A Chinese blog explosion

China gained 88 million Internet users in 2008. Online political dissent also jumped. That can't be an accident.

By Andrew Leonard

Published January 14, 2009 11:45AM (EST)

Does this fact ...

... have anything to do with this?

Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley, suggested [the prominent Chinese blog's closure] reflected the Chinese government's deep concerns about the growing influence of the Internet.

"The sheer number of bloggers and the sheer number who are willing to express themselves politically are growing dramatically" he added.

"The language is changing from implicit to more and more explicit, communities are swarming and their opinions and influence are getting stronger -- even compared with six months ago."

I don't want to pretend to be pollyanish about the prospects for free speech and democracy in China. The facts are that China is in the middle of a new and vigorous crackdown on dissent. Activists are being arrested and Web sites are being closed down.

But no one I know has been following the Chinese Internet more closely and for a longer time than Xiao Qiang, and if he says political expression is growing dramatically, I'm inclined to believe him. And the numbers just don't lie. With 300 million people already online, and with the total numbers still growing at a fantastic rate, how can even the most totalitarian-minded of governments keep the lid on?

Combine that with an economy that is rapidly decelerating, leading to factory closings and outbreaks of worker protests throughout southern China, and you've got all the ingredients necessary for serious turbulence.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China First Amendment Globalization How The World Works