Radio Free Asia & The May 4th Anniversary Flash Mob Protests

Radio Free Asia (RFA) hits a new low?

A few days ago, Kai discussed the less-than-accurate reporting by RFA on Twitter usage in China with regards to the visit of Kim Jong Il.

But even before that, on the anniversary of May 4th Movement — which was one of the factors contributing to the 1989 Tiananmen protests — RFA published this gem, leading with “Chinese netizens staged flash-mob style protests against online censorship …”

T-Mobile flash mob at Trafalgar Square.

It was like this...except with Chinese netizens...and online.

My research focus is currently on Chinese social movements, so such a lead-in piqued my interest. According to the article, a blogger named 北京老张 (Old Zhang of Beijing) called for the protest: “On May 4, let us write the phrase ‘freedom of speech’ on all major sites in China, such as,,,,, and”

Subsequently, I did some searching of these sites (and Twitter) to see how large the movement had grown during the cycle of protest.

Dozens of participants? Scores? Hundreds, perhaps? No. As of 8 March, my searched turned up 14 people on Twitter (with 15 posts), six results on, and exactly one book result on Does this even count as news? A neo-Nazi group in America has more than 20 people at their monthly Sunday brunch.

Chinese netizen flash mob protests on Twitter?

(I also searched for the “speech freedom” statement that the article claims evolved later. It only turned up four results on QQ.)

You might challenge me: “But perhaps there was a large online movement that was quickly censored, so you just didn’t catch it in a search four days later.”

My answer would be: maybe, but that’s beside the point. Let’s suppose that there were dozens of people who initially acted on this call from Old Zhang. From a social movement perspective — i.e., social change perspective — the fact that they had been quickly removed and had almost zero apparent lasting effect in civil society is the sign of a poorly organized, poorly executed, and ineffective protest (as well as a sign of an effective censoring apparatus).

But we didn’t get any of these angles from the RFA article. Instead we are to suppose that these “online outcries” were widespread and loud. This is decidedly horrible journalism.

On other hand, maybe RFA wants to be considered the MSNBC or Fox News of East Asian media — i.e., openly biased and, thus, ignorable. But just like MSNBC and Fox, they influence a lot of views on China, especially on the American side of the divide.

And this doesn’t mean ignoring dissent in China. Indeed, there is a wealth of legitimate protest — in various forms — on the Mainland. Maybe RFA could do us all a service and start covering this dissent with honest journalism.


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  1. King Tubby

    Kevin. Sorry to digress you op piece. My past post re KJI being the best card hustler in Asia has been deflated. He did a few inspections, missed some Red Mansions opera put on for the occasion, and basically headed home on the personal train minus the next six months living expenses.

    Basically, Hu and company gave him bugger all and advised the US and other parties about the outcome of the meeting soon afterwards. Cant believe it, Beijing called his bluff.

    • Comrade King Tubby,

      what is next on my QQ music player?

      “Ninja” by Insane Clown Posse

      my QQ ‘one liner’ profile status

      “May 4th!!! 五四运动 its starting again!”

      草 … wrote that almost a week ago!


  2. SauLan

    I searched 言論自由 and got “older tweets are temporarily unavailable.”

    • Right. But anything before May 4th is irrelevant for the claims of RFA’s claims anyway, right? When I searched, I found entries going back to May 4th, but only 15. (And this doesn’t restrict to just May 5, which is technically when this would have been a “flash mob”.

  3. SauLan

    I just searched “freedom of speech” (in English) and got hundreds of returns.

    • But this may not apply to the claims of the RFA article; they say “The [‘Chinese netizen’] protest Tuesday began when Internet users sent out messages containing various combinations of the four Chinese characters ‘yan lun zi you’ …”

      They didn’t say anything about the protest being based in English (which would probably prevent spreading a message to the majority of potential Chinese netizens).

