members); if they cut a post, the poster can appeal to a higher-tier editor in a complaint forum. A board master can be dismissed if enough people complain. This in some sense mirrors the way Chinese society works, and Donnie Dong, a Chinese lawyer and Internet scholar who is now a fellow at the Berkman Center, says it is readily accepted. “The reality is that the condition in China has changed the structure of the Internet into something distinct,” he says. He calls it the “Cinternet”; Xiaomi and some others call it the “Chinternet.” Either way, says Dong, “the law, including statutes and the ‘living law,’ is making and changing the code.”
Protests go viral
But this living law has neither checked the overall expansion of Web access nor stanched the online activism that tests the limits of censorship–especially on internal Chinese sites. The Chinese search engine Baidu offers discussion forums that–although cleansed of political topics–are extremely popular. One day last summer, an anonymous member posted something on a Baidu forum devoted to the online game World of Warcraft, and it became an Internet meme: Jia Junpeng, your mother wants you to go home to eat. The cheeky, mysterious sentence received seven million hits and 300,000 comments on the first day. People built humorous dialogues around it; graphics made it appear as if the command had been uttered by Barack Obama, Saddam Hussein, or Chinese military officials posing for a formal Communist Party portrait.
But citizens have built vibrant Web 2.0 networks and used them to root out corruption, win the release of imprisoned bloggers, and trigger investigations into the enslavement of boys in brick-making factories.
Then the goofy phenomenon took a sharp political turn. Around the time the post originally appeared, a famous blogger named Guo Baofeng was arrested for posting allegations of an official cover-up in the brutal rape of a 25-year-old woman named Yan Xiaoling in Mawei, a district in the city of Fuzhou. She later died of her injuries. Before his incarceration, Guo managed to squeeze off a couple of short blog posts. “I have been arrested by Mawei police SOS,” read one. Even in repressive China, there’s no law against exhorting people to go home to their mothers. Bloggers began calling on people to send postcards to the Mawei police: Guo Baofeng, your mother wants you to go home to eat. Similar messages sprouted on bulletin-board sites. A few days later, Guo was released; he later attributed his freedom to the Internet-generated “postcard movement.” The use of Web 2.0 in the Guo case “is fascinating, and it is also revealing about some of the general features of online social activism in China today,” says Guobin Yang, a sociologist and China Internet scholar at Columbia University. “Compared with the student movement in 1989, where people had large-scale gatherings, today’s activists work on special issues, like calling for the release of a particular person or dealing with corruption or environmental pollution through very creative means. Much of this is happening on the Internet, with a lot of impact.”
Sometimes the Chinese Web simply amplifies citizen outrage, forcing government action. In 2007 a local newspaper in Henan province reported a kidnapping scandal: boys were being snatched to work as slaves in brick kilns. The issue failed to excite the interest of national authorities until a woman posted a letter about it on a local online bulletin board. The letter was cross-posted to Tianya and went viral, garnering 580,000 hits there and many more on other forums, according to an analysis of the case by Yang. The attention prompted the central government to investigate and prosecute two people. And in Nanjing, amid anger over high housing prices, local bloggers broadcast the fact that Zhou Jiugeng, a former director of a government property-management bureau, was driving to work in a Cadillac and wearing an expensive watch. The revelation led to an investigation–and an 11-year prison sentence for Zhou, who was found to have been accepting bribes.
Even lawyers and judges are testing the limits. Anne Cheung, a law professor and Internet researcher at Hong Kong University, says she and her colleagues are finding previously unheard-of criticism of the regime. One lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, often blogs about the plight of citizens who try to lodge legal complaints in Beijing but end up in secret jails. Some government officials are