On Sunday, the Chinese government blocked access to YouTube after users posted videos of protests in Lhasa, the capital of China’s so-called Tibet Autonomous Region. Demonstrations there turned violent on Friday after beginning peacefully on Monday, when monks began marching to mark the anniversary of the unsuccessful 1959 uprising against Chinese rule. At first, local authorities appeared to adopt a relatively accommodating posture. Soon, however, they cracked down hard, and that is when the Tibetans went on a rampage, burning shops run by Chinese and destroying official vehicles. Deaths of “innocent civilians” were reported. At one point, Tibetans gained control of the center of Lhasa. Eventually, armed police took back the city.
Domestic video-sharing sites, such as youku.com and tudou.com, carried no content on the increasingly disruptive Tibetan protests. Official censors deleted most other online content. Print media was also heavily censored.
Beijing’s control of the Internet is considered successful by foreign observers. By buying sophisticated Western technology and employing large numbers of monitors, the Chinese central government has been able to prevent citizens behind “the Great Firewall” from viewing information deemed salacious, harmful, criminal, or, most importantly, subversive.
Yet Beijing promotes Internet usage as one means of developing a modern economy, and, therefore, it is often reluctant to employ all its resources to shut off pages on the Web. Nonetheless, the attitude of the government in Beijing has hardened in the last few days due to the “life or death struggle” in Tibet. Therefore, officials have imposed the strict censorship that resulted in the blocking of YouTube and other sites.
At first glance, the increased censorship would appear unnecessary. Most Chinese netizens appear to support their government’s brutal crackdown on the Tibetan minority, and no one thinks the Tibetans will win their independence anytime soon. Nonetheless, Beijing believes it has good reason to clamp down now. First, news of the Lhasa protests has spread throughout China and triggered other violent disturbances in parts of Gansu, Sichuan, and Qinghai that Tibetans consider part of their homeland. Tibetans even staged a peaceful candlelight vigil in Beijing on Monday. The blocking of YouTube and other sites has been a futile attempt to stop the demonstrations from spreading to even more locations in China’s southwest.
Second, the spiral of violence throughout western China undermines Beijing’s contention that Tibetans support Beijing’s rule, that they do not like the Dalai Lama, and that Tibet is an inalienable part of China. And to add insult to injury, the recent disturbances come at an especially inopportune moment for the Communist Party: less than five months before the start of the Summer Olympics, China’s momentous coming out party. Just when Beijing wanted adulation, Tibetans and their supporters in, among other places, New York, Zurich, Paris, and Sydney have been attacking China’s consulates and burning Chinese flags. For a country concerned about its “face,” this is a debacle of immense proportions.
Third, Beijing is undoubtedly concerned that the Tibetans will inspire a Muslim insurrection in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, in the northwestern part of the country. Xinjinag’s Turkic Uighurs are ethnically distinct and — if this is possible — hate Beijing’s rule more than other minorities in China. So the Tibetan protests threaten the security of the Communist Party’s vast multicultural empire.
Yet despite the central government’s intensive censoring, Chinese “net bugs” have been engaging in vibrant online discussions, sharing cellphone videos, and accessing foreign sites carrying news of Tibet. Therefore, Beijing’s blocking of sites has only been partially successful in controlling the news. And by being only partially successful, the Chinese government has put itself in the worst possible position. It has irritated its online community and created an odious reputation for itself outside China while permitting news to spread inside its borders. To the extent that people believe they are not getting the entire story, they think the worst about the authorities as wild rumors pass as fact. In short, the Communist Party is delegitimizing itself at an important moment.
In the partial vacuum Beijing has created, others are stepping in to provide their version of events. “The violent crackdown by Chinese authorities in Tibet compels us to increase our broadcasts,” said James Glassman, chairman of the American government’s Broadcasting Board of Governors, on Monday. “Our audience clearly will benefit from these trustworthy sources of news and information, which differ sharply from Chinese government sanctioned broadcasts.” Both Radio Free Asia and Voice of America will increase daily radio transmissions. The latter will add to its television programming.
China can of course block YouTube, but it cannot completely seal off its borders. By trying to control the dissemination of news, it is playing a game it will ultimately lose. We have always known that the modern Chinese state is ugly and repressive, but now it looks incompetent and vulnerable.