Holes in the Great Wall of China?

Posted on August 8, 2011

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China is this generation’s Russia. It’s hidden behind a literal and figurative wall, where you feel that only small snippets of information are let out to the general public. But truthfully, we’re getting closer and closer to a glasnost situation with the world’s largest economy.

We’ve seen in the past few months a series of events which have managed to break down, brick by brick, the wall of silence which often ringfences China when it comes to the world press. A lot of the new openness is coming from state-sponsored ripoffs of western social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

The collision of two bullet trains in the Zhejiang province a little over two weeks ago should ordinarily have been kept within the Chinese walls, but this was an anomaly. Because of the new open internet society, rumours of the accident spread through the social networks based in China and leaked out. The wall, it turns out, is more porous than would be expected. The pictures were terrifying, and took their places in the western news bulletins and newspapers.

Ordinarily these pictures and reports wouldn’t have escaped from the domestic media, but this time they did. Earlier in July, so did first reports of what has turned out to be an enormous oil slick at a Chinese offshore drilling platform. That event had been managed to kept under wraps slightly better than the bullet train crash – it was nearly a month before the first reports eked out – but nonetheless, once the information escaped, western media made sure to follow it up. China has been forced into a humiliating admission of the gravity of the situation which weakened the normally self-congratulating public face of the regime.

It is not the only event which the authorities failed to cover up. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, tainted milk scandals and the deaths and displacement of families came to light in a manner which shocked the Chinese, usually used to dealing – and suppressing – internally with things like this.

There have been further revelations about the train crash, too. A Chinese railway official was quoted in a domestic economic newspaper as “the same thing is always done [ie. there are always cover-ups], but this time there was just more media attention.”

That media attention, of course, came from the new media. It’s a situation that many old leaders are finding difficult to come to terms with – especially established vestiges of the past like China’s Communist Party (for a similar way in which new media has outpaced other previously-comfortable dictators, see The Revolution Will Be Tweeted?). The internet, for all intents and purposes, is still a new-fangled, dangerous thing to these leaders – and China is recognising that now.

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