PEKING — Over the past two months, a round of student demonstrations on behalf of democracy in China and an election in Taiwan have challenged governments. Both events involved creative, effective use of technology to spread messages in ways that would have been impossible only a decade ago.
In his classic, "1984," George Orwell described a world in which technology worked the opposite way, enabling rulers to monitor and control the thoughts, words, deeds of their subjects. But in this post-1984 world, advancing technology is instead fast becoming a powerful instrument of political dissent.
The tools for dissenters in East Asia are not high-tech, not the sort of laser gee-whiz that makes for the Strategic Defense Initiative, but rather common, ordinary consumer electronics--the sort of stuff Japanese factories have sent out into the households of the world: inexpensive video recorders, tape recorders and double-cassette decks.
They are simple devices, now taken for granted in the United States, but so cheap and so numerous that they have greatly complicated the task of those officials who seek to eradicate alterative sources of information.
Let's take Taiwan first. Last month, its Nationalist Chinese government held the first election with a challenge from an organized, Taiwan-based opposition political party. The election itself was an important first step toward democracy for a regime that fled from the mainland in 1949. But this reporter watched a campaign carried out under conditions severely restricting the new party's ability to broadcast its message. The governing Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, still controls Taiwan's television, radio stations and newspapers--all regularly reflecting the ruling party viewpoint. Taiwan has opposition magazines but they require time for production and are frequently confiscated by police.
A week before the election, there was a melee at Taipei's Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport. Thousands of supporters of the new opposition Democratic Progressive Party had come to greet a dissident; there were skirmishes between them and government troops.
Over the next few days, edited tapes of the airport melee were played over and over again on Taiwan television, with commentaries indicating that the political opposition was violence-prone, bent on disturbing stability and prosperity.
So what happened? Countercommentary. The opposition forces had their own video cameras at the airport. When the skirmishes broke out, opposition cameras began rolling. Their tapes showed some troops throwing rocks or roughing up some of the demonstrators--scenes omitted from official news shows.
Copies of those tapes, irreverently dubbed "The Ugly Cops," were quickly sent out to opposition party offices around the island. The dissidents set up television monitors outside each campaign office and played the alternative videotapes over and over again, attracting large crowds of onlookers willing, indeed wanting, to see something other than the official version.
Those opposition videotapes, and widespread resentment of the heavy-handed accounts from official news media, were widely credited with helping the new party counteract the negative television reports and make a surprisingly strong showing at the polls the following week.
Now let's look at China, a country still far too poor to have video cameras in common use and too restrictive to allow the formation of any political entities that might oppose the ruling Communist Party. More modest forms of consumer electronics are proving useful in spreading political dissent.
In the past, political dissent in communist countries has most commonly been spread through underground writings, such as the samizdat of the Soviet Union. China has its own time-honored medium, the dazibao or wall poster, but this is of limited use. Only people who are physically present can read a poster, which can easily be ripped down by police.
In 1978-79, participants in the "Democracy Wall" movement, the last outpouring of political dissent in China, tried to disseminate dazibao messages through crudely produced magazines. These "people's publications" were usually mimeographed; producing them was time-consuming and expensive. In the end, the magazines were closed down by local officials and police who said the publications had failed to comply with registration rules requiring all printing to be done at "fixed premises and installations."
During the new wave of pro-democracy demonstrations that spread across China in recent weeks, university students came up with a new medium of communication. While Chinese students can't afford mimeograph machines or photocopiers, some of them do own small, Walkman-sized tape recorders. Many also own simple, inexpensive double-cassette recorders, to copy from one tape to another.