The power of the gaze

By Ho Ai Li, The Straits Times Blog, January 7th, 2011

Nothing angered Chinese writer Lu Xun as much as seeing a crowd of onlookers gawking at prisoners being executed.

It made him drop medicine to become a writer to cure the minds, rather than the bodies of his compatriots.

Gazing at the onlookers, he saw coldness and indifference. He satirised such behaviour in his short story, Medicine, with a scene in which passers-by stood around and watched as young revolutionaries faced the firing line. ‘Wei guan’, or standing around and looking on, became a byword for apathy.

But for Peking University internet expert Hu Yong, the term has taken on a more positive meaning in the cyber age.  As Twitter-like social media spreads, the number of virtual bystanders has grown exponentially.

When two sisters were bullied by officials in Nanchang, their plight was broadcast and seen by close to millions through such social media.

The online onlookers did more than look. They shared the sisters’ story with their networks, enabling the tale to spread so fast that censors could not catch up.

WHAT HAS CHANGED

What had changed, wrote Dr Hu in a column, is that these social media, or micro-blogs as they are known in China, have lowered the risk and cost of participation.

It does not require anything heroic. Virtual onlookers just need to click their mouse and share the story, in the comfort of their homes.

Micro-blogs can add up to something big, Dr Hu believed.

A common Chinese saying goes: ‘What man is doing, heaven is watching.’

Perhaps one can now say: What the powerful in China are doing, the netizens are watching.

While it’s uncertainly unwise to exaggerate the Internet’s impact, it has for sure made many officials watch their backs. Or maybe their wrists.

As Zhou Jiugeng, an ex-property bureau chief, would know, a branded watch glimpsed online may mean an end to one’s career.

Back in 2008, the most popular Internet neologism in China was ‘da jiang you’, which means literally to go buy soy sauce. It was a cheeky rejoinder to mean, ‘I’m just passing by and it’s none of my business’.

A man in Guangzhou had famously offered soy sauce as an excuse when he declined to be interviewed.

Will the Internet make the Chinese less of a nation of ‘soy sauce buyers’? Especially when all that’s asked of them is that they click their mouse?

Well, we’d all have to watch and find out.

 

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