In China, where social networking sites Facebook and Twitter are banned, the authorities have long viewed the mobilising capabilities of the Internet with deep suspicion.
The events across the Himalayas in recent days, where rumours that proliferated through cyberspace and SMS fuelled mass panic in several Indian cities, have reaffirmed those fears in this country, prompting calls in the state media outlets for the authorities to keep a watchful eye on the Internet.
“The scene is familiar to Chinese,” the Communist Party-run Global Times, a popular tabloid known for its nationalistic views that is published by the People’s Daily, said in an editorial in its Chinese and English editions on Thursday.
“What happened in India can help us understand more objectively whether the Internet can foment social instability and how it does so,” the newspaper said. “The exodus [of northeasterners from some Indian cities] was a result of public panic that was easily ignited by rumours. It takes more than working with social networking websites to appease the agitated public and prevent this from happening again.”
In 2009, the authorities blocked access to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The major reason was ethnic riots in Urumqi, capital of the Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, that left 197 people dead and more than a thousand injured on July 5, 2009.
Armed mobs of local Uighurs went on the rampage, attacking China’s majority Han Chinese. The violence followed a protest march organized to demand a government investigation into the deaths of two Uighurs in a factory brawl in southern China.
Images of the corpses of Uighurs who died in the brawl had circulated widely in Urumqi through websites and SMS. Ironically, the factory violence was itself triggered after websites circulated rumours — later denied by officials — that the Uighurs had raped a Han Chinese factory worker.
The violence led the authorities to ban both Twitter and Facebook and the popular first-ever Chinese Twitter equivalent, Fanfou. The government subsequently gave the green light to other Twitter equivalents, or “weibos,” but only after putting in place a range of regulatory measures. The most popular service today, Sina Weibo, is used by 300 million Chinese. Despite censorship restrictions, Weibo has increasingly challenged the government’s monopoly on information.
In an editorial in its Chinese and English editions on Thursday, The Communist Party-run Global Times backed “New Delhi’s worries that the Internet promoted the rumours,” saying the concerns “didn’t come out of nowhere.” Compared to India, which it described as “a poor country” where “survival is top priority for the majority of the population,” the newspaper said China’s situation was better, and it was “hard to imagine rumours causing an exodus.”
All the same, it warned that for China too, “the mass of information flowing through the Internet still presents a challenge to governance.” “The Internet has become deeply integrated in Chinese society,” the newspaper warned, “but can still create a disturbance.”