Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the pseudonym of an active microblogger. The microblogger known as Secretary General of the Flower and Fruit Mountain is also known as Huaguoshan Zongshuji. This version has been corrected.
The nine people selected later this year as China’s top leaders will largely determine whether, and how much, the country’s authoritarian political system yields to demands for change.
And pushing them from the bottom will be a growing grass-roots army of bloggers, microbloggers and online activists who are demanding more accountability and gradually pressing the boundaries of freedom in this tightly controlled Communist-ruled country.
These blogger-activists are far from revolutionary. Like the incoming leaders, many are children of Communist Party officials. They are patriots, but they want the nation’s institutions to work better and on behalf of the people. They take on corrupt corporations as much as they do the government. They are just as concerned about kidnapped children and AIDS victims as they are about voting rights and free elections.
The best known among them, including scholar Yu Jianrong, whose microblog tries to connect begging street children with their parents, have more than a million followers. And they must contend with ever-changing censorship rules. Many popular microbloggers have had their accounts suspended or terminated in a government crackdown this year on Internet “rumors,” after aggressive reporting on the case of ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai.
The bloggers risk death threats and harassment to raise civic awareness, bring powerful people to book and give a voice to the voiceless.
“If I speak in a high-profile way, it’s because I love this country,” said Wang Xiaoshan, 45, a well-known journalist and active microblogger who has led a boycott campaign against a large dairy company called Mengniu, which is at the center of several recent food-safety scandals.
Wang said that he worries about his safety and that he recently spent a week in Hong Kong and three days in Macau because he was informed of a credible threat to silence him. His biggest fear, he said, is being arrested and sent to Inner Mongolia, where Mengniu is located. “I know how this country works,” he said. “I’m not afraid of jail. I’m afraid of torture.”
But he returned to China and to his writing. “I’ve always wanted to be a hero, ever since I was a child,” Wang said. “I think I’m a hero now.”
Last year, Wu Heng, a graduate student in historical geography at Fudan University in Shanghai, became incensed when he learned that some of the lunches he bought just off campus — meals that he thought contained beef — actually consisted of pork that had been treated with a harmful additive to give it the color of beef.
“I was shocked when I realized the food-safety issue was so close to my life,” Wu, 27, said, speaking via his laptop in a university coffee shop. “I decided I should do something.”
Wu started a Web site last year, www.zccw.info, which goes by the Chinese initials for its English name, “Throw It Out the Window.” The phrase comes from that apocryphal moment when President Theodore Roosevelt supposedly became so disgusted after reading about conditions in Chicago meatpacking plants that he threw his breakfast sausage out a White House window.
Roosevelt went on to create the modern-day Food and Drug Administration. When Wu launched his Web site, he implored others: “Let’s come together. We can also change something.” Immediately, 30 people volunteered to join him, 20 of them strangers. “I felt the power of the Internet,” Wu said.
His site compiles food-safety reports from across China and displays them on an easy-to-navigate map. Between May 3 and June 13, he said, the site recorded 1.6 million visitors, 85 percent of them new — so many that his server was temporarily paralyzed.
The mild-mannered Wu is no revolutionary. His father is a Communist Party official in their native Hubei province. He has an older brother who became a computer programmer and, like his father, joined the party. As the second child, Wu said, he enjoyed a lot more freedom. “Although my values are different from [those of] my parents, we can coexist peacefully,” he said.
Wu said his site tries not to make news or run afoul of the authorities, and he calls himself a “mild combatant” in the battle to change China. He admires Wang, for example, but opts for a less confrontational way.
“I don’t have so much time or effort to raise a protest flag,” Wu said. “But online, I can do this.”
Another active microblogger, a financially successful investor who uses the name Huaguoshan Zongshuji, or “Secretary General of the Flower and Fruit Mountain,” spoke on the condition of anonymity to prevent the powerful people he has angered from tracking him down.
Secretary General became popular last year, after he began examining officially published photos of high-ranking Communist Party officials and zeroing in on their expensive wristwatches. He then matched the watches to publicly available catalogues, to reveal how much officials were spending on luxury goods while supposedly living on a government salary.
The watch blog angered so many Communist officials that it was deleted, and Secretary General’s accounts were suspended. He began a new microblog, taking on an allegedly fraudulent nonprofit group claiming to represent global luxury-goods makers. Those exposés led to threats, and Secretary General began hiding out throughout China, eventually heading to Vietnam shortly after an interview in Beijing.
“Actually, I’m really scared,” the blogger, 33, said at a coffee shop . But will he give up microblogging? “You have two options — speak out or be silent,” he replied. “Freedom is quite important.”
Like Wu, Secretary General is also the son of a Communist Party member, a military doctor. But he said his father has become disillusioned and now gets more of his news from the Internet than state-run television. The blogger joined the party while in university but let his membership lapse.
The three bloggers are of different ages and occupy different worlds — a longtime journalist, a graduate student and an investor. But, like others in China’s active online community, they share a commitment to speak out.
China has more than 500 million Internet users, according to the government’s China Internet Network Information Center. There are also about 250 million users of the Twitter-like microblogging sites known collectively as weibo. The most popular of the microblogging sites, Sina Weibo, reported that the number of tweets on the site hit a record during the Chinese New Year, with 32,312 messages sent per second.
Microblogs exploded here because of their ability to convey a lot of information in a quick burst. Like with Twitter, there’s a 140-character limit. But in Chinese, where each character is a separate word, 140 characters is enough for a lengthy discourse.
The microblogs have forced the government to become more attuned to public opinion and have obliterated the Communist Party’s traditional control over the flow of information. More and more young Netizens say they get their news from weibo than from state-controlled television broadcasts or newspapers toeing the party line.
“Microblogging is a starting point of calling on the government to be more accountable,” said Hu Yong, a professor at Peking University’s journalism school.
No one expects the Internet to fashion any dramatic systemic reform. Already authorities have tried to rein in microblogs, shutting down some and requiring users to register their real names and identification numbers.
“It’s very much evolutionary, but not revolutionary,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Danwei.org, which tracks and researches Chinese media and Web sites. And the authorities, he said, “have been very good at neutralizing threats to power.”
The bloggers did not disagree.
“The tools have changed,” Wang said. “People can acquire better information faster and from different sources.
But he added: “If the government senses it is a threat, they will shut it down.”
Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.