Columbia Journalism Review: Chinas Chess Match - How the web has empowered the people
- Feature November / December 2010
Chinas Chess Match - How the web has empowered the people
Columbia Journalism Review
By Howard French
Early in 2003, like millions of other migrants of his generation, Sun
Zhigang, a young graphic designer, left central China, where he had
attended university, and headed for the countrys booming industrial
Southeast. His quest: work, and with luck, fortune.
When he entered an Internet café one evening, shortly after his arrival in
Guangzhou, he was stopped by police who demanded to see his ID, which he
had left behind in his nearby apartment. It was a costly mistake. The
police had just launched a large-scale dragnet of illegal migrants, and as
was common at the time for people without papers, he was promptly hauled
off to detention.
Three days later, Sun Zhigangs family was informed of his death, which
the police claimed had been caused by a heart attack. But the Southern
Metropolis Daily, a local tabloid that was just establishing itself as a
powerful crusading force in the countrys news landscape, would not let
the story end there. A few weeks later, it ran a two-page spread that put
a far more sinister spin on the incident. Citing a confidential autopsy
report, its bold headline read: UNIVERSITY GRADUATE, 27, SUDDENLY DIES
THREE DAYS AFTER DETENTION ON GUANGZHOU STREET.
Word of Suns death spread rapidly, so rapidly that what ensued was
without precedent in China. Within two hours of the newspaper hitting the
street, thousands of people from around the country had posted angry
commentary on Sina.com, Chinas largest news portal. What would quickly
become known nationwide as the Sun Zhigang case had begun to go viral.
After its initial scoop, the Southern Metropolis Daily was banned from
reporting further on the incident, but old-fashioned censorship measures
like this would prove too little, too late. Online discussion of the case
was already mushrooming, and so was the scope of debate, which began with
calls for justice in one particular tragedy but quickly led to far broader
demands for legal reforms to put an end to the arbitrary detentions and
other abuses routinely suffered by hundreds of thousands of migrant
In June, with the Sun Zhigang case still the talk of the Internet, Chinese
premier Wen Jiabao announced an end to regulations that police had used
for two decades to summarily detain paperless migrants in hundreds of
detention centers, which were maintained around the country solely for
Beijing has never acknowledged the public fury and Internet mobilization
around the Sun Zhigang case as the driver of this major reform, but for
most of Chinas Internet-savvy public, the connection was unmistakable.
Looking back, Chinas Internet era could well be said to have begun with
this case. Not literally, of course, since China had been online already
for several years. But the outcry over Sun Zhigangs death is widely seen
in China nonetheless as the opening act in the age of the netizen.