arrested? Or did it link previously disconnected people and help to bring the regime to the brink of   collapse?

This theme is picked up and applied to the very different Chinese experience by Professor Hu Yong, who is reflecting   on the flood of tweets unleashed by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo. In China, he says, social media like Twitter are not likely to be suddenly transformative but they do push a “more subtle social progress”.

I predict that the next topic in Twitter Studies will be the role of covert tweet manipulation in totalitarian societies. Twitter and social media massively increase the range of networks at the price of removing face-to-face contact. Looking someone in the eye is often the best (if not the infallible) way to check whether someone is who they say they are or whether they are telling the truth.


Oct 10

Liu Xiaobo: small things can matter

Two sidelights on the Nobel Peace Prize given to the imprisoned Chinese rights activist Liu Xiaobo. There has been plenty of commentary, both understandable and doubtless right, that awarding a Nobel to a jailed dissident in China will make not the slightest difference to the attitude taken towards human rights by the Chinese communist party.

Perhaps not. But there are a couple of things to note about Liu Xiaobao’s case which give tiny fragments of hope that this prize will focus people across the world and maybe even in China on what is wrong. The Nobel committee have selected Liu not because he has suffered more than any other dissident but because he zeroed in on why rights don’t actually exist in China while they are theoretically written into the country’s constitution.

What Liu always seized on was the inability of a Chinese citizen to use the law against the government if the government has, or may have, broken the law. Rights written about in a constitution are worthless unless enforceable by law which also covers the authorities. This is succinctly summarised in this “explainer” from Slate. It may be a small and, for now, apparently insignificant point but this will one day be the hinge of political reform in China. One day.

Secondly, the Nobel promotes a name and an idea like almost nothing else and there is one thing that many people outside China, without resources but with the qualifications, can do to help freedom of expression inside China. I would not know this if I had not happened to announce an award to two Chinese journalists, Shi Tao and Li Changqing, a few years ago. Neither man was at liberty to collect their award; both were in jail. (The award was the “Golden Pen of Freedom” given annually by the World Editors Forum and World Association of Newspapers; citations are here and here).

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