By Michael Ruiz
Change is brewing in the hot pot of China’s Internet Underground as students join the country’s single party hoping to serve up reform.
They do not speak in terms of civil liberties or democracy, but of simmering economic disparity, corruption and thinly veiled crony capitalism. Upward mobility in China boils down to one’s guanxi, or connections.
Because large companies are required to obtain difficult permits, they must build strong relationships with politicians. One way they do this is by granting a stake in the business to the politically connected — high-ranking Communist Party members with a lot of guanxi.
“We are proud of our relationship with leaders,” explained the tour guide at Juli Group, a Chinese conglomerate that owns six industries and hundreds of acres in Hebei Province, south of Beijing.
Every large corporation has a room with walls covered by photographs of politicians, influential party members and national figures. This is to show their economic and political power.
As education in China is improving, students are growing disenchanted by this closed system, but not their party. They want change from the top down, and have faith that rising young leaders will champion reforms and end graft. In spite of this, most students declined to go on the record with their statements.
“The Chinese are hesitant to speak because we do not want to be seen as progressive,” said our interpreter. They prefer to appear moderate and stay quiet on political issues.
Nick Tian, a journalism major recently returned from a yearlong study abroad in Canada, was less reserved. The Chinese media will only show “innocent” news, he explained. “They only talk about the good side.”
In the city of Baoding, at Hebei University, two seniors poised to graduate after final exams, in June, thought that the recently ousted Bo Xilai was the candidate to bring about reform. His populist platform gave them hope the government was on the verge of shifting policy to narrow the income gap and crackdown on corruption.
Bo was a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s elite ruling body, the Politburo.
The economic principles of Mao Tse-tung, abandoned shortly after his death, are what some students see as a solution to China’s income gap. Born too late to remember them in practice, two seniors at Hebei, for example, thought American fear of Bo returning to Mao’s policies resulted in his removal.
Bo’s former sheriff, Wang Lijun, spent 30 hours at the U.S. embassy in Chengdu before leaving by his own volition. During the meeting, he charged that Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was responsible for the murder of Neil Heywood, a British national and former advisor to the family. Bo subsequently lost his political positions and police arrested Gu on suspicion of murder.
The U.S. denied Wang’s request for political asylum.
Chinese Internet Service Providers filter most content relating to the scandal, but rumors still stir up on self-censored social media sites: Sina, Weibo, QQ and Renren. In politically sensitive cases, topics can be completely blacklisted. To follow up, students use a variety of networking techniques to circumvent hardwired restrictions, and are often proud to share how they “Cross the Great [Fire] Wall.”
Tian explained one technique. Free software enables Chinese email, text and other Internet traffic to be routed through foreign networks, especially U.S. ones, eluding government surveillance and censors.
Still, software that breaches China’s Great Wall of government censorship is imperfect at best. Some students who used it said they never heard of Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who used a network of supporters, risking arrest and torture, to escape to the U.S. His story was on the front page of many American newspapers.
Still, in spite of controls on the media, Tian supports the Communist Party as a whole. “Our population is too big to control in a multiple party system,” he said. China’s population is the world’s largest at more than 1.3 billion.
“We have dreams in journalism,” said one student, who requested not to remain anonymous. “We want free journalism. We want to express ourselves with few restrictions.”
For now, this is done on the Internet, said another Hebei University student, who gave his English name as Jack. He wore a golf shirt with a self-embroidered face of Che Guevara over his breast. It was a replica of the famous “Guerrillero Heroico” image captured by Alberto Korda, emblazoned on t-shirts sold around the world.
“Che was a revolutionary,” Jack said. “Just like Chairman Mao.” Asked if he were a revolutionary as well, he nodded. “In China, we are not that free, microblogging [on Weibo] is integral due to state control of the media.”
“In reality, the collective is more powerful than the individual, but on the Internet, this can be different,” Jack continued. He too believes that reform must happen from the top down, but embraced the increased sense of anonymity that exists on the Internet.
Added another student, “We have some freedom of press.”
Jack then explained China’s distinctive newspaper system. All papers are required to print what the party serves up in their daily issues. Larger companies that can afford to print twice a day run an evening paper that has more flexibility — so long as it remains apolitical.
Editors of defiant papers are forced into resignation. China’s Southern Weekly, a paper with a liberal reputation, has fallen victim to this several times, Jack said. According to the New York Times, in recent years Chinese propaganda officials have attempted to replace liberal staff with editors that are more loyal.
Party monitors in Chinese media frequently remove editors and journalists who stray from party-permitted topics. “The government is oversensitive,” Jack explained.
Government protests are actually more common among peasant farmers and factory workers than privileged college students in China. Farmers and workers believe a shakeup of the system is required, and recent protests have resulted in concessions by the government. Still, when they can find an opportunity to enter the system, farmers and workers will often do so.
“I see evil and I have some power to do something good,” said Xiang Tai, a Hebei University communications major who dreams of one-day working in the government.
Xiang grew up in extreme poverty in Hebei Province. Gifted with both a bright mind and smile, she tested well enough to move up in China’s competitive public university system, giving her parents hope that she would have a better life. They work hard to pay her annual tuition of about 5,000 RMB, or $830. Room and board in her eight-person dorm room costs an additional 600 RMB.
Unlike most American students, Xiang neither drinks nor participates in clubs or student organizations. Instead, she devotes all of her time to her studies. She, like her peers, is hopeful that hard work now will bring change once her generation moves up the party ranks.
“Not every politician is bad,” she said. “I have heart, and I will have a good opportunity to do something good for people.”