Social media changing the protest landscape in China
15 Jan 2014


Despite state censorship and political repression, social media is changing the protest landscape in China.

With the exception of economic reform that started in the late 1970’s, the country has remained restricted by government policy and ideology. A one party state has led to a national media that lacks plurality and regularly fails to report on incidents that they fear may damage the government’s image. Combined with internet censoring and heavy-handed tactics being employed against state opposition, freedom of expression has always been limited, but there is hope for change.

Social media within China has expanded rapidly, Sina Weibo — 60 million active daily users, 600 million registered users (Sep 2013) — and WeChat — 300 million registered users, of which 100 million are international (Aug 2013) — are two of the most popular. This allows a democratic spread of information that has never previously been available to citizen journalists or local people.

A media project by the University of Hong Kong showed the importance of Weibo in relation to the 2012 protest in Shifang against potential environmental damage by a proposed copper plant. Traditional media largely declined to report on the protests themselves, but made reference to ‘an incident’ and the rising stock price of a tear gas company, whose product was used on protestors. In contrast, there were around 5.25 million posts on Weibo containing the term ‘Shifang’ between 1-4 July with 400,000 containing images and 10,000 containing video. A similar incident occurred in Chengdu, Sichuan province, when factory workers went on strike to demand higher wages. State media ignored the protests while social media spread the news that tear gas was being used, along with images of the protest. Eventually officials stepped down and workers received a raise. Physical protests can be complemented by online activity, but it is not without difficulties.

In addition to the notorious firewall, the government can censor specific words to try and control the narrative of any given incident, by pushing their own agenda and restricting citizens’ freedom of expression. However, many online users use images, and memes in particular can portray a serious topic in a light-hearted manner, further increasing the spread of information.

An OECD report in 2013 evaluated government trust in various countries, China ranked very well with 66% compared to an OECD country average of 40%. However, this disguises some of the ill-feeling towards local government officials, who are usually held accountable by the people. This could change though, as economic policy, typically the role of central government, leads to growing inequality. New leadership within the government is attempting to maintain and improve government trust, by introducing ‘Mao-esque’ techniques in an attempt to bring everyone together under one nation.

It is clear that censorship is one way of trying to achieve this, as those who openly promote citizens’ rights, inclusive democracy and transparency are regularly arrested, including Xu Zhiyong. Additionally, new training materials for journalists and editors suggest a government eager to maintain control, as they expect that the media “must be loyal to the party, adhere to the party’s leadership and make the principle of loyalty to the party the principle of journalistic profession.”

Recently, a planned protest to honour a strike over censorship last year was pre-emptively halted, when police warned or detained several people thought to be involved. A well-known campaigner for freedom of expression, Wu Wei, said that protests such as this were not accepted by the government, as they did not fit “within their social stability framework.”

The government is so concerned over social instability that Tiananmen Square is heavily monitored by uniformed and plain-clothed police. The ability to suppress dissent as quickly as possible is necessary in a popular tourist destination, to portray the image of a peaceful China to both international and domestic visitors. The digital censorship employed the government is reflected in physical terms by the large security presence in one of China’s most well-known but contentious landmarks.

The Chinese government is keen to have control over the nation’s information, and fear that freedom of expression and information could pose a threat to their power. Social media offers a critical viewpoint that is lacking from state-controlled media. However, even social media has not been able to completely detach itself from the Chinese government’s censorship.

Nonetheless, the increasing use of social media and rapid spread of information is putting pressure on the government that it has never felt before while the digital revolution is gaining more and more momentum. Democratic consciousness is rising in China and with the state pursuing an oppressive agenda, cultural change from the bottom-up, rather than institutionalised change from the top-down, is necessary to pursue these principles.

This article was posted on 15 Jan 2014 at

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One response to “Social media changing the protest landscape in China”

  1. Basil Venitis says:


    China’s economy is riddled with vested interests, while free speech is suppressed. No wonder the regime is cracking down on. But it won’t be easy to maintain the current political model or to reform it. And failure to do either could knock the economy off its extraordinary trajectory. Xi Jinping declares anticorruption efforts should target low-ranking flies as well as powerful tigers.

    Inequality is high and rising. If this inequality were merely a reflection of the market, the fact that some Chinese are more talented and hard-working than others, it could be motivational. But a lot is also a result of economic goodie being grabbed by insiders, sometimes via corruption and in other cases by excluding outsiders from opportunities. Populations can grow restless when they think rulers and their cronies are enriching themselves unfairly.

