Friday, October 20, 2006

China, the Internet, and Tiananmen Square

People in communist countries used to self-publish unofficial opinions and disseminate their views in handwritten documents or by using typwriters and carbon paper. Sometimes, they built home-made printing presses.

In the USSR, this unofficial literature was called samizdat, which means self-published. In 1989, however, during the Tiananmen Square uprising, Chinese students used the Internet and other technology to communicate about the uprising with the outside world.

Here is a report about the origins of the Internet in China in 1986 and 1987. According to this article:

1986 - The China Academic Network (CANET) is launched by Beijing Institute of Computing Applications (ICA) with help from the Universit├Ąt Karlsruhe in Germany.

1987 - The Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) establishes its first international connection. The link is to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva.

1987 - CANET establishes its first international link when a Siemens 7,760/ BS2000 computer at the ICA in Beijing is connected to the Universit├Ąt Karlsruhe via a 300-bps
(bits per second) packet-switched data network. Later in the month, Qian Tianbai sends China's first international e-mail. Accounts differ on the day and message title. One said it
was sent on Sept. 14 and titled "Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner in the world" while another said it was sent on Sept. 20 and titled "Crossing the Great Wall to
Join the World."

In 1989, during the Tiananmen Square uprising, students used e-mail to communicate with people inside and outside China. David B. Conklin, the author of a paper called "The Internet, Email, and Political Activism: The Case of Tiananmen Square," observes:

When the students occupied and demonstrated in Tiananmen Square in 1989 the Internet was used to circulate reports of the events in Beijing to both the news media outside of China and to interested people inside China.

Some of these instances used only Web sites for the purposes of the attaining group goals. Most of the instances used a combination of Web sites and email to accomplish group goals....

This paper examines the importance of Email in the political realm through the case of Tiananmen Square. Although the Tiananmen Square case is old, the oldest case I know about where the Internet was used in the service of a political activity, it is by far the best case available.....

Computer and Internet communications have continued to grow since the Tiananmen Square uprising and it remains the clearest example of the impact that communications of the form of Email can have on a popular uprising...

As we can see from the case of the Tiananmen Square incident there are certain things that Email can be used to accomplish that can not be accomplished by using Web technology. When a government is trying to suppress information about an event or trying to suppress a movement in general Email is a more important tool of political change then the Web. If you are just trying to provide information to the public and there is no activity to suppress this information then the Web is more useful then Email. These differences in the utility of the two ways of using the Internet arise from the differences in the manner in which these two components of the Internet were designed.

In a situation like that currently existing in the United States and other liberal democracies the laws are such that the capabilities of the Web are more useful for most situations. However, when these environmental conditions are not present Email can more important. It is fine to study the impact that the Web is having on politics and on society in general. However, we must not forget about the impact that Email can and in some situations does have on political systems because of the technological differences between it and the Web. In situations that might end in the overthrow of a government it is more likely that the capabilities of Email will prove useful.

Here is an interesting timeline of world Internet history.


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