Ask any young people in China: What does the Internet mean to you? You probably get all kinds of answers, that is, all to reveal one simple fact: Internet means a lot to them and increasingly so. As China goes from the Year of Tiger to the Year of Rabbit, this simple fact makes the Chinese authorities ever so nervous.
According to a China Internet Network Infomation Center (CNNIC) report, over the first six months in 2010, China's Internet users increased by 35 million, reaching 420 million in total. Riding high on this tide is, of course, the younger generation of so called "Post-80s", i.e., people aged 30 or younger. They grew up with the information revolution and are Internet savvy.
The sheer scale creates headache for censorship authorities, whose control regime is based on the idea of making China's Internet a sort of "Intranet" protected by the Great Firewall, whereby all "harmful" information and websites from overseas are blocked. This model of control works quite well as long as that "Intranet" is under a certain scale. But when it grows to the scale of 420 million users with tens of millions of blogs and miniblogs posted each day, the "Intranet" becomes Internet in both name and behavior.
Thus, a recent South-Park-styled animation portraying victimized rabbits overthrowing the ruling tigers went wild in China's Internet. The video makes direct reference to a number of well-known public scandals such as poisoned milk, land seizure and police brutality. At the end of the 3-minute video, the bunnies fight back and defeat the perpetrating tiger overlords, thereby claiming the Year of Rabbit for the weak and oppressed.
Compared to the famous "Grass Mud Horse" video about a year ago, the "Rabbit" video is a much more direct, and even grisly, challenge to the communist rule. It caught on the public's growing sense of justice and deep sympathy for the oppressed, something rarely seen even a year ago but now rampantly expressed in China's virtual space. Yes, in spite of the ever tightening censorship (The Rabbit video was soon censored). What happened to the Chinese public mood at the end of the Year of Tiger?
No one can truly tell. Except that history, or perhaps more precisely the moment of Internet, is moving towards some "tipping point" in best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell's sense. As I write this essay, Chinese actress Yao Chen just became the first Chinese microblogger with five million followers surpassing her US mega-celeb counterpart Oprah Winfrey. Indeed the media becomes the message.
Imagine six to ten million college kids becoming jobless right after graduation each year and having to stay with their parents. Almost all of them are the only child of the household. To them, Internet is a necessity to their livelihood as air to their lungs. The government tries to indoctrinate them with ever more patriotism. Patriotism may be a beautiful idea, but it does not work in their reality. They need to express their frustration and wounded sense of injustice, in a word themselves, not the country they live in.
Philip Dick wrote his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was later adapted by Ridley Scott as the movie Blade Runner. In China's interactive and parallel world of Internet and reality, what do the young people dream of? No one knows. But in the Year of Rabbit, their aspirations as well as self-identity are bound to accentuate. Inquisitive and Internet-savvy, they are not controllable by current censorship regime. And their dreamed "sheep", be it "electric sheep" or "democratic sheep", will be a blade runner for future China.
Xiaozhu Liu is RFA Mandarin service Web editor.