Ai Weiwei sees hope for China in social media

November 2, 2012

As China gears up for its once-in-a-decade Communist Party Congress on Nov. 8, its censors are busy monitoring social-media references to the leadership transition. Users of the popular Weibo site are even using code words like "sparta" to represent the Party Congress.

"My Internet speed is becoming slower and slower, is this because of the approaching 'sparta' or is it the end of the world," one Weibo user wrote, according to Reuters, in reference to the uptick in Internet monitoring in the lead-up to the Congress.

But at least one of China's major dissidents thinks Weibo and other such social media sites are changing the top-down dynamic of China's government, one tweet at a time.

AP Photo/Andy Wong
Andy Wong -- Associated Press

In a new video posted on the BigThink blog, Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei argues that social media is already putting more power in the hands of everyday Chinese, even though citizens face tough barriers to online communication:

"Free information and communication on the Internet is forbidden in China, so you're facing a great firewall to block all the major internet services, and within China you have 100,000 internet police just sitting there delete all blogs, whatever information they cannot appreciate..."

But, he adds, forums like Weibo have the power to hold the government accountable. Many Chinese netizens are prolific, micro-blogging watchdogs, occasionally triggering police investigations or raising thousands for charity as a result. 

"Daily, when the event's happening, people start to make comments on it, which already completely changes the landscape of the political situation," he said. "I think those technology platform constantly put the government on trial. And every event, every policy they make, people will laugh about it or make fun about it. This is amazing for younger generation."

Ai has had an illustrious career as an artist in China and was one of the designers of the 2008 Beijing Olympic stadium. Last year, he was arrested at the Beijing airport, held for two months without charges and now faces a staggering $2.4 million tax bill that his supporters see as a punishment for his activism.

His ordeal doesn't seem to have tempered his belief that one day China will become more open, however:

"I think the internet and technology can lead to more freedom in everywhere, especially in China. A state like China or other authoritarian society," he said. " To maintain this kind of control is to censor and block the freedom of expression. Once that is not possible, then to maintain this kind of control is impossible."

Watch the full video here:

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Max Fisher | November 2, 2012