Internet Helps To Hold Chinese Accountable

In a Chinese province last year, a drunk young man drove into two girls, killing one of them. He wasn't concerned about ramifications because his father was the police chief. In the past, that relationship would have protected him from the reach of the law, but not in the age of the Internet. The story spread quickly, and the boy went on trial.

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Two events took place in China today that speak to the ways the Internet is forcing the government there to be accountable. First, the son of a senior police chief went on trial, accused of killing a young woman while he was driving drunk. Second, the premier of China urged Chinese citizens to voice their criticisms of the government and to speak out about injustice. While the Communist Party still rules China very firmly as a one-party state, NPR's Rob Gifford reports that the Internet is bringing change.

ROB GIFFORD: In October, Li Qiming, the son of a senior police official in the northern town of Baoding, drove his car, under the influence of alcohol, into two young women, killing one of them. As a crowd gathered and tried to detain him, the young man uttered the now infamous words: Sue me if you dare. My father is Li Gang.

For most of Chinese history, that would have been that. But in the early 21st century, with 450 million Chinese people now online, the story and photos of the incident spread like wildfire on the Internet.

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GIFFORD: The event even spawned a song, mocking Li Qiming. My father is Li Gang, it says. I don't need to worry about killing anyone with my car. David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong says newspapers and magazines are still doing the best reporting in China. But for amplification, there's nothing like the Internet.

Mr. DAVID BANDURSKI (China Media Project, University of Hong Kong): Without the Internet, many of these stories would disappear. It's the Internet that's turning it into a national topic of discussion.

GIFFORD: And national it has been. The Internet coverage forced Li Gang himself onto national television to give a tearful apology. Outrage at corruption in China is now all over the Internet, but one site has, more than others, been at the forefront of trying to keep Communist Party officials accountable. It's called 703804.com, and it's based in the southeastern city of Wenzhou.

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GIFFORD: 703804.com hosts a mix of music and talk and social networking. It's most important section, though, is the one that allows local people to post details of local problems, including the names of corrupt local officials. The site was closed down dozens of times until a few years ago, when its founder, Ye Zhe, was approached by local government leaders. Ye Zhe says they proposed letting the website stay open in return for toning down some of the criticism.

Mr. YE ZHE (Founder, 703804.com): (Through translator) Our website became, shall we say, more disciplined, and the government became more tolerant. Now I think we can say that Internet supervision of the government in Wenzhou and government supervision of the Internet have reached what you might call a delicate balance.

GIFFORD: That has led some Chinese people to call 703804 a Chinese WikiLeaks. Ye Zhe laughs off the comparison, but gives examples of recent revelations on his website, such as a senior Communist Party official in Wenzhou who fled to France to avoid allegations of corruption. Despite its limitations, for the ordinary people of the city, such as businessman Li Chongzhen, it's a huge step forward in accountability.

Mr. LI CHONGZHEN (Businessman): (Through translator) We never thought we could do this before. In the past, you'd expect the police to come knocking on your door if you wrote stuff like that. Now we can kick a Communist Party secretary out of his job. It's incredible.

GIFFORD: Analysts say that Premier Wen Jiabao's call today for citizens to voice their criticisms of the government is also undoubtedly a result of the increased power of the Internet. David Bandurski at the University of Hong Kong, however, cautions there are still very clear limits for websites like 703804.

Mr. BANDURSKI: We can't see them as renegades, necessarily. We can't see them as socking it to the leadership. It will be tolerated to the extent that it tackles local-level corruption. Will this knock down top leaders of Wenzhou or from the province Zhejiang? I seriously doubt it.

GIFFORD: So, as with so much in China, the question to ask about how much accountability the Internet is bringing seems to be: compared to what? Compared to an open, fully free society? Well, it's nowhere near. But compared to China even six or seven years ago, the Internet has brought the country a long way.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Wenzhou.

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