In August, Tang Hui, a mother of an 11-year-old girl who was raped and forced into prostitution by seven men was so upset that all seven did not receive
the death penalty that she staged a series of protests. This annoyed the local government, so they sentenced Tang to 18 months in a re-education camp. When
the story went viral on Sina Weibo, so furious
was the popular outrage that even the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of China's ruling communist party, posted to Weibo (Chinese) in Tang's support.
Responding to popular sentiment or manipulating it?
Like all media in China, Weibo -- which is the generic Chinese term for microblogs, but is typically shorthand for Sina's site, the biggest -- isn't immune to censorship. There is a long list of terms
that are blocked on the site, including, for example, any mention of Tiananmen Square. The Laogai foundation argues that the reason Weibo hasn't been shut down by the
Chinese government is that it's useful to Beijing as a tool to distract the masses and expose the excesses of corrupt regional bureaucrats, over whom the
central government has historically had weak control.
The Tang Hui case showed how Weibo could, paradoxically, consolidate the power of the central government, since it involved the actions of local officials.
By determining what can and cannot be said on Weibo, the communist party can selectively protect or punish whichever regional governments it wants to
bolster or keep in check.
That said, Laogai also argues that Weibo has become something
of a first for the central government: a channel through which to gather, and perhaps even act on, public sentiment:
Second, Weibo is an important information gathering channel for the Party. As China's political system does not allow for the citizenry to speak their
minds and local bureaucrats always try to deceive their superiors, China's top leaders can only understand the mentality of their people through the
spontaneous expressions of misgivings, aspirations, needs, and passions found online. In the absence of an effective system to collect and respond to
popular opinion and demands, Weibo stands out as an alternative.
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So did popular protest over re-education camps lead to the government's concession that they should be reformed? (One online poll on Weibo revealed that 97 percent of respondents favored "immediate abolition" of the non-judicial
system of labor camps.) Perhaps the most accurate answer to that question is that if the central government weren't leaning in that direction already, it's
unlikely that discussion of such a possibility would have even been allowed on Sina Weibo in the first place. Reform of the labor camp system has been
discussed by legal experts in China for years, and in 2007 such reform was proposed in the annual legislative plan released by
the communist party.