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Chinese protest with a click of the mouse

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DQW Bureau
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In the past few weeks, the Chinese have been anything but silent, faced with

what they feel is an onslaught of unfair criticism from the West about their

country's policy toward Tibet and the Olympic Games.

Chinese people began by using blog posts and websites to condemn foreign

journalists for what they saw as biased coverage of China's crackdown on unrest

in Tibet, following riots in the region's capital Lhasa recently.

France then became a target for its attitude toward the remote Himalayan

region and the Olympic Games, culminating in the latest protests in China in

front of stores belonging to the French supermarket chain Carrefour.

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Throughout all of this, the Internet played a crucial role in mobilizing

people in a massive patriotic outburst. Calls to come and protest, with

locations and times, were posted on Web portals popular with young Chinese.

“Internet and cell phones are powerful ways to connect people, spread

information and mobilize political actions, especially among the urban, young

and more educated population,” said Xiao Qiang, Director, China Internet Project

at the University of California. The first sign of online anger came just three

days after the Lhasa riots, with calls for 'death to separatists' posted on

websites.

But it was the western media's coverage of China's crackdown on the riots

that set off a spate of online patriotic activities, fuelled by the state-run

media's mass condemnation of foreign reports. An anti-CNN website was set-up by

a Chinese entrepreneur, exposing errors in foreign reporting; pro-China videos

were posted on YouTube; mass e-mails were sent to western media outlets in

China; and millions of MSN messaging service users put a heart followed by

'China' before their names.

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It was extremely difficult

to control the 210 million Internet users in China

The overseas Chinese community was as active as mainland inhabitants in

whipping up conde­mnation.

“The Internet is a social networking tool, and it is an ideal communication

tool for the overseas Chinese community,” Xiao said.

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“Overseas Chinese go to familiar Web portals which are in Chinese, just as

foreigners around the world would look at familiar newspapers online,” Jonathan

Unger, Director-Contemporary China Center at the Australian National University

said.

For Chinese people living on the mainland, the Internet was even more sought

after due to its relative anonymity.

“In any media, when people feel safe that they don't have to disclose

themselves, it encourages a lot of different opinions, and this is very

important in the context of China,” said Wei Ran, Senior Fellow, Nanyang

Techno­logical University, Singapore.

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Recently, online protests turned into real ones with demonstrations in front

of Carrefour stores across the country. These would never have been on such a

large scale had it not been for the Internet, but the technology was not enough

to make things happen, Wei said.

“If people don't think strongly about something, then technology will not

make it happen. But for highly charged issue like Tibet issue, the Internet

provides the right medium and technology to make things happen.”

The anti-France protests, fuelled by the chaotic Paris leg of the Olympic

torch relay and allegations that Carrefour supports Tibet— a claim it denies-are

similar to the anti-Japan protests of 2005, according to Unger.

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“The Chinese used these (anti-Japan riots) as a way of being more patriotic

than their own government. The implication was that their government had failed

them in this respect, and by implication in other respects. And now with the

Internet you don't have to go out in the streets, you don't have to put yourself

in harm's way, and the movement can be much more massive,” Unger said.

Recently, China's state media tried to calm the mood, the government is wary

of the magnitude of the protests.

“In the current situation, Internet censors are purposefully and selec­tively

allowing the nationalist messages to be transmitted without much censorship.

This may change tomorrow but so far this is the case,” Xiao said.

Wei, however, said it was extremely difficult to control the 210 million

Internet users in China. “Most of these spend two to three hours a day on the

Internet. If you tie that all up, it's a horrible number to oversee.”

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