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    Greater China
     Nov 24, 2011

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Lieutenant Pike, Li Gang,
and China's Internet dilemma

By Peter Lee

The ecology of the Internet varies little from country to country. The cross border similarities of the Internet were demonstrated the weekend of November 19-20, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) feasted on Schadenfreude (joy in someone else's misfortune), courtesy of Lieutenant John Pike of the University of California Davis campus police.

Pike, tasked with clearing a walkway on the UC Davis campus of a seated row of passively resisting Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, strolled down the line and hosed the faces of the protestors with pepper spray with the casual demeanor of an exterminator dealing with a cockroach infestation.

The spectacle of the fitness-challenged Pike, bulging out of his

black uniform, armed with an oversized container of pepper spray the size and color of a fire extinguisher, sporting a Darth Vaderish riot helmet, and seemingly relishing the role of bullying small-town cop, confirmed the disastrous optics of the event.

Photos and video of the event went viral and gave the Chinese state media an opportunity to point out that the United States, which has demanded that oppressive regimes (like the People's Republic of China) grant their citizens free expression, is not equally welcoming when local, home-grown anti-capitalist demonstrators threaten the fragile self-regard of the rich, public hygiene in the city center, and downtown shopping in the crucial Thanksgiving-to-Christmas period.

The Internet's treatment of the UC Davis incident paralleled another, police-related embarrassment of a year ago: the notorious "My dad is Li Gang" case.

On October 16, 2010, a drunk driver, Li Qiming, struck and killed a student on the campus of Hebei University and injured another, tried to flee, and, when detained, allegedly defied his captors to do anything about it because "his father was Li Gang." (The allegation, though plausible, only surfaced as the allegation of an anonymous poster on an Internet forum 24 hours after the incident; apparently, no one has ever gone on record as having heard Li Qiming say the fatal words.)

The case unleashed a national tsunami of outrage in the blogosphere and media, and "My dad is Li Gang" became the sarcastic Internet tagline for every sort of official and personal moral dereliction.

Li Gang, vice bureau chief of the Baoding North District Public Security Bureau, never had the opportunity to wield his clout on behalf of his son, even if he intended to. The government, attempting to douse the media firestorm, pushed for a quick and favorable disposition of the case. Li Gang paid over a half-million yuan (US$78,000) in victim's compensation, and Li Qiming was sentenced to six years in prison.

The two cases have rather interesting parallels.

The Pike incident was not the most extreme case of police overreaction against OWS demonstrators (Oakland occupies the pole position here) and Li Qiming's desperate, drunken bravado (if it actually occurred) was not the most heinous display of princeling impunity in China.

But they were neat, irrefutable morality plays starring blatantly abusive villains and unambiguously innocent, tragic victims. They validated convictions and attitudes that until then had lacked clear illustrations of who the bad and good guys were.

Sustaining the good guy/bad guy dichotomy quickly became a cottage industry.

Both Lieutenant Pike and Li Qiming were subjected to the flesh-search-engine harassment treatment.

Pike's name and contact information has shown up on the Internet; YouTube pulled a video ostensibly uploaded by the hacker combine Anonymous with the greeting "Hello John Pike We are the Internet Hate Machine We are all over the globe. We are Anonymous. We do not forget. We do not forgive…"

In Li Qiming's case, allegations surfaced that he was a shady figure with two cars and five real estate holdings who managed an underground casino; according to a piece of investigative reporting by The Hebei Legal System News, a news outlet presumably sympathetic to the local Public Security Bureau, these allegations were groundless. [1]

Both Pike and Li achieved apotheosis as symbols of Internet abuse, stripping them of their personal qualities and turning them into villainous archetypes.

