Liberation Technology

(excerpt) In March 2003, police in Guangzhou (Canton), China, stopped 27-year- old Sun Zhigang and demanded to see his temporary living permit and identification. When he could not produce these, he was sent to a detention center. Three days later, he died in its infirmary. The cause of death was recorded as a heart attack, but the autopsy authorized by his parents showed that he had been subjected to a brutal beating.

Sun’s parents took his story to the liberal newspaper Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis Daily), and its investigation confirmed that Sun had been beaten to death in custody. As soon as its report appeared on April 25, “newspapers and Web sites throughout China republished the account, [Internet] chat rooms and bulletin boards exploded with out- rage,” and it quickly became a national story. The central government was forced to launch its own investigation and on June 27, it found twelve people guilty of Sun’s death.

Sun’s case was seen as a watershed—the first time that a peaceful outpouring of public opinion had forced the Communist Chinese state to change a national regulation.

Optimists discern in these events a striking ability of the Internet— and other forms of “liberation technology”—to empower individuals, fa- cilitate independent communication and mobilization, and strengthen an emergent civil society. Pessimists argue that nothing in China has funda- mentally changed. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains firmly in control and beyond accountability. The weiquan movement has been crushed. And the Chinese state has developed an unparalleled system of digital censorship.