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Research: Cell phones help set off Chinese protests

A billion Chinese mobile phones are linked to a distinct social phenomenon, the 'guanxi'. They help popular protest, and feed the back and forth of rumours and denial

In 2007, in the city of Xiamen, authorities were forced to move a chemical plant because of popular protests that were started and coordinated by text messaging.

And according to PhD Jun Liu of the University of Copenhagen, who has just defended his thesis, this is one of many recent examples of the way in which mobile phones influence Chinese society and provide the ‘communication have-nots’ with a voice.

“As early as in 2003, the mobile phone played a vital role when people shared information about the SARS epidemic that the government tried to suppress” says Jun Liu from the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication to

No use just cutting it off

Virtually every Chinese person has a mobile phone.

“Not only is the mobile phone inexpensive, it is also easy to use and allows citizens to express their discontent and organise individual and collective resistance to the party’s authority just by sending a text message,” says Jun Liu.

Chinese authorities can’t just cut off mobile communication as government officials themselves rely on mobile services in their daily work.

Chinese social phenomenon

Jun Liu uses the concept of guanxi to analyse the mechanism at work.

Guanxi is essentially the sum of an individual’s personal connections, and all these connections are bound together by, among other things, obligations, favours, and personal trust. Guanzi guarantees that the information a person receives from his network is reliable and can be forwarded to other members of the network.

“Surprisingly few studies on mobile communication in China have addressed guanxi which is inextricably part of Chinese society; technology and cultural practices are not separate entities, but influence each other,” Jun Liu points out.

Necessary trust

“In the case of mobile communication … a text message received from a member of one’s guanxi is considered trustworthy and will be passed on to other members of the network if required because of the reciprocal nature of guanxi; a message with contentious content can therefore be distributed widely in a very short time. And the government can do very little about it,” Jun Liu concludes.

To the University Post, Jun Liu elaborates how guanxi as a specifically Chinese phenomenon, ties into the forwarding of text messages, (or tweets on the Chinese ‘Twitter’ service Weibo).

“On New Years Eve, there is an obligation to send a congratulatory message to your boss, and preferably before he does,” says Jun Liu to University Post.

True, or untrue, I forward it

And the dialectic of rumours and denial in a society where there is mistrust of official sources lets text-forwarding run riot in connection with official messages.

“A text message could be fronted with the message: ‘forward this message, before the government declares it a rumour’. Some people will forward the message, based on trust, without even reading the rest of its content.”

Take a message about a chemical factory with potential environment issues, for example: “Some may believe the rumour is true. Others don’t believe it is true, but still they forward the message,” says Jun Liu.

See the release on this story here.

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