In this video, a young woman sits on the floor tearfully telling her story: Yue Dan was on holiday in the southern city of Sanya with her husband. Returning to their car, the couple got into a dispute with a parking attendant. According to Yue, a group of men in suits arrived and started beating them. When the police arrived, they joined in beating the travelers without attempting to assess the situation and deaf to Yue’s pleas for mercy. The five-minute-long video ends with photos of the women’s injuries and videos shot by bystanders1.
Yue’s story is just one of a multitude of examples of how Chinese citizens are increasingly using online video to seek justice, retribution or recompense for wrongdoing, and build public support for their cause. However, public response is generally ephemeral and sporadic, and the authorities often aggressively act to control and prevent these attempts to harness the power of Chinese netizens.
The video, which implores media and web users to publicize Yue’s story and help her achieve justice, was posted to the microblogging platform Weibo on 12 February by a tiny blog called Sanya Hero. Although my current research involves tracking the flow of information and comments on Weibo, it is impossible in this case; the video was rapidly removed. A comment on the same blog less than ninety minutes later, thanks readers for forwarding the video, but instructs them to remain rational and wait for an official resolution.
The arrival of the Internet in China has led to an explosion of attempts to seek justice and retribution online that have no parallel in the West. Among these is the ‘human flesh search,’ where netizens help identify the offline identities of individuals who have been filmed performing illegal or socially undesirable activities. These cases are often dealt with outside the criminal justice system: a woman filmed crushing a kitten and the video’s cameraman both lost their jobs following a ‘successful’ human flesh search and a man recorded arguing with a foreigner over a traffic violation was forced to make an apology on national TV.
Other visual evidence posted online is intended to build public support for action on an issue. In 2009, Wang Shuai posted pictures accusing local officials of tricking peasants into degrading the value of their land under the auspices of drought prevention, so the government could requisition it more cheaply. Wang was initially jailed, but after online support led to media support, the local public security department issued an apology and offered compensation.
A study of why Wang succeeded where others failed, concluded that efforts to involve the media and other experts, and the framing of the issue as symbolic of a larger, rather than individual, problem were crucial in building widespread support for the case.2
There are always, however, two sides to any story. Highly concerned with shaping and controlling public opinion, Chinese authorities are quick to address materials posted online. Simply removing the content is not enough, official response and, often, corrective action is required to maintain the harmony of public opinion.
In the Sanya case, an official response was released the following day with new footage of the event showing Yue and her husband hitting and pulling the hair of security personnel. This response to the accusations was forwarded more than 5000 times and received more than 10,000 comments, spawning spirited conversation. While the removal of the original video makes it impossible to measure its spread, the response to the official version gives some indication of the diffusion it managed in only a short amount of time.
Those commenting on the official version generally focused on the truthfulness of the content and the evidence they could see for wrongdoing. Most comments expressed a lack of belief in the police department’s version, questioned the evidence presented and/or called for the original, uncut video to be found so they could better judge what happened. While there was distrust for the editing and interpretation of the video, commentators displayed a high level of trust for video as a truthful medium that could (in its uncut version) reveal the facts of an incident.
The government’s concern to manage public opinion means that, even in cases where officials were likely correct, disciplinary action is often taken. On 6 March, a journalist photographed police officers arresting a woman selling goods illegally on the street in front of her toddler. The pictures spread rapidly on Weibo with netizens expressing anger that the handcuffed mother was not able to hug her frightened child. Although the police department released more photos of the incident the next day that showed the woman had thrown fruit at the police and was able later to comfort her daughter, the officers involved were still suspended from duty. It is often easier to discipline a single or several low level officials than to control the mass of online public opinion once it starts to spread
It seems unlikely, however, that there will be any good news for Yue. Following a brief period widespread discussion, interest in the event has disappeared and netizens have already moved on to new topics, such a foreigner captured on surveillance camera assaulting a Chinese girl and photographs shot by rich young Chinese of them partying at a casino. However, all these cases illustrate the growing use of Internet video and photos as part of an informal, visual evidence-based process of justice seeking, facilitated by social networking websites.
This trend, however, has not led to institutional change. Public interest is often fleeting and voyeuristic, and whether action is taken to rectify the presented situation often depends on the media savvy and eloquence of participants, and whether other issues are, at the time, vying for the attention of netizens. The Internet cannot be seen as an appropriate substitute or adjunct to a reformed justice system, particularly as violence can often erupt when citizens take a case into their own hands.
Nevertheless, moving from a situation where regular people had little opportunity to tell their story to a wider public, the diffusion of ICTs in China has spurred the development of new opportunities for those seeking justice. Even when materials distributed online are rapidly censored, it is difficult to control the spread of information and both authorities and netizens are quick to respond to those who go online seeking support for their cause.
While response is sporadic, uneven, and sometimes undesirable, the availability of these channels has led to many cases being addressed where they otherwise would not have and increased the powers of ordinary individuals to make their situations known. One hopes, the government will eventually respond not just on a case-by-case basis but by increasing trust in the justice system and reducing the need to leverage social media to circumvent it.
1 In addition to the video discussed, several others can be found through the same URL.
2Pu, Q. and S. Scanlan. (2012).Communicating Injustice? Information, Communication & Society, 15(4), p. 572-590