NS: What is the role of the Internet and new media in empowering social movements in China?
LJ: Internet use has been very empowering for public movements in China. In 2007 in Xiamen, citizens went to the streets to demonstrate against a chemical plant which was being planned by a Taiwanese company and the local government. Even the local media was paid by the local government to refrain from reporting about the issue. People resorted to sending text messages both on the internet and through cell phones. An important fact is that there was no need for leadership. To demonstrate, several thousand people sent messages to each other saying "Let's go for a walk on a certain day at a certain time."
Before new media came into being, this would not be possible. For example, in order to have these public demonstrations or movements, you need a public sphere. Traditional forms included teahouses or salons. But right now, if you look at urban spaces, it's difficult to imagine areas similar to these former social spaces. With text messaging and the internet, there is no need for such formal public spaces and also there is no barrier of class. When everybody in the country knows what's going on in Xiamen, it's very difficult for the government to suppress the movement and delegitimize what had happened.
Nowadays, you might even say that the Internet is very powerful, because people use the web to express themselves about the Tibet issue or point out official corruption.
NS: How do you do this?
LJ: Right now I think the problem China is facing is lack of information about many of the development projects with significant impact on the environment. We call this the "Black Box." The government and big companies continue to construct dams and people are completely helpless. NGOs and journalists are trying to fill in these gaps and pass on the right information.
Well, I can't just publish it in the newspaper and TV. This is where the internet is very useful. China's websites are very unique as they are huge. There are thousands of articles on these websites. Even though the internet is controlled by the government, it is sometimes very difficult to monitor. Lot of people even use chat rooms to get the word out. Interestingly, Chinese language is very easy for the government to censor. There are a lot of internet policemen watching the internet. But most of them are not very good in English, so activists use English to discuss issues.