    In China, the class system operates on several levels. At the top of the socio-economic scale are the princelings, children of important party officials, who have become multimillionaires by trading on their contacts. Then there are bureaucrats, who enjoy attractive lifestyles funded by the people’s taxes and bribes. State-owned enterprises, meanwhile, benefit from monopolies or oligopolies and pay minimal dividends. The fruits of their economic activity are therefore largely enjoyed by those who run them.
    Xi Jinping is himself a princeling, as a descendant of a revolutionary fighter and vice premier, and so are most members of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee. Xi’s extended family has amassed total assets of two billion euros.
    Most Chinese think political corruption is the biggest problem of China. Sinokleptocrat Wen Jiabao’s relatives have accumulated three billion euros. Most of this wealth has been accumulated in areas of the economy over which Wen had direct authority. Wen family’s investments span several sectors. Ping An, an insurance company, had benefited from reforms enacted in 2004 by a state body over which Wen had oversight. A growing wealth gap is causing public discontent, as are the frequent corruption scandals involving government officials.

    There is also the hukou system which prevents rural migrants from participating fully in China’s economic miracle. The country has at least 150 million people who come from the villages but work in the cities. The snag is that they don’t have the right to be resident, so often live in dormitories, and their children don’t get the same access to schooling as local residents, so usually stay in the villages with their grandparents. The cities want these workers but don’t want to be swamped by the need to house them and pay for the education and health care of their families. The result is a potentially unstable two-class society.

    China uses a classic mixture of carrot and stick. The carrot has been growth. Even if the benefits of growth haven’t been equally distributed, hundreds of millions of people have still been taken out of poverty. Meanwhile, the stick has been to crack down on anybody who is perceived to be stepping out of line.

    The problem is that both the carrot and the stick are becoming harder to wield. Economic growth is going to slow down in the coming decade. It then won’t be as easy to buy off potential dissent. Meanwhile, mobile communications and the Internet are mutating in ways that Beijing will find increasingly difficult to control.

