Yesterday was a bit slow at the office, so I had time to do some playing on the internet. The internet, of course, is never short on fun little distractions, but the real action yesterday was in what I call Twitter-Guo, aka the Chinese side of twitterland.
Twitter has of course been blocked in China for many months, but it’s not really that hard to get past the great firewall. Though twitter lost quite a few Chinese users after the block, there are still thousands of users in the mainland, and they’re a very lively bunch. Not surprisingly, these people are often quite politically aware, and there are many dissident types roaming about. They often use the service to spread the word about protests and human rights issues.
The events that took place in Twitter-Guo yesterday are a fine example of why the Chinese government is so scared of social media tools. Beifeng (north wind) is a very active blogger and commenter based in Guangzhou. He is also one of the original signatories of Charter 08 . He describes himself in his profile as an “Internet observer who is dedicated to breaking China’s stranglehold on information”. Oh, and he has nearly 12,000 people following his tweets. Since he only tweets in Chinese, it is a fair assumption that the majority of these followers are Chinese.
Yesterday, at roughly ten o’clock, he posted the following tweet: “The police are at the door, wait for further info”. He then promptly went silent. Then Chinese tweeters went nuts. Thousands of tweets went out, spreading the word of Beifeng’s predicament. Within the hour, he had a dedicated hashtag (#wych for his handle @wenyunchao). People were spreading word that his computer was confiscated, his phone was out of service, and that he may be facing arrest. His home address was posted, and people were being asked to show up there and start asking questions. This was apparently aimed at letting the police know that the community was watching. People also began downloading Beifeng’s profile picture and using it as their own. I’m not sure if that was intended as a show of solidarity, or a move to confuse the police. At one point, I was getting over 100 tweets a minute about the unfolding situation
Roughly two hours after the police arrived, Beifeng began posting again from an internet café. He was okay. The police, who had identified themselves as “internet supervision police”, came under the pretense of checking for explosives as a security measure for the upcoming Asian Games, hosted by Guangzhou. They had seized his computer and phone, and he was now scrambling to change all of his passwords. The fact that politically-aware people scattered across the country can hear about such incidents in a matter of minutes is something that the Chinese government didn’t have to contend with even just a few years ago. The Guangzhou police were quite lucky that Beifeng was able to send out the all-clear before the Iranian Cyber Army’s hack attack shut down Twitter yesterday.
Much ink and blogspace has been dedicated to the power of social media services such as Twitter, and their role in political events such as the Iranian protest movement. There is no revolution going on in China, but Twitter-Guo is definitely changing the game. It is becoming part of exactly the kind of diverse and assertive civil society that keeps China’s leaders up at night. Frankly, if I was one of them, I’d probably block it too.