The tragedy of Beijing airport’s wheelchair-bound bomber, who hurt no one but himself when he exploded a bomb in July to draw attention to his story of brutalization and official apathy, was compounded by the six-year sentence he received. The court described it as “light’’, but given that the man had been left paralysed waist downwards by urban security men simply for plying an illegal auto eight years ago, he should have been let off, and his act seen for what it was. In his last blog post, he had written: “I call upon heaven, heaven does not respond; I call upon the earth, the earth does not respond.”
Will the thousands like him be able to even write this any more, given the new internet laws, under which two influential bloggers and a cartoonist have been arrested recently? Even official commentators have written about the dangers of applying these laws — aimed at “online rumours read 5000 times or shared more than 500 times” — to grass-root voices of discontent. “In a wasteland without vegetation, people’s hearts desertify easily, and the smell of gunpowder can be smelled in the air,’’ wrote the official who runs the People’s Daily’s ‘Public Opinion Monitoring Unit’. Citing the examples of three random acts of violence by victims of official injustice (including the Beijing bomber) over the last two years which left innocent passers-by dead, the long article warns that the internet is the “safety-valve for China’s society... If governments would be a bit more sincere and humble with regards to public opinion, our system would be a lot more flexible and strong... More crucial than ‘cleaning up the Net’ is that traditional media must be good gatekeepers of online information and emotions.’’
Will the authorities listen? The first arrest under the new law was of a 16 year old who blogged about the mysterious death of a karaoke club manager, casting doubts on the official version, and posting pictures of armed police stationed outside the club after the incident. His posts were re-posted 500 times, qualifying him for the ‘crime’ of ‘provocation’. Under public pressure, not only was the case against him withdrawn — he was released after a week — but the local police chief, who ordered his arrest, was also dismissed. The arrest provoked criticism even from top security officials. Interestingly, objecting to the blurring of his face (since he was a juvenile), the boy’s father told the media that his son had done no wrong, so his face need not be blurred.
Will online expression of discontent die out because of the new law? The reasons for discontent remain; whether it’s expressed online or not, it’s out on the street. Angered by the way official media praised the government for handling floods caused by a typhoon, the residents of Yuyao, a city on the east coast, gheraoed a news van, clashed with police, and even removed the metal sign engraved onto a government office which quoted Mao’s famous edict: “Serve the People’’. Little of this was reported in the official media. What was reported, however, was the arrest of a Beijing cartoonist who forwarded a post about a mother holding her baby who had starved to death in the floods. The report, interestingly, quoted a Singaporean professor criticizing his arrest.
Then there was the shocking incident in which the chengguan, the urban security men who are a law unto themselves, had sulphuric acid thrown on them after they assisted the authorities in demolishing a home. The video went viral and the incident had to be reported in China Daily. This attack on chengguan took place despite the execution of a street hawker who became a national hero after he stabbed two chengguan to death and injured a third in 2009.