Social Media Crackdown in London: or, China’s New Moral High Horse
Somewhere in a shady backroom in China, Communist Party leaders are watching news footage of the London riots, and they are laughing. Much to Beijing’s glee, the UK—always quick to criticize the Chinese government for its numerous human rights violations in the past—is now resorting to the very same tactics that they once condemned. Prime Minister David Cameron, who just months ago praised social media as a “powerful tool in the hands of citizens” in the Arab world, is now trying to monitor and block activity on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and BBM.
Cameron said in a statement to the House of Commons last week:
Everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organized via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.
In addition, the British government has been capturing and publishing CCTV footage of looters, and—in Cameron’s own words—”no phoney human rights concerns about publishing photos will get in the way of bringing these criminals to justice.”
Bloggers and online users have lambasted these initiatives, labeling them as a threat to democracy and “akin to book burning”, only cementing Britain’s reputation as the EU’s largest surveillance state (Deutsche Welle), echoing the dystopian England often depicted in popular culture, such as in George Orwell’s 1984 or Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.
“We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you. You will pay for what you have done,” Cameron warned. But at what cost? No doubt, Cameron’s plans to clamp down on social media were met with opposition in the West, but even more fascinating is the way in which Chinese media has responded to the UK riots—what the Telegraph aptly describes as “a mixture of shock and schadenfreude.”
The UK, a popular destination for wealthy Chinese families to send their kids to be educated in elite boarding schools or universities, has always flourished in China’s popular imagination as the archetypal high society, something to be aspired to. But to see the country brought to its knees, London in flames, wracked by delinquency and violence—many Chinese spectators were left in shock. On Sina Weibo, one microblogger asked, “What made the riots spread so explosively? How come Britain’s democratic politics and free media did not provide a release for such civil complaints?”
Now the shoe is on the other foot. As Wired UK points out, “There seems to be a collective amnesia in parliament about how social media was lauded during the protests in the Middle East. Foreign Secretary William Hague said in January in reference to the disruption to internet and mobile phone services that ‘economic development’ and ‘flexible political systems’ rather than suppression are needed to ease tensions.”
Beijing has quickly criticized the hypocrisy of the British government with smug self-satisfaction. According to party mouthpiece People’s Daily, ”The West have been talking about supporting internet freedom, and oppose other countries’ government to control this kind of websites, now we can say they are tasting the bitter fruit [of their complacency] and they can’t complain about it.”
The Global Times also jumped on the bandwagon, publishing an editorial entitled “British media should stop being mean“:
No matter how the UK police “cracked down” on the incident, the first to be condemned should be the “rioters.” The riot in London must have something to do with human rights abuses. But it is hypocritical to talk about human rights issues without taking into account of the context. These, however, are what the British and some of its media have done to China.
They enjoy ridiculing China’s effort in improving its governance and society, often side with violent rioters and even launch official protests to the Chinese government when social conflicts break out in China. During his visit in China, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron challenged China’s human rights issues, but look what has happened now in his country.
Chinese state media has wasted no time in portraying the UK riots as a failure of Western democracy and claiming it as a pragmatic and moral victory for Beijing. Furthermore, China has applauded Cameron’s social media crackdown as a step forward, not backward. According to a second Global Times article, ”The open discussion of containment of the Internet in Britain has given rise to a new opportunity for the whole world. Media in the US and Britain used to criticize developing countries for curbing freedom of speech. Britain’s new attitude will help appease the quarrels between East and West over the future management of the Internet.”
Turning inward, the article went on to argue that “[Chinese] advocates of an unlimited development of the Internet should think twice about their original ideas”—a stern warning to dissidents, free speech activists, and would-be “agitators” in the country. The U.K. riots and the poor government response to them only gives Beijing more to criticize and—worse yet—more confidence with respect to their own domestic policy. It seems that Cameron’s decision to clamp down on online activity and restrict Internet usage has only further validated China’s belief in its own methods of repressive media control.
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TAGS: censorship • Chinese media • human rights • Internet censorship • London riots • police state • surveillance state • U.K. riots
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