Thursday, October 18, 2012

In Chinese Migrant Workers' Viral Video, Glimmers of Digital Activism's Future !


By David Wertime, co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation

It's performance art, parody, social media genius, and a desperate cry for help all in one. If any further proof of social media's power were necessary, it's arrived: An underpaid Chinese migrant worker has made a viral video in which she mimics an official in China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) while asking for her own unpaid salary. The video was uploaded to Youku, China's Youtube, four months ago. But it appears to have gone viral on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, after netizen @卫庄 posted it on October 8. Since then, netizens have re-posted the video over 23,000 times.

A migrant worker that the video refers to as Miao Cuihua (苗翠花) exhibits admirable sang-froid throughout her staged four-minute appeal, which mixes plain and forceful language with purposefully stilted bureaucratic jargon. Looking directly at the camera, Miao politely addresses her "comrades" in China's Petition Department (信访部门), demanding for herself and her "farmworker brothers" aggregate back pay of RMB 3.5 million (about US$560,000) in connection with a construction project apparently performed for the Funeral and Interment Management Office in Hangu, a district in the northeastern city of Tianjin.

"We have asked repeatedly and not been paid," Miao politely complains. Unfortunately, she says that "public servants have a close relationship with [our] boss." That missing 3.5 million RMB is "our hard-earned money...we strongly demand that the [funeral office] immediately pay us and without preconditions."

What follows is yet more brave. Without batting an eyelash, Miao continues, "We've seen the [funeral office's] higher authorities, as well as the Hangu government, play a very dishonorable role. We express our strong dissatisfaction." Miao even quotes one government official, Li Pengtong (李鹏同) as telling her, "I represent the government. If I tell you we're not paying, then we're not paying, what are you going to do?"

A man playing a reporter from the imaginary "Wage-Seeking News Agency" (讨薪社) then appears. Standing before a digital banner reading "Not Paying Workers Their Wages Harms [Social] Harmony," the reporter asks Miao a number of rehearsed questions. Among them: "It's said that the Hangu Funeral and Interment Management Office is run like a corrupt family. How would you comment on that?" Cracking a slight smile, Miao replies, "We have no right to interfere in their internal governance. Thanks."

Although the video is crudely cut and humorous-and netizens have enjoyed exhorting the MFA or China Central Television to hire Miao-it marks a potentially significant milestone in the development of the Chinese Internet.

Boston Consulting Group has estimated that over the next several years, Chinese Internet "penetration" (read: use) will grow fastest among rural residents and seniors over 51 years of age than among all other demographics. This finding is not terribly surprising; after all, many richer and younger Chinese on the country's developed coast already have ready access to Internet, so there is less room to grow there. But it means that over time, China's netizens will come to look more and more like China's citizens.

As rural workers like Miao become more likely to use the Internet, they also become more likely to learn the Internet's power-and its limits-as a tool for activism, outreach, and appeal. Although the existence of this viral video darkly intimates the desperation that the unpaid Miao and her colleagues doubtless face, it also heralds a future in which digital activism is no longer restricted to a tech-savvy elite. In the near term, social injustice and unrest will remain a fact of life in a rapidly-changing China. But now, it seems, those who suffer the most have begun to discover a new and powerful channel to share their stories with the world.

This story originally appeared on Tea Leaf Nation:

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