The thousands of people who poured onto the streets of China this month for the anti-Japanese protests that shook Asia were bound by nationalist anger but also by a more mundane fact: they are China’s cellphone and computer generation.
For several weeks as the protests grew larger and more unruly, China banned almost all coverage in the state media. It hardly mattered. An underground conversation was raging via e-mail, text message and instant online messaging that inflamed public opinion and served as an organizing tool for protesters.
The underground noise grew so loud that last Friday the Chinese government moved to silence it by banning the use of text messages or e-mail to organize protests. It was part of a broader curb on the anti-Japanese movement but it also seemed the Communist Party had self-interest in mind.
“They are afraid the Chinese people will think, O.K., today we protest Japan; tomorrow, Japan,” said an Asian diplomat who has watched the protests closely. “But the day after tomorrow, how about we protest against the government?”
Nondemocratic governments elsewhere are already learning that lesson. Cellphone messaging is an important communications channel in nascent democracy movements in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution used online forums and messaging to help topple a corrupt regime.
: Read a great followup to this in the comments: “‘A Hundred Cellphones Bloom, and Chinese Take to the Streets’ is a great headline for Manhattan, but meaningless in Beijing.” From Danwei.org.