Will 360 Million Chinese Boycott the Internet?

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio, June 2009BEIJING: Today is the day China turned off the internet. Or at least that is the hope of artist Ai Weiwei. Weiwei called on China’s 360 million internet users to “stop working, reading, chatting, blogging, gaming and mailing” to protest the Chinese government’s demand that computers users have to have installed its controversial Green Dam Youth Escort filtering software by July 1. (In photo: Ai Weiwei in his Beijing studio, June 2009)

“Green Dam promises to block pornography and other objectionable material, but we all know it’s being used to censor sites that are critical of the government,” said Weiwei in an interview at his studio in Beijing last week. Some have claimed that the software – designed for use on Microsoft Windows computers – also monitors a user’s online activities and can send information back to government servers.

July 1, 2009 is an especially sensitive day for the Chinese government. Not only does it mark the 88th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, but it is also the 12th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control.

Weiwei rose to worldwide fame in recent years as one of the designer’s of Beijing’s Bird’s Nest sports stadium, the centerpiece of last year’s Olympic Games. Last month, he was a victim of censorship when China’s main internet portal Sina.com deleted Weiwei’s popular three-year-old blog, where he’d been publishing the names of students killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

(The government claims 5,335 students were killed, out of a total of 87,000 dead or missing.  Yet, there were some 3,340 schools destroyed – meaning an average of only two students per school were killed. Ai Weiwei’s team have already gathered 5,200 names in five months.)

“I asked and they won’t give me copies of my posts,” said Weiwei, who said the blog was the 300th most popular on the network and had been read by some 13 million people. Last week, in a separate interview, Sina.com CEO Charles Chao claimed only cursory knowledge of Weiwei himself and no knowledge of his blog having been shuttered.

Ironically, Weiwei claims that prior to Sina.com approaching him to write a blog three year ago, he didn’t know how to use a computer or even how to type. “I now spend 80% of my time online – blogging, writing, investigating. The internet is like water, it cannot be blocked.”

After Weiwei’s blog was silenced, his fans rallied; setting up accounts for Weiwei and even mimicking his writing and attitude. He believes that he has enough followers that he could, should he so desire, get any internet provider shut down simply by overwhelming their service with controversial statements either by him or his fans – statements that will certainly attract the notice of government censors.

The success of Weiwei’s passive internet protest won’t be known for some days.  But whether or not he was able to convince China’s internet-addicted to give up their habit isn’t the point. “I’m trying to set an example for young people, particularly the ones who have no hope and live in the remote areas. Everything needs to be contested,” he said, adding, “The system is stupid and irresponsible. Everything the government does is a joke. If we can’t win, then we’re the ones who are stupid.”

READ: English translations of entries from Ai Weiwei’s blog

THE ORIGINAL: Ai Weiwei blog (in Chinese)

AN INTERVIEW: With Ai Weiwei about his Sichuan project.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.