Monday, May 10, 2010

Radio Free Asia and the May 4th Flash Mob

Radio Free Asia (RFA) has hit a new low.

A few days ago, Kai Pan at china/divide discussed the less-than-accurate reporting by RFA on Twitter usage in China with regards to the visit of Kim Jong Il.

But even before that, on the anniversary of May 4th Movement — which was one of the factors contributing to the 1989 Tiananmen protests — RFA pub­lished
this gem, leading with “Chinese netizens staged flash-mob style protests against online censorship …”

My research focus is currently on Chinese social movements, so such a lead-in piqued my interest. According to the article, a blogger named
北京老张 (Old Zhang of Beijing) called for the protest: On May 4, let us write the phrase ‘freedom of speech’ on all major sites in China, such as,,,,, and”

Subsequently, I did some searching of these sites (and Twitter) to see how large the movement had grown during the cycle of protest.

Dozens of par tic i pants? Scores? Hundreds, perhaps? No. As of 8 March, my searched turned up 14 people on Twitter (with 15 posts), six results on, and exactly one book result on Does this even count as news? A neo-Nazi group in America has more than 20 people at their monthly Sun day brunch.

(I also searched for the “speech freedom” statement that the article claims evolved later. It only turned up four results on QQ.)

You might challenge me: “But per haps there was a large online movement that was quickly censored, so you just didn’t catch it in a search four days later.”

My answer would be: maybe, but that’s beside the point. Let’s suppose that there were dozens of people who initially acted on this call from Old Zhang. From a social movement per­spective — i.e., social change perspective — the fact that they had been quickly removed and had almost zero apparent lasting effect in civil society is the sign of a poorly orga­nized, poorly executed, and ineffective protest (as well as a sign of an effec­tive censoring apparatus).

But we didn’t get any of these angles from the RFA article. Instead we are to sup pose that these “online out cries” were wide spread and loud. This is decid­edly horrible journalism.

On other hand, maybe RFA wants to be considered the MSNBC or Fox News of East Asian media — i.e., openly biased and, thus, ignorable. But just like MSNBC and Fox, they influence a lot of views on China, especially on the American side of the divide.

And this doesn’t mean ignoring dis sent in China. Indeed, there is a wealth of legitimate protest — in various forms — on the Main land. Maybe RFA could do us all a ser vice and start covering this dissent with honest journalism.

This was originally published on china/divide.

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