His comment on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site, was reposted 20,000 times and drew 3,000 comments, including this riposte: "We wouldn't just know the night before, we would know five years ahead of time." Followed with equal avidity online were Hong Kong's recent, albeit restricted election for chief executive and the ouster of a powerful Communist Party official, Bo Xilai, the latter prompting tens of thousands of comments and reposts. That such high-level, behind-the-scenes political maneuvering made it into the media light of day, let alone be openly chewed over by the citizenry, would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
"The Internet has changed everything," said Hongkai Tan, chief commentator at the English-language China Daily, at a lunchtime gathering I attended at a Beijing restaurant 10 days ago. "There are attempts to control it" - like a government regulation imposed last month requiring microblog users to register with their real name - "but it can't be done," he said. Proximity to Hong Kong has been another factor. The government's initial news blackout of December's protests in the fishing village of Wukan against corrupt land deals was overcome in part by Hong Kong television broadcasts that could be picked up on the mainland.
"This exposure to a free press gave the (insurgent) village representatives an extra edge in media relations, allowing villagers to neatly guide any debate back to the corruption of village officials," noted NewsChina, the English-language edition of China Newsweek, published in Beijing. It also led to an unprecedented changing of the guard, with the officials being ousted by the insurgents in a subsequent secret-ballot election, as even state-controlled media noted. Hong Kong could have even more influence if the Chinese government follows through on an agreement that its next leadership election, in 2017, be of the one person-one vote variety, rather than by a committee of 1,100 members of Hong Kong's elite.
To speak of a "China spring" would be premature at best, however. Last month, a similar protest in another province was quickly squelched, as have numerous others in the recent past, many of which go unreported or are blacked out by government censors. Limits: "The government still puts an incredible amount of money and resources into stopping the flow," said Sophie Beach, editor of China Digital Times, a bilingual website in Berkeley that provides links to news and views from China often not found in the country's mainstream media. Censorship remains rife - Sina Weibo is regularly ordered to take posts down. And self-censorship still occurs at newspapers and Internet sites, aware that the government is looking over their shoulders. "The government is especially careful to prevent the Internet from being used as an organizing tool," said Beach.
Surveillance systems, ostensibly for crime prevention (though human rights activists suspect otherwise), are one of China's biggest businesses. Last year, San Jose's Cisco Systems was awarded the contract to provide networking equipment for 500,000 surveillance cameras being installed in Chongqing (population: 32 million), as part of the city's "Peaceful Chongqing" initiative. A Cisco spokesman said at the time the contract was part of broader deal "to provide a 'city cloud' infrastructure for a green and sustainable city platform."
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