FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, November 15, 2004

"New Media" Contributing to Unrest in China

As China emerges from its Maoist past to become a postindustrial power, growing pains are starting to show. An Asia Times article notes numerous incidents of protests and rioting across the country in recent months, and states that major incidents of social unrest have increased by 15% since 2003.

The sources of this unrest are many, but one factor may be that by providing citizens with information they never had before, "new media" outlets are creating a level of frustration with the government and society in general:

Making matters worse for the government, China's "new media" appear to be reaching a critical mass. While news of unrest is usually blacked out of the Chinese media, word is now spreading quickly via the widespread use of modern communications, including mobile phones, faxes, instant messages and the Internet, reaching Chinese nationwide. Activists in China have also become more adept at communicating with the foreign media. Within the past year, for example, dissatisfied Chinese citizens have begun to contact foreign journalists directly using mobile phones, short messages, faxes and e-mail...

"I think the real new dimension is that activists on the streets and across the country are communicating with each other, and this didn't happen before," said [Asian Studies Professor Dru] Gladney. "Really, what's different now is the transregional coordination and awareness, rather than an increase" in unrest.

And, Gladney told Asia Times Online, bottling up these channels of communication won't be as easy. "This is clearly of concern to the leadership, but I'm not sure the government can prevent it," he said. "We're dealing with the cell-phone generation where people are in communication more than before. You can't turn back the clock on that."
In other words, parts of China are succumbing to smart mobs. And one way or another, the Chinese authorities are going to have to come to terms with them, either through suppression or acceptance.

Opinions vary on how the Chinese government will ultimately be affected by this social stress. Some believe that the government can stamp out the unrest at a time of its choosing, and that localized, uncoordinated unrest poses no threat to the Communist Party. Others, though, warn that technology-driven protest doesn't need centralized leadership to challenge established authority. They point to the fall of the Soviet Union -- an event that took much othe world by surprise, and that was driven in part by common people's access to information sources that couldn't be censored.

China could be reaching a tipping point at the very moment when it is emerging as a global technology power. Regardless of how China responds to its internal turmoil, the effects could have wide-ranging impacts throughout the world.

Source: unmediated