Lots of stuff out there on how response to the earthquake is leading to a more robust public sphere in China. People are self-organizing, money is being collected and spent and news is being disseminated.1 In part this is happening because of genuine public interest and in part because the state is allowing a lot more freedom. Two aspects of the public sphere that have only just started to show up are direct criticisms of the state sphere and taking on state power.
Public sphere organizations sometimes take on state power, and this is something that the CCP has been partiularly reluctant to allow in the past. The “human flesh search engine” (人肉引擎) i.e. the habit Chinese netizens have of hunting down and terrorizing traitors like that Chinese student who talked to a Tibetan is an example of non state “organizations” taking on some state power. This is obviously to some extent encouraged by the state (supposedly some Chinese netizens are paid 50 cents for each properly nationalist post they put up) but I suspect that it would never be tolerated if it really did become organized and systematic vigilantism.
More interesting to me is public criticism of the state. The best example of this is recent criticism of the China Red Cross The Red Cross has a long history of trying to function as an autonomous organization, and at least since 1993 it has become somewhat independent of the state. This makes it almost the perfect target for criticism. It is not a direct state organization, which limits the amount of trouble you can get into for attacking it. On the other hand it is state enough that there probably is a lot of corruption and back door-ism in it. (Maybe all these criticisms will turn out to be wrong, but I doubt it) What I find most interesting about the criticism is that it is real public sphere stuff. Angry “human flesh search engine” types may threated to rape “traitors” and murder their families (see link above) but that is not a substitute for the state. Critics of the Red Cross are going after them for paying too much for tents, not being transparent enough and for cheating on their taxes. In other words the public is not just complaining, they are explaining how this (semi-state) organization should be run. They also have some power over it, since they are encouraging people not to donate money unless their demands are dealt with. Not surprisingly, the Red Cross is taking this seriously and responding to public criticism. None of this is entirely new of course, but this seemed a bit different that what has come before.
MINOR RANT I like CDT a lot, and find them to be one of the best RSS feeds for getting China news. Unfortunately a lot of the stuff they link to is in English, and a big chunk of the English language writing on China does not cite sources very well. We are on-line now folks. Including some links to your sources is just good practice. Electrons are cheap, and saying quotes come from “various BBS forums” or “an official statement” (From who? When?) is not sufficient. Or if you like I suppose you could go back to the old China coast paper’s habit of saying things came from “the native press” and assuming nobody cares who exactly said what and when they said it.