Two disparate events in recent weeks in China point to an interesting development. China's Internet users are challenging the government and forcing it to respond. First China's plan to force computer manufacturers to install censoring software and then the furor over a pedicurist who killed a government official after he beat her when she rejected his demand to have sex.
The Chinese government has announced a plan to block pornography and sensitive political content from computers sold in China by requiring computer manufacturers to include a blocking software called "Green Dam." The program was revealed last week, first by the Wall Street Journal. It's resulted in an explosion of protest on Chinese websites. The People's Daily website -- run by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, held an online forum where the decision was criticized. Other mainstream academics have blasted the move; some have even suggested that the whole deal was basically a scam whereby a software company affiliated with the army and the police finagled a big government contract disguised as a security measure. Activists, such as gay rights lawyer Zhou Dan, have taken aim at the specific words or search terms that the program blocks. In Zhou's case, he pointed out that the program blocks tongxinglian, homosexual in Chinese. That, he said, could set back China's fight against HIV/AIDS.
The government has been forced to respond. It's now saying that installing the software would be left up to consumers -- although the website of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology had said it was mandatory. And the China Daily quoted Liu Zhengrong, deputy chief of the Internet Affairs Bureau of China's State Council Information Office, as saying the software is designed just to filter Internet pornography -- implying that it wasn't also to censor sensitive political topics. Here's one story in the Chinese English-language press about the pushback.
The next case is that of Deng Yujiao -- the pedicurist from Hubei province who was attacked by a government official after she refused to have sex with him and then promptly stabbed him to death with a knife.
Deng became famous after a series of Chinese newspapers ran blow-by-blow stories about the affair. The Southern Metropolitan News, China's scrappiest paper these days, quoted her as telling her lawyers that one of the officials shouted at her: "You are a prostitute, but you still want to have a good reputation." Then he started beating Deng on the face and shoulders with cash. "Don't you want money?" he asked her. "You have never seen money! How much money do you want? Just say so. Would you believe that I am going to beat you to death with money today?"
The furor was so intense from the Internet that authorities released Deng from the mental hospital where they'd incarcerated her and placed her under house arrest. The official New China News Agency also quoted the police as saying Deng was defending herself, although "excessively," again in apparent reaction to the waves of sympathy for her.
While the Internet has actually strengthened considerably China's regime over the past decade -- helping it to both control the news in ways it couldn't before, and providing China's security services with valuable window into the thoughts of the country's malcontents (they can read all their email) -- it does indeed cut both ways. How these two controversies play out could tell us a lot about where China is these days. My guess? Deng gets a short sentence. And the floodwaters of the Internet will swamp the "Green Dam."