Throughout history there have always been mediums for social commentary, from complex forms such as literature and art to more simple mediums such as bulletin boards at the local college or coffee shop.
In recent years the Internet has become one of these simple mediums. Any American can sit down at their computer and state their opinion without fear of being silenced. This freedom has given people the opportunity to express themselves and their causes and get others involved.
Anyone can make a difference now, and all it requires is access to the Internet.
But perhaps Americans take this for granted, knowing they have nothing to worry about; that their voice is protected even if they’re cursing the government at the top of their lungs. Now imagine living in a country where the government can silence any voice they want and block information on the Internet from reaching the public. This thought, though horrific, is a reality for some.
This is the situation in the People’s Republic of China. The government there has control over the lives of their citizens; a fact artist Ai Weiwei learned first-hand.
Ai Weiwei has been called one of the most controversial figures in China. His art is unconventional and includes pieces that could easily upset even the most free-spirited of art enthusiasts. However, for several years, his most prominent form of communication was the Internet. Ai used his blog and Twitter account to rouse the people of China.
That is, until the government of China shut down his blog and attempted more than once to silence him completely.
Forgetting the idea that the Internet can inspire movements and gives every person an outlet, it is also for information. Blocking information is one way to control people; if the citizens only know things that their government wants them to know, they have no reason to believe that their government has ever done anything wrong. In fact, controlling the Internet is the same as controlling the minds of an entire country.
Sound like a warning straight out of George Orwell’s 1984? It should.
Ai attempted to spread information that the government didn’t want getting out through his online blog. When an enormous earthquake hit Sichuan, China in 2008, 5,335 students were killed at the school. The names of these children were kept quiet by the government. Ai Weiwei took to the Internet, rallying his followers and using his blog to find and reveal the names of these thousands of children.
The government shut down his blog because they could; all because Ai Weiwei wanted to give peace to families all across China by giving these children names. It turned the eyes of the nation toward the government and the government had nothing to say. The government could do nothing to help.
But that is the power of the Internet.
One person with one blog can change the way an entire government operates, and can open the eyes of an entire nation to something they had barely even realized was happening. Of course this is terrifying for the government of China—it must be terrifying to governments all across the world.
So, in one action, the government ripped Ai’s blog from the face of their nation’s Internet. They simultaneously stopped the flow of information and forced a figurative hand over the well-meaning mouth of Ai Weiwei.
If this happened in America, the Internet would explode with opinions. The media would point a judgmental finger at our president, and every activist and random human being with an opinion would blog and fight, kick and scream, until Ai Weiwei’s blog was reinstated.
But in China, the fight was more discreet. The government proved their power, and Ai Weiwei’s fans and followers protected their beloved artist in more sneaky ways. When he created a Twitter account, they created similar fake Twitter accounts to make it more difficult for the government to silence him.
Fake Twitter accounts shouldn’t be necessary. A person having to hide their opinions and beliefs shouldn’t be necessary. The Internet should be a safe place, and in general people should feel safe and secure expressing themselves.
The Internet has become a world in itself. It has become a safe haven for people to show their support or discontent of the government, or present their art for public consumption, or to find information and read or watch the news.
But that is in America; even in today’s world there are places where human beings are not so free.
A world where a person’s rights can be torn away from them, stripped out from under them, by a force with more power than any one human being can imagine. What a terrifying and hopeless thought, but it is the dystopian horror that people like Ai Weiwei have lived in and fought against.