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Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Alarming emergence of 'online guillotine'

By Bai Ping (China Daily) Updated: 2013-01-26 07:36

Two months ago, I wrote a column on micro-blogging in China that now makes me blush. I'm embarrassed to realize how fast the situation has changed and how myopic some of my views were.

First, I lamented that the compulsory use of real names on Chinese micro blogs had spawned a proliferation of trivial and mundane content by prominent bloggers, and pointless babble sometimes dominated micro blogs and could drown out threads and messages on serious issues.

As evidence, I pointed out that one of the hottest topics among "tycoon bloggers" had swirled around how a wealthy real estate developer had dumped his first wife and married a much younger woman who acted in popular television dramas. There was also the example of how an actress known as the Chinese blogging queen, with a following of 34 million, shared daily updates on her stay in the United States and later her second marriage.

But an important political meeting and several snows later, Chinese micro blogs are boiling with calls for reform and expose of corruption. As one after another corrupt official falls after being uncovered by bloggers, some people have even begun to worry about the excesses of a rising "micro terror", in allusion to the French Reign of Terror, as officials suspected of wrongdoing are prone to be sentenced to the "online guillotine" after being ruthlessly judged and shamed to the cheers of netizens, sometimes regardless of evidence.

It is probably no coincidence that French historian Alexis de Tocqueville's Old Regime and the Revolution is now a popular read among the Chinese elite after being recently recommended by China's anti-corruption chief. The book analyzes French society before the French Revolution and investigates the causes and forces that caused the revolution.

Even the flamboyant tycoons and the blogging queen have become much more vocal on current affairs, like many other public figures who seem to have reinvigorated after an uncomfortable lull in the discourse on social media prior to China's leadership transition in November.

Second, I was only half right when I said the majority of Chinese visit micro-blogging websites for entertainment or rumor. While some lurid details of a corrupt official's life attract eyeballs, more spectators have flocked to the micro blogs not just for sensational thrills, but also because they want the country to change for the better. As the current online anti-corruption campaign unfolds, micro blogs have already become a cheap but formidable watchdog force in Chinese political and social life.

Third, it is true that some tweets exploded onto the national scene only after they prompted further investigation by traditional media, which in turn provided fodder for more discussions on micro blogs. But I had underestimated their value as an important source of information by describing them as "a sea of useless information", which made it difficult for journalists to pick up leads from.

What really has happened is that, thanks to their repost and private message functions, Chinese micro blogs have proved to be a powerful tool to break news and gather evidence. The tweets will find investigative journalists and prosecutors, unless they deliberately turn a deaf ear to the outcry on the social media.

The last thing I want to retract is my way of using micro blogs. I had said I browsed weibo only when major news broke out because of a tweet. And I'd been busy deleting people who "try to mesmerize fans with the one-liners that randomly pop into their heads".

Now, I'm riveted to micro blogs as long as I'm awake. And like millions of "lurkers" who watch the Web, I cheer when they nail "flies" as well as "tigers", terms Party chief Xi Jinping used to describe corrupt officials with minor or serious offenses, although I hope they'll do it within legal confines.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. E-mail: dr.baiping@gmail.com

(China Daily 01/26/2013 page5)

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