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Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)
Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)

DOUG SAUNDERS

In China, social media bypasses the party line Add to ...

On Thursday morning, a man came to my Shanghai hotel to inform me that I had become the latest victim of Bo Xilai. The Communist Party leader of the southwestern city of Chongqing had been deposed weeks earlier in what was a corruption crackdown, a power struggle with Premier Wen Jiabao or an ideological banishment of Mr. Bo’s neo-Maoist policies. On Wednesday night, news had broke that Mr. Bo faced corruption charges and his wife had been accused of murder. A flurry of public discussion followed, then a crackdown. It apparently included me.

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My lecture that night had been cancelled, the university official said. “It’s political. They’re worried that you’ll discuss Bo Xilai.” I’ve have been touring China this week to talk about my book on urbanization, drawn on my research in Chongqing. Audience members have asked me scores of questions about taboo topics, including local democracy, property rights, the Arab revolutions and, yes, Bo Xilai.

I’d been amazed that my book, which criticizes Chinese policies, had received a government licence to be published in China; it wasn’t surprising that a lecture would be cancelled. But then the new China showed its face. By the end of the day, hundreds of people had learned of the lecture’s cancellation. That’s because it had become a topic on Weibo, the Chinese social media service that combines Twitter’s immediacy with Facebook’s mass audience. More than 300 million Chinese regularly use the most popular Weibo brand, and another 200 million have access.

By evening, thanks in part to Weibo, a large private bookshop had agreed to be my host. About 400 students came, surrounded me in a big circle, and took part in a late-night talk that was far more political than the original lecture would have been.

Even two years ago, China’s lines of communication were relatively simple to understand: With a few elite exceptions, they flowed straight from Beijing to the nebulous entity known as “the Chinese people.” Widespread cellphone use had created clusters of local dialogue, but Beijing’s rigid censoring of the Internet had kept things very top-heavy. By cutting off arguments before they occurred, the Communist Party maintained the illusion that the people were unified behind the party’s voice.

But new lines of communication are now running across China, and they’re not entirely within Beijing’s control. That was evident Wednesday morning when I took the high-speed train from Beijing to Shanghai.

As we raced along the elevated cement platform at more than 300 kilometres an hour, the country’s deep divisions were laid out before me on a scale and detail previously unavailable. Here were the great markers of the two Chinas: the staggering number of luxury apartments, Detroit cars, high-end shopping malls and grassy suburban developments of the great cities; the workers’ dormitories and shantytowns of the 200 million migrant poor; the horizon-filling rice paddies, mud-floor villages and desperate poverty of the half a billion people who remain peasant farmers.

But moments after the train left Beijing, the new lines of communication were evident: Most passengers pulled out smartphones and connected to their friends, family, former village neighbours and complete strangers. Social media have become a reflex: Nowadays, Chinese people end restaurant meals by pulling out phones and posting to Weibo before they light cigarettes. A large group of Weibo users proudly call themselves diaosi, or social and economic losers. Far more than in the West, social media cross class and geographic lines.

The Chinese government permitted Weibo, and banned Twitter and Facebook, in an effort to control what people were saying. This backfired; half the adult population is now connected to one another in an intimate and immediate way. The failure of control was evident last month, when false rumours of a military coup in Beijing managed to reach almost every citizen in China before being quashed. Or last year, when that same high-speed train’s deadly inaugural crash was revealed by Weibo users to be a result of political haste and corruption.

Wednesday night’s news of the Bo arrests, broken on Weibo hours before the state news agencies knew anything, attracted 180,000 comments within hours. By midnight, the comments were purged and some words forbidden. But the political debate, carried on in more euphemistic language, has continued to dominate Weibo. Never have the Chinese people been so united – but never have they had such power to bypass and ignore the People’s Republic.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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