An old Chinese saying goes, “To muzzle people’s mouths is more dangerous than to block the course of a river.” It is a piece of advice for the emperors of China — to suppress criticism from the masses is futile and will lead to disastrous consequences. If the ancient wisdom still holds true today, those in power in today’s China don’t seem to take it seriously, or perhaps too seriously.
The recent deadly flood in Beijing exposed the municipal government’s poor infrastructure and emergency response. The government didn’t have any effective warning system in place for the public. Taking advantage of the high cell phone use rate in China, some cities use text messaging to send out warnings to the public in case of emergencies. Of the 20 million permanent residents in Beijing, more than 95 percent own cell phones, but the city doesn’t have a text messaging warning system in place. The municipal government’s excuse is that it takes too long to send out text messages to such as big population, but a few days after the flood, telecommunication service providers such as Beijing Mobile and Beijing Telecomm issued statements that there is no such technical barrier as claimed by the Beijing city authority.
The authority is slow in response to the flood, but it has been quick to muzzle people’s mouths. Webmasters, under the pressure of the government, have been deleting the discussions about the flood, its casualty, and criticism of the government. The official death toll released on July 22, a day after a monstrous storm was 37. Days later, despite the increasing doubts raised in the public, the authority still stands by this number. In the cyber sphere, weibo users have been posting photos and witness accounts of the disaster, which have amounted to more suspicion in the public that the actual death toll is way larger than the officially released number.
“Liangxiang residents witnessed with their own eyes, that more than 20 bodies were recovered from the water this morning, and there are more under the water,” a netizen 鸥orianna posted. Liangxiang is a neighborhood in Beijing’s Fangshan District, where the food caused the most damage in the region.
Another post showed a still shot from a video in which a group of government officials waited for other people to pull out the bodies in the water and then took off their pants posing for publicity photos.
Both of these posts, however, were deleted by “little secretaries,” a name weibo netizens have given to the “security editors” hired by Sina to self-censor the site, shortly after they were posted. In fact, posts like these will only survive for a few hours on the website.
But the netizens haven’t given up. As the original posts are getting deleted, images of screen captures of these deleted posts started to be circulated fast. Because texts in the images are not searchable, it is harder for little secretaries to search for sensitive posts and delete them. Sometimes, instead of reposting, some people attach these images to their posts so that when the original post gets deleted, their posts won’t be affected.
Li Kaifu, an IT entrepreneur and opinion leader on Sina Weibo, even posted a tutorials of how to avoid posts getting deleted. “Don’t repost the original, but post the screen shot. This way, you can avoid getting into trouble, and can also save the screen shot for later use,” wrote Li.
Even these posts are disappearing too, but the hide-and-seek game between the netizens and the authority has just started. Netizen 摄影爱好兔 collected a long list of posts from witnesses of the flood, all of which had already been deleted, made it into a long image and posted it on Sina Weibo (see partial below). The post was reposted for more thousands of times before it was finally deleted by the administrator. However, new posts are still popping up, one at a time, keeping the little secretaries busy.
The flood has passed, leaving rubles of buildings, damaged cars, and grieving families in Beijing. However, the flood of speech hasn’t been muzzled, despite the government’s effort to. On the contrary, people’s enthusiasm in participating in the public discourse has been going ever stronger. Maybe it is time for those in power to reconsider the ancient Chinese wisdom. For thousands of years, Chinese have seen too many times the demise of dynasties, and perhaps the authority should learn something from history after all.