    What’s more, there’s a connection between political rights and economic advancement. This was not apparent in the past three decades, when the Chinese model was based on low-value manufacturing. Millions of people could be stuck in factories and told to get on with the job. But it will become apparent as Beijing tries to switch to a new model based on services and high-value manufacturing. If this transition is to be successful, people will have to think for themselves more. They will also have to harness the full power of modern communications. It will then be virtually impossible to keep a lid on free speech.
    To promote its standing in China, JPMorgan Chase turned to a seemingly obscure consulting firm run by a 32-year-old executive named Lily Chang. Ms. Chang’s firm, which received a $75,000-a-month contract from JPMorgan, appeared to have only two employees. And on the surface, Ms. Chang lacked the influence and public name recognition needed to unlock business for the bank.
    What was known to JPMorgan executives, and some executives at other major companies, was that Lily Chang was not her real name. It was an alias for Wen Ruchun, the only daughter of Wen Jiabao, who at the time was China’s prime minister, with oversight of the economy and its financial institutions. There is a broader strategy for accumulating influence in China: Put the relatives of the nation’s ruling elite on the payroll.
    After Ms. Wen’s father joined the inner circle of China’s rulers as vice prime minister in 1998, the family amassed a secret fortune through a series of partnerships and investment vehicles. JPMorgan swapped contracts and jobs for business deals with state-owned Chinese companies.
    The investigation began with an examination of the bank’s decision to hire the daughter of a Chinese railway official and the son of a former banking regulator who is now the chairman of a state-controlled financial conglomerate. The contract with the consulting firm of Ms. Wen, 40, indicates that the bank’s hiring practices also touched the highest rungs of political power in China. Her father was prime minister from 2003 until earlier this year. Her mother has served as a government official with oversight of the nation’s gem and diamond industry. And since 2006, Ms. Wen’s husband has been an official at the China Banking Regulatory Commission.
    For Ms. Wen’s consulting firm, Fullmark Consultants, the JPMorgan deal was lucrative. While many Hong Kong investment bankers were earning as much as $250,000 a year, JPMorgan paid Ms. Wen’s firm $900,000 annually from 2006 to 2008 for a total of $1.8 million.
    Fullmark claimed in a confidential letter to the bank that it introduced and secured business for JPMorgan from the state-run China Railway Group, a construction company that builds railways for the Chinese government. The bank was an underwriter in the company’s 2007 initial public offering, which raised about $5 billion. Ms. Wen’s father, Wen Jiabao, played a key role in that deal. As prime minister, he had ultimate responsibility for state-owned companies and their regulators.
    JPMorgan disclosed that authorities are examining its business relationships with certain related clients in the Asia Pacific region and its engagement of consultants. There is a concrete link between the bank’s decision to hire children of Chinese officials and its ability to secure coveted business deals, a connection that violated anti-bribery laws.
    Underpinning their investigation is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which effectively bars United States companies from giving anything of value to foreign officials to obtain an improper advantage in retaining business. In recent years, the S.E.C. and the Justice Department have stepped up their enforcement of the 1977 law, which is violated if a company acts with corrupt intent, or with an expectation of offering a job in exchange for government business.
    JPMorgan had many such upfront agreements. The bank did keep documents that tied some of its well-connected hires in China to revenue it earned from deals with Chinese state-owned companies.
    The investigation comes at a difficult time for the bank, which is already under scrutiny from a number of agencies in Washington and abroad. JPMorgan recently reached a tentative deal with the Justice Department to pay a record $13 billion over its sale of troubled mortgage securities. It is also facing an investigation into its role as Bernard L. Madoff’s primary bank. The bribery investigation could take years. The S.E.C. and prosecutors have expanded their focus to other Asian countries, including Singapore and South Korea, looking at whether hiring practices that have become commonplace on Wall Street crossed a line at JPMorgan.
    For the last two decades, Wall Street banks and multinational corporations operating in China have sought out princelings as employees, consultants or partners in major Chinese business deals. Many banks talk freely about the ability of princelings to open doors and offer insights into government policies and regulations.
    In 2006, JPMorgan established a program, called Sons and Daughters, in order to hire princelings. The children of China’s ruling elite have occasionally used government-approved aliases to protect their privacy while studying or traveling abroad. Ms. Wen used her alias for both schooling and business. Ms. Wen holds two national identity cards with matching birth dates, one issued in Beijing under the name Wen Ruchun and a second issued in the northeastern city of Dalian, as Chang Lily.
    Lily Chang was the name she used while studying for an M.B.A. at the University of Delaware, where she graduated in 1998, and also when she lived in Trump Place, the luxury apartment complex overlooking the Hudson River in Manhattan.
    Like the children of other senior Chinese leaders, she was courted by Wall Street. After securing her M.B.A., regulatory records show, she worked at Lehman Brothers and later Credit Suisse First Boston as Lily Chang. Separately, she held a stake in several private companies.
    Ms. Wen’s work for JPMorgan was tied to her company, Fullmark Consulting. Fullmark is located on the ninth floor of Tower C2 at Oriental Plaza, a high-end retail and office complex in central Beijing.
    Over the last decade, the location also housed private companies that were either controlled by or affiliated with the Wen family. Some of those companies have held indirect stakes in Baidu, China’s biggest Internet search engine, and Ping An Insurance, the financial services giant.
    Ms. Wen’s apparent partner at Fullmark, and a signatory to the JPMorgan consulting agreements, was a woman named Zhang Yuhong, a longtime Wen family friend and business partner who at one time held a large personal stake in Ping An. She also helped control Wen family assets in other industries, including diamond and jewelry ventures.
    During her two-year consulting stint, JPMorgan executives struck a series of deals with Chinese companies closely affiliated with Ms. Wen and her family. Like other big banks, JPMorgan held a stake in New Horizon Capital, a private equity firm co-founded by her brother, Wen Yunsong.
    JPMorgan also invested its clients’ money in Ping An and served as an adviser to the giant company. Today, on behalf of clients, JPMorgan owns nearly $1 billion worth of the company’s shares. At the time of JPMorgan’s initial investment for clients, members of the Wen family held a large, hidden stake in Ping An through a complex network of Chinese investment vehicles, a stake that in 2007 was worth more than $2 billion.

    JPMorgan also won an assignment in 2009 to help underwrite an initial public offering of BBMG, a large Chinese building materials company. BBMG’s largest shareholders included New Horizon Capital, the private equity firm of Ms. Wen’s brother, and Beijing Taihong, an investment vehicle controlled by a longtime business associate of the Wen family. After the shares rose after the company’s I.P.O., Ms. Wen became the largest shareholder in Beijing Taihong.