Digital media provides news as well as a voice

Media expert Peter Herford

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SHANTOU--If I ever meet Chinese President and Party Chairman Hu Jintao I have only one question to ask him: “Do you ever get up in the morning, and after your feet hit the floor, do you ask yourself, “I am the leader of a nation of 1.4 billion people. What do I do today? ”

I expect President Hu does not ask himself apocalyptic questions, but I remain curious. How do you run a country with 1.4 billion people? No emperor, no king in China’s 5,000 years of history has had either the opportunity or succeeded in this daunting task.

One thing is evident, when it comes to media the Chinese government suffers from schizophrenia. On the one hand the government has accepted and recognized the internet and mobile telephony as fundamental tools in a modern society. The internet is accepted and promoted for its value as an educational tool and for the information it can provide the citizenry.

The mobile phone is accepted and promoted for the connectivity it provides among the vast population. The hundreds of millions of migrant workers in China stay connected to their families back home on their mobiles.

It may be a thin reed connection compared to keeping the family together, but like a thousand other pragmatic decisions made to accommodate the challenge of problems dealing with gigantic numbers in China, mobile telephony beat every other option. China has created a telecommunications infrastructure that outdoes most developed countries of the world with the possible exception of Finland. Of course, Finland’s 5.2 million people could all fit into the city of Chongqing seven times over. The Finns have it easy.

There are 470 million mobile phone users in China, increasing by millions every month. It won’t be long before half the population is equipped with mobiles. There are more than 140 million internet users, increasing daily. All told a society moving toward a level of connectivity the world has never seen.

At the same time, the government that delivered the means of communication is determined to exert control over what gets communicated. The government and China’s Communist party own the nation’s newspapers, radio and TV stations, and they license every book that is legitimately published.

The control the government has become accustomed to exert over traditional media is what it is trying to exert on all media. The situation is ying and yang at its essence.

At about 50 RMB ($6.55) per month, broadband is ubiquitous. On the other hand the broadband connections pass through four necks coming into and out of China where electronic monitoring sniffs for undesirable communicators and communications.

The end result is those 100 mbps connections can sometimes slow to a dial-up crawl. Add to that estimates that put the number of human monitors of the internet at up to 40,000 and who is winning? First of all, 40,000 monitors for a verbose population of at least 140 million netizens leaves one monitor for every 3,500 internet users. The odds are with the users.

The answer to who is winning and who is losing varies day by day. There are times when a miscreant--by government standards--is apprehended and perhaps even jailed. We read about them and worry. But that is what the Chinese who read about such arrests are meant to do. There are days when web sites or blogs are blocked. They lose. Wikipedia has been on again and off again. But the big picture after four years in China is encouraging. Chinese people increasingly are winning.

Take the recent example of Xiamen where a decision to build a chemical plant to produce a highly toxic substance in a community of 100,000 people was reversed. How? By the mighty weapon of SMS messages. Citizens, who in other societies might have used private media to air their objections and complaints picked up their mobile phones and used the government infrastructure to send millions of messages ricocheting through the communities that all said one thing: “Oh no you don’t.” And the government didn’t. Construction plans were aborted. Citizen journalism? Was this an electronic editorial page? That can be debated. What cannot be debated is the change in Chinese society.

The same system that was installed to offer citizens state of the art communications was the system citizens used to practice democracy, to make their voices heard and to make a decision that they determined was best for their community prevail over central authority.

Give the government in Xiamen credit. They listened. And perhaps when government officials in China claim that their system of government is “democratic” it is too easy to laugh and say nay. A voting booth is not a prerequisite to vote. China “voted” for its favorite Supergirl two years ago when 400 million Chinese watched the final episode of their Chinese “idol” reality show.

There was much discussion then about the impact and the implications when millions of electronic votes were cast for the winner of a television show.

Xiamen is a good example of the fallout. The fact that the city’s citizens did not create a public disturbance is also instructive. Xiamen did not become a statistic among the government-reported 87,000 public disturbances in 2006.

The fact that the government itself reports public disturbances is a sign of hope. Vox pop comes in many forms. In China, it sometimes takes a crowd or a mob to cut through the levels of corruption that corrode so much of society. True, demonstrations are suppressed, but there is also remedial action in some cases. Media comes in so many forms these days we need to expand our understanding and flex our definitions.

In China today, there are weekly, if not daily examples of the pull and tug between the inevitable spread of citizen media and the inventive ability of people to air their hopes and grievances through the new tools of communication, while the government control of traditional media is increasingly bypassed and left further and further behind.

Peter Herford, now a journalism professor of Shantou University in Guangdong, was a longtime reporter and producer at CBS News in the U.S.
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