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    Volume 9 Issue 18| April 30, 2010|

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Agents of change

In China, the Internet is equivalent to streets in democratic countries
where people gather to create a voice and spill frustration

Several weeks ago, a homeless man, who was living an anonymous life on the streets of China was suddenly catapulted to the limelight when an amateur photographer captured him on his lenses and posted his pictures on the Internet.

His good looks and somewhat cheeky dress sense were big draws, which immediately attracted many camera-toting people to the street where he lived.

As more of his pictures and day-to-day life stories started appearing online, even China's mainstream media could not stay away from the newfound celebrity, who had by then earned the nickname 'Brother Sharp'. Soon, his news and pictures started surfacing on almost every newspaper, television channel and online news portal.

Cheng Guosheng was one of the millions of people who came across the news on China's new sensation. But unlike others who took the report as another quirky piece, Guosheng pored over the information and the picture that accompanied the news.

After further investigation he was able to confirm that 'Brother Sharp' was in fact his own brother, Cheng Guorong, who had lost contact with the family three years after he moved to Ningbo city in Zhejiang province in 2000.

The Chinese media later quoted his relatives as saying that the 34-year-old native of Poyang county in Jiangxi province used to be a “proud man”. He also had two sons, aged 10 and 11, but had lost his wife and father in a car accident a year ago. They said his “mental illness” could be the result of “the pressures he faced in life”.

The tragic story of Brother Sharp is, in fact, not a unique one in a country where thousands of homeless people loiter on the streets surviving on food thrown by others. And if more investigations are conducted, possibilities of unearthing even more heartrending stories cannot be ruled out.

But the catch here is not the plight of Brother Sharp. The entire episode is about the power that China's netizens have started wielding in their society.

Certain actions of these Internet freaks like taking photographs of Brother Sharp without his permission may be considered invasion of his privacy, but these juvenile acts were also able to reunite him with his family.

It was also the information relayed by netizens that prompted local residents and authorities to come to his aid, with many sending food and other supplies to the erstwhile unnoticed vagabond and his family.

China Daily quoted the head of the local government as saying that he'd help Brother Sharp's family to “apply for subsistence allowances” and a local entrepreneur even offered him 2,000 yuan (US$293).

Later, the debate triggered by netizens also propelled China's vice minister for civil affairs to call on the government to “increase financial support to improve social security services to the vulnerable groups”, turning a non-issue into a national issue.

This is the Chinese version of people power. Here, the Internet is equivalent to the streets in democratic countries, where people gather to create a voice, express concerns, spill frustration and expose wrongdoings of the government.

Last year, netizens unrobed the fascist attitude of an army lieutenant colonel and his wife, also a high ranking government official, by posting a video of the wife slapping a tour guide. Three days later it was reported that the couple had been removed from their posts.

In the same year, China's discipline officials launched an investigation into Zhou Jiugeng, former director of the Jiangning district real estate management bureau in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, after netizens posted pictures of him driving a Cadillac, smoking expensive cigarettes and sporting a Vacheron Constantin watch worth about 100,000 yuan ($14,000). The discovery that he had accepted more than 1 million yuan ($146,000) and HK$110,000 ($14,000) in bribes from contractors sent him behind bars for 11 years.

Also last year, the video of Tang Fuzhen, 47, who set herself on fire in Sichuan province to protest the demolition of her ex-husband's house, triggered a nationwide online debate and prompted the government to consider revising the laws on forced demolition.

“Chinese netizens have matured over the past year,” Xie Xinzhou, director of the media and market research centre at Peking University, told people.com.cn, a popular Internet news portal. “They are not bystanders anymore; they are pushing social transformation. The response to netizens by officials is also getting much better.”

After 16 years of access to the Internet, China's online population at 384 million is the largest in the world. “And as the online community is growing bigger, their influence on social incidents, judicial rulings and government policies are also growing.”

According to Renmin University, almost 35 per cent of the most talked about topics in 2009 were pitched by netizens. They had also left 420,000 posts on online message boards for local leaders, triggering replies from 38 provincial party committee secretaries and governors, and more than 90 city-level officials, reported people.com.cn.

This, however, does not mean that the Chinese are enjoying the freedom found in democratic countries. Many information are still censored in China and people end up in jail for being too open. Last year alone, 3,470 people were arrested for posting information deemed as “threats” by the Chinese government and 1.25 million pieces of information were deleted from the Net.

Yet debates on everything from corruption, real estate bubble, to upcoming law that bans sales of dog meat and the model whose sex video was exposed are continuing in Internet like never before, helping people form their opinion on various subject matters. This is a huge cry from the China of one and half decades ago.

--Asia News Network
With reports from China Daily

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