Chinese Internet mobs: Red Guard 2.0

In an interesting article on how Chinese Internet users band together into quixotic mobs to identify and punish people whose behavior has angered them, I found insightful the political analysis of fellow Harvard ‘91 graduate Rebecca MacKinnon:

Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, argues that China’s central government may actually be happy about searches that focus on localized corruption. “The idea that you manage the local bureaucracy by sicking the masses on them is actually not a democratic tradition but a Maoist tradition,” she told me. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao encouraged citizens to rise up against local officials who were bourgeois or corrupt, and human-flesh searches have been tagged by some as Red Guard 2.0. It’s easy to denounce the tyranny of the online masses when you live in a country that has strong rule of law and institutions that address public corruption, but in China the human-flesh search engine is one of the only ways that ordinary citizens can try to go after corrupt local officials. Cases like the Lin Jiaxiang search, as imperfect as their outcomes may be, are examples of the human-flesh search as a potential mechanism for checking government excess.

The human-flesh search engine can also serve as a safety valve in a society with ever mounting pressures on the government. “You can’t stop the anger, can’t make everyone shut up, can’t stop the Internet, so you try and channel it as best you can. You try and manage it, kind of like a waterworks hydroelectric project,” MacKinnon explained. “It’s a great way to divert the qi, the anger, to places where it’s the least damaging to the central government’s legitimacy.”

Posted by James on Thursday, March 04, 2010