The round-the-clock use of Twitter and other social media by Chinese activists kept foreign journalists and human rights groups overseas apprised of developments in real time, even as authorities tried to isolate Chen and his supporters.
U.S. diplomats believe they have secured a tentative deal that would allow Chen to leave for the United States. Meanwhile here in China, the role of social media in highlighting his case, and in detailing the harsh treatment meted out to his friends and supporters, seems for many to mark a seminal moment in the Communist government’s decades-long history of repressing dissent and stifling information.
The Communist Party controls most major newspapers and virtually all television in China. But the advent of Twitter-like microblogging sites called Weibo in recent years has given urban Internet users an alternative to state-controlled media.
And it is through that social media, as well as cellphones and text messages, that much of the information came through about Chen’s whereabouts and wishes, and about the fate of those who helped him escape. Many activists also relied notably on Twitter itself, which is blocked in China but can be accessed by exploiting holes in the “Great Firewall” that censors the Chinese Internet.
When Chen was driven from the U.S. Embassy to a nearby hospital and made a telephone call from the van to The Washington Post, the news broke first on Twitter. It was Chen’s friend Zeng Jinyan, another activist, who first informed the world via Twitter that Chen had been left alone by U.S. officials at the hospital and was afraid. Zeng also tweeted that thugs in Shandong province, where Chen is from, had threatened to beat his wife to death, and that Chen wanted to leave China for the United States.
And the next day, Zeng broadcast on Twitter that she was being followed by plainclothes police and had been placed under house arrest. She even warned journalists not to try calling her.
A particularly dramatic moment came Thursday when Chen — isolated in his Beijing hospital room but with a cellphone at hand — called into a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on the handling of his case and expressed concern for his family left behind in Shandong.
‘Total sea change’
Twitter and Weibo similarly became essential for journalists and overseas human rights activists who used it to pass along phone numbers and links to photographs of Chen in the hospital and of plainclothes officers keeping reporters and diplomats outside. When Chen’s allies or supporters were detained, and when or if they resurfaced from police detention, word spread first on Twitter, often followed by text messages.
“It is almost mind-blowing to see his friends posting on Twitter conversations with him, things like who picked him up in Beijing and where,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert with the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s a total sea change from how this may have been handled decades ago.”