As the Chinese government attempts to keep its grip on the web, China’s middle class is pushing back.
A recent train crash in China resulted in more than simply technical lessons for the government. When the bullet train on its way to Fujian province slowed due to bad weather, another, traveling the same direction, crashed into it. The collision left 40 dead, 191 injured — and several dozen micro-blogging from the scene, according to the New York Times.
China had 859 million cell phone subscribers (64 percent of the population) in 2010, while the U.S had 302.9 million subscribers (96 percent of the population), according to mobithinking.com. And the number of smartphone users is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. Smartphones are particularly popular, among China’s middle class. More importantly, they let people blog instantly from their phones — a tool that the newer Chinese generation does not hesitate to use.
This growing middle class, created by the rapid privatization of the 1990s, represents a formidable issue for government censorship. The options afforded to this newer class has resulted in a generation that is young, educated, and tech-savvy. Unlike their parents, the children of this generation are well aware of the restrictions on their freedom to roam the Web.
Even government blockades of social networks like Facebook and Twitter haven't dissuaded them. They've simply created Chinese versions of the famed social networking sites with sites like weibo.com, says the New York Times. These sites, in conjunction with smartphones, make China's middle class virtually unstoppable. For every incident or website that is blacklisted, ways around the government blockades and new websites emerge.
The train crash in Zhejiang province is a prime example of this. Immediately after the accident, passengers were pulling out their smartphones and micro-blogging from the scene. According to the Christian Science Monitor, many of their posts contradicted attempted cover-ups by the local government which blamed the accident entirely on weather conditions. Miraculously, though, China's government did not react by immediately shutting down blogging sites. In fact, local officials were forced to retract their statements, but declined to comment further on the situation. What actually transpired at the scene remains unknown, but it has provoked questions as to whether the Chinese railways are safe.
The crash, was discussed online for almost a month before the state blacked out all non-government information on the subject, according to the New York Times. This was not just a hallmark in China's censorship history. More importantly, it underlined the challenges China faces as its techie middle class continues to grow. As Chinese development, opportunity, and wealth increase, so does Internet usage. The continued growth of this group poses some intriguing challenges for Premier Hu Jintao’s successor in 2012. How will China reconcile its current censorship policies with this rapidly developing population?