Been sitting on this issue for a couple weeks as it is not time sensitive.
Two things set me to cogitating on this recently. The first was all the ink spilled on the Green Dam web filter story, specifically how the government’s decision to pull back and not mandate that all PCs sold in China would have the web filter installed was a victory for those who spoke out against the policy. See in particular this Op/Ed in the Guardian.
Second was a thoughtful article by David Bandurski entitled “Are China’s Leaders Becoming More Responsive?”
Are China’s leaders becoming more responsive to the concerns and demands of the public? Is China, thanks to the Internet, moving toward a more “deliberative” and participatory political culture? (China Media Project)
This is of course bundled up with my regular scribblings on the Rule of Law. There are lots of examples of public pressure on government decisions of late, from criminal prosecutions to enterprise closings to environmental problems. These are all heavily publicized and often pit the public (usually backing the “little guy” in the case) against bad actors at the local government level or executives in large companies.
This is a black and white issue, yes? Perhaps in utopia, but not in the real world.
It’s very easy, in a romantic sort of way, to come out on the side of the poor criminal defendant who is being treated unfairly by a corrupt or overzealous prosecutor.
It makes sense to lend support to a group of villagers who have seen family members contract cancer and other diseases due to contaminated runoff from a local factory.
One almost cannot help oneself to speak out against something like the Green Dam web filter, which stands for everything beloved by the online cognoscenti.
No argument from me on those cases or on similar issues. But when we generalize about the awesome new power of public pressure, mostly originating from online fora, I think we open the door to some potentially dangerous consequences.
We have already seen the “human flesh search engine” phenomenon, whereby some targets are set upon by online mobs of folks who dig up dirt on individuals suspected of criminal activity or other offenses.
Sometimes these online mobs go after people who have committed no crimes but have simply acted in contravention of what some feel are acceptable acts in civil society.
But who are they to judge? Who sets the standards, and who gives the marching orders?
I don’t like mobs. I don’t like them when they are ugly and are motivated by hate and fear. I also don’t like them when they adopt the indicia of “citizen journalism” and act out of a preceived sense of the greater good.
I don’t like mobs because they are all kind of the same, it just depends on your point of view. That’s why they are dangerous.
I have a feeling that a lot of people would disagree with my use of the word “mob” in this sense. They would also say that these online commentators have done a lot of good over the past few years, often assisting the Central Government in going after corrupt local leaders.
That’s all true. But this public participation that it so seductive, particularly to Western political commentators hungry for any indication of political reform in China, is a poor conduit for the desires of the public to reach the ears of power.
Among other things, online activity encompasses a small slice of the public, dialogue often involves a great deal of misinformation, and the anonymous nature of the dialogue allows for a certain hyperbolic tone of discourse.
I worry that we (Westerners in particular, and I include myself) tend to romanticize online activity, emphasizing the “good stories” when the players are easy to identify and the issues are clear, but fail to point out when mob pressure has ended up in simple harassment of individuals and government officials.
If we continue encouraging this sort of thing, won’t we simply end up having more bad outcomes along with the good ones? Is that a reasonable price to pay for increased public/government dialogue or should we reserve our praise for “real” reform measures?