China is a country on the brink of yet another revolution. This revolution will not be achieved through a series of mass protests in Tiananmen Square, or through Deng Xiaoping or Ma Zedong’s economic policies aiming to modernize China. Rather this revolution will occur in cyberspace, propelled by media outlets and photographs. With hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens already surfing the web, China has seen its power dwindle as the size and capacity of its netizens (internet users) has grown. Two years ago, the fate of a young girl was decided by the collaboration of bloggers and an army of netizens. Posting photos of Deng Yujiao and rallying support from all across China, a few internet users prevented the Chinese government from falsely convicting an innocent girl of murder. Only a few months earlier, a photograph of a government accountant smoking imported cigarettes was leaked online, leading to an investigation of fraud and embezzlement. The rise of netizens and media in modern China has indeed played a pivotal role in the shift in power from the government to the hands of its people.
At the same time, the power derived from netizens is under attack by the Chinese government. Two summers ago, the government took away 1.3 billion people’s access to Facebook and Twitter. At the time, the Xinjiang province was undergoing a tumultuous race riot between natives and its prominent muslim population. Many protesters were killed and dozens more were injured in the violence that ensued. The government, with good reason, feared that photos and videos uploaded onto Western social media outlets would tarnish the nation’s image.
I find it ironic that the use of photography has been turned against governments in this day and age. As noted by Susan Sontag in On Photography, “Starting with their use by the Paris police in the murderous roundup of Communards in June 1871, photographs became a useful tool of modern states in the surveillance and control of their increasingly mobile populations.” The PRC’s communist regime is now threatened by the distribution of photographs depicting the government’s harsh treatment of its migrant worker population, which makes up nearly 15% of their population, and by images capturing senseless violence of its military in their unwarranted attacks on protestors in Xinjiang. This is something China brought upon on itself. “A photograph that brings news of some unsuspected zone of misery cannot make a dent in public opinion unless there is an appropriate context of feeling and attitude.” (On Photography by Susan Sontag) In the context of the People’s Republic of China, its history of censorship, violence, and human rights issues allow photographs to accumulate influence and power. “Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one- and can help build a nascent one.” The rise of netizens in China cannot be combatted by censorship of the media. The only course of action for China is to alter its policies. Photographs depict reality, and as long as China’s reality is one of violated human rights, censorship of its citizens, and violence inflicted upon its protestors, photographs portraying modern China will continue to garner attention.