"My dad is Li Gang" became the theme of a series of gags similar to the over-the-top invocations of Chuck Norris's superhuman machismo (as in "Chuck Norris sleeps with a night light. Not because Chuck Norris is afraid of the dark, but the dark is afraid of Chuck Norris"). Among them, "the greatest distance on this earth is not between life and death; it is that you don't know my dad is Li Gang", and "when Wu Song fought the tiger, he shouted, My dad is Li Gang! And the tiger ran off in dismay." [2] And so on.
Pike has already been immortalized in dozens if not hundreds of Photoshopped compositions that insert his insouciant, pepper-spraying bulk into every conceivable venue: intruding upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Washington's crossing of the Delaware, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono's peace bed-in; standing in for the Statue of Liberty and King Kong; improving great artworks like The Last Supper and Birth of Adam; and even giving a dose of oleoresin capsicum to the iconic tank man of Tiananmen. [3]

On the other hand, the complete innocence of the victims is vigorously and persuasively assertive.

Initial claims that Pike attacked the protesters because UC Davis campus police felt themselves under threat were quickly and convincingly hooted down based on the video evidence of the stoic demonstrators struggling to remain seated and maintain their non-violent composure as he ambled past them and doused their faces with pepper spray.

In Baoding, "Li Gang-gate" for a while threatened to turn into "Roller skate-gate" as indignant netizens refuted official statements that the victims were wearing roller blades (perhaps with the implication that they were not fully in control of their movements and thereby contributed in some way to the calamity) by posting accident scene photographs that seemed to show the girls shod in sneakers, not skates.

Both the Hebei authorities and the University of California administration hastily backpedaled when it became clear that the unfavorable narratives were carved in stone.

Civil damages in the Li Qiming case were fixed quickly, apparently thanks to some heavy-handed intervention to achieve a private settlement between the families - and exclude the Beijing lawyer poised to make the case a national sensation (as well as removing famed artist Ai Weiwei - who obtained and posted an aggrieved video statement from the father and brother of the girl who died - from the PR equation).

As for UC Davis, the chancellor, Linda Katehi, initially defended the action of the campus police. But once the videos swept the globe - and she endured a silent, non-violent, but eerie gauntlet of hundreds of disapproving students as she walked to her car - Katehi apologized and placed the chief of campus police on leave (Pike and another officer had already been placed on leave). [4]

Ostentatious and suspiciously self-serving displays of contrition were not allowed to muddle the clarity of black/white bad guy/good guy dichotomy.

Li Qiming and Li Gang's sobbing, extravagant expressions of remorse as televised in a five-minute CCTV spectacle [5] shortly after the incident were widely mocked; as for Chancellor Katehi, her public apology before the students and faculty of UC Davis was dismissed on the progressive website Democratic Underground with comments such as "No! You are there to try to save your ass. You hope if you grovel and deflect blame they will keep you." [6]

National governments, confronted with the universal obstreperousness of the Internet, have deployed virtually identical tools of legal authorities, surveillance, disruption, disinformation, trolling, and co-option. How and when they choose to deploy them is, on the other hand, the subject of widely varying national policy.
For authoritarian governments, the gold standard is apparently Russia. Under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and, especially, self-described geek President Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian government has adopted a high-profile hands-off attitude toward the transnational manifestation of the Internet, while at the same time ensuring that the key Internet utilities are concentrated in the hands of regime-friendly businessmen.

Russia permits free access by Google (although Google, in the words of Julien Nocelli of the European think tank IFRI, is "seen by an increasing number of leading Russians as an extension of the US Department of State"), Facebook, and other foreign companies, but at the same time has proactively created a distinctly Russian Internet, RuNet, promising national integration and political dialogue between the leaders and the led. [7]

In April 2011, the Russian press reported that Putin had rejected a call by the national security services for the ability to monitor services like Skype and Gmail:
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has played down the prospect of China-style Internet censorship in Russia ... "The Internet is a tool for solving social and administrative problems; it is an opportunity to communicate, to express yourself, it is a tool for improving your living standards," Putin said in a Q&A session after what could be his final address to parliament as premier on Wednesday.
"The main resources are situated oversees, and this has been a source for concern for the special services," he went on. "But I personally think that it is not possible to restrict anything." [8] 

Continued 1 2  

China isn't cool - yet (Oct 26, '11)

Some may be more equal than others
(Nov 3, '10)



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