HowardHoward French by Fantake via Flickr

China has changed profoundly, since its first high-profile internet case, the police killing Sun Zhigang in 2003, till today’s opinion blogger Han Han, writes former New York Times correspondent Howard French in the Columbia Journalism Review. But not only its over 400 million online citizens have changed, also the government adapted.
Take the recent Japan-China spat, and Han Han’s take on it:

Given the size of China’s online audience, which is roughly 400 million and still rising fast, Han Han could also be the world’s most popular blogger—his 425 million cumulative hits place him at the top of’s rankings….

Beijing has played a complicated hand in the matter, ardently fanning the embers of nationalism in the state-controlled press, while carefully censoring Internet discussion of the issue with an eye toward preventing big demonstrations in the streets and other mass mobilization, which the state fears could get out of control.

With the crisis with Japan deepening, Han Han mercilessly probed the contradictions in the government’s position while warning his followers of the dangers of manipulation by the state. “In my opinion, if everyone and everything is doing well, life is as one wishes, the wife, kids, home, car, work, leisure, health, all are okay, one can, under the guise of national sentiment, go and make a fuss about protecting the Diaoyu Islands. But if you have something of your own that you haven’t protected, first protect that and then we can talk. Don’t worry about something so far off.”

To those who decide to protest anyway, he continued: “Don’t be surprised when after the battle, you, mortally injured, see the leaders and the invaders [the Japanese] cheerfully discussing a big business deal.”

Howard French quotes many other observers, whose opinions on the direction China is taking vary a lot. But he ends with a fairly positive note:

Democracy may be too big a short- or even medium-term expectation for China, even with its burgeoning Internet culture. But from my perspective as a longtime observer of this country, if China’s civil society is the key factor in the country’s evolution toward a future in which the Communist Party must accept greater limits to its power, the Internet is this evolution’s beating heart.

Much more in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Howard French is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. When you need him at your meeting or conference, do get in touch.

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