How the Obama Administration’s Narrative About Chen Guangcheng Unraveled, One Tweet at a Time
The following excerpt was taken from The New Republic. For the full article, click here.
When Chen Guangcheng departed the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Wednesday with apparent guarantees that he would lead a safe and productive life in his native land, it seemed that a major international crisis had been averted. In a startlingly short period of time, American and Chinese officials had hammered out an agreement that seemed to protect Chen, while preserving the bilateral relationship. Chinese state media reported that Chen left on his own “volition,” while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Chen’s departure from the Embassy was in keeping with American “values.” Not long after, the U.S. Embassy released happy photos of a proud-looking Chen grasping the hand of a U.S. official. It was even reported that Chen, apparently overwhelmed with gratitude, declared that he wanted to “kiss” Secretary Clinton.
Once upon a time, that would have sufficed to shape the public narrative of the crisis negotiations between China and the United States, at least for a while. Clearly, those days are over. On Wednesday, the governments’ preferred story quickly unraveled in the face of statements by Chen's friends via Twitter. Beijing and Washington may have become accustomed to an air of privileged secrecy around their dealings, but Twitter’s expanding role in China is making that harder than ever to maintain.
I should clarify at the outset that I am referring specifically to Twitter, not Sina weibo, China’s well-known domestic microblogging site. When Westerners speak about social media in China, they tend to mean weibo. Indeed, at first glance, Twitter couldn’t possibly compete. Twitter is estimated to have tens of thousands of mainland Chinese users, while weibo has hundreds of millions. This is largely due to the fact that Twitter is completely blocked in China, while weibo is only heavily censored. Weibo’s impact on Chinese society shouldn’t be underestimated. But in the early stages of the Chen debacle, Twitter played a more instrumental role in mediating China's relationship with the world.
China's Twitter users are a relatively well-defined community: After all, they have made an active choice to be there. In order to tweet, they must first jump over what is unaffectionately known as the “great firewall of China,” or the GFW. The GFW, most simply put, prevents certain web content from entering China. Whole sites, like Twitter and Facebook, are blocked entirely. And yet, while an accurate number of users is difficult to pin down, Twitter is home to a lively and influential Chinese community. They get there via tools like proxy servers or virtual private networks, which let residents of China access the Internet as if they were abroad.
Twitter is beyond the wall and thus inaccessible to the majority of the population. But that also means that it is not subject to Chinese censorship. This is largely why it has become a magnet for activists. Chinese Twitter users are not immune to posting frivolous statements along the lines of “what I ate for breakfast,” but the social networking site is more widely viewed as a forum to communicate bold statements on sensitive subjects. Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei has called Twitter “a ray of light” in a dark room.
To view the full article, click here.