Netizens’ Rights

'Unfortunately for their leaders, some 384 million Chinese netizens who help to make up one-fifth of mankind are expressing their views, just not through the leaders' mouths'

Frances Weaver

Freedom of speech, freedom of association, the freedom to surf — the latter isn’t in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but according to four out of five people, web access is a human right fundamental to citizenship.

Out of the 27,000 people surveyed across 26 countries for the BBC World Service, 87 per cent of those with the internet say that access is a fundamental right, and 70 per cent without it want access. The internet is now regarded as a basic element of the infrastructure, along with roads, water and waste removal. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when, as the Queen warned in her Commonwealth Day message, being online is “an unaffordable option” for too many. 

At some point, the freedom to surf became vital to the social contract. And this has larger consequences. Companies like Google can’t just operate as businesses. We begin to view them, perhaps unfairly, as guardians of this freedom. Which is why three Google executives in Milan were sentenced to six-month suspended jail terms over a cyber-bullying video posted by somebody else and which was taken down as soon as it was flagged up. Apparently, we expect Google to be the policeman of the web. 

This new “netizenship” has international consequences because of the internet’s global nature. China’s leaders are hoping that they can use the country’s online voice to compete for a greater say in global affairs. This comes at a time when China is trying to assert itself internationally: the Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, said at the Munich security conference in February that China “deserves a hearing of one kind or another. We have one fifth of mankind. At least we deserve a chance to express our views on how things should be run in the world.”

Unfortunately for their leaders, some 384 million Chinese netizens who help to make up one-fifth of mankind are expressing their views, just not through the leaders’ mouths. As China’s legislators gathered in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing for the annual National People’s Congress (NPC), an alternative e-congress, dealing with housing prices, education and the wealth gap, was being held in the virtual “Great Hall of the Netizens”. 

The Chinese take their duties as netizens very seriously, probably because they garner results. There isn’t much space between the virtual and real political worlds. In January, three netizens were named political advisers in Anhui Province, and in 2009 the authorities were forced to deal openly with three high-profile and unexplained criminal injustices that became internet sensations: the death of a 24-year-old prisoner, an accident in which a young pedestrian was killed by a car speeding through the streets of Hangzhou, and an entrapment scandal in Shanghai. Last month, a corrupt official was outed when his diary, which contained details of his various sexual dalliances and cash gifts, was leaked online. China’s leaders are beginning to comprehend the power of the internet. Tellingly, Premier Wen Jiabao didn’t take any questions from delegates after his speech to the NPC, yet dedicated two hours to an online question-and-answer session that elicited more than 60,000 questions. 

The e-congress and the online session with Mr Wen were, of course, tightly controlled affairs in which sensitive political issues were not discussed, and the interest that Chinese leaders show in the internet is one of self-interest. Yet it’s difficult to ignore 384 million voices. This freedom is essential, even if its results may challenge us: after all, the second most popular proposal at the e-congress was the extension of the death penalty to corrupt officials.

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