  4. SauLan

    Someone who shows up in a Google search for May 4th, using the search term “freedom of speech” in Chinese, now returns this:

    “Sorry, we are unable to access the page you requested:

  5. SauLan

    And check out this FB post in HK – it’s not RFA alone reporting on the May 4th incident:

  6. Isn’t RFA funded by the US gov’t? I’m not sure how unbiased they’re really trying to be…

    • From the RFA website (

      Code of ethics

      Strict adherence to the highest standards of journalism is at the very core of RFA’s mission.
      Our broadcast and online stories and programs must be accurate, fair, and balanced.

      Seems like they’re trying to be unbiased.

      Perhaps more acutely:

      We must remain independent of any political party, opposition group, exile organization, or religious body and we shall not advocate any political viewpoint.

      Anyway, even if they were openly representing the US spin on everything, shouldn’t it be in the US interest to model worthwhile journalism — i.e., freedom of speech — as an inspiration for people who may not have it? If they see stories and journalism like this, then might it not disillusion some people as to the merits (or existence) of truly free speech?

      • Oops, sorry about the lack of block quoting. (Oh, my html skills.) To be more clear, here are the two quotes on RFA’s code of ethics:

        “Strict adher ence to the high est stan dards of jour nal ism is at the very core of RFA’s mis sion.
        Our broad cast and online sto ries and pro grams must be accu rate, fair, and balanced.”

        “We must remain inde pen dent of any polit i cal party, oppo si­tion group, exile orga ni za tion, or reli gious body and we shall not advo cate any polit i cal viewpoint.”

      • pug_ster

        Go to wikipedia’s website for Radio Free Asia and the first thing you see is:

        Radio Free Asia (RFA) is a private radio station funded by the United States Congress that broadcasts the domestic news, which is otherwise not reported, within six Asian countries in nine languages.

        Unbiased? Strict adher­ence to the high­est stan­dards of jour­nal­ism? Riiiigggghhhtt.

  7. Bai Ren

    Kevin… 4 days after?! I have a bit of a problem with that. First the blocks that occure which prevent uploading posts with sensitive language on many sites. Second with the rough numbers of 30 000 net cops, sensitive stuff DOES NOT last longer than seconds, minutes hours, especially on may 4th…
    But your nose is to the groud and your are definatly in the know to be able to follow the situation in as real time as possibile.

    As for your caviate that the free speech movement around this event is not large because there is no following momentum… so what? This might just be the nature of the dissident chinese netizen beast. are there previous examples of protest movements in china where there are continious efforts made by public intellectuals which appear isolated but are part of a historical social change? To say that there aren’t would certianly give your arguement more force.

    And props for quoting the RFA’s code of ethics in the comments. Its good to show that criticisms made agains them adhere to the standards they publically claim to adhere to

    • Bairen, in regards to censorship, I still think their would be some residual effects if this were as weighty as RFA says. This goes especially for non-censored sites like Twitter. Even days after the fact, the number included in the “movement” are extremely small. (At this moment, there have been three tweets in two days.)

      As for your second question about an example of public intellectuals, I’m not sure I’m clear here on what your asking for. Could you please clarify?

      • PS – The lack of a following on Twitter shows that this movement probably didn’t connect well with the int’l community that supports Chinese dissent transnationally. This is even worse for the “flash mob” because the lack of staying power on Chinese websites means that it needs to gain lasting momentum somewhere else — and Twitter or other non-censored sites are a good place.

        But such a small following on Twitter means that this really hasn’t seeped into a dissent network outside of China either. It was a little attempt, and as a result had little consequence (it seems).

    • SauLan,

      Thanks for providing these articles. You are definitely showing that it wasn’t RFA alone that noticed. However, I am not questioning necessarily reporting on the event, I am questioning the wording and accuracy.

      If the RFA article were unbiased and more useful, then it would talk about the size of the “movement” and it’s relative lack of a major following. Or if it there *was* a big following but it was censored, then RFA should have discussed how and why such efforts are not gaining a larger movement.

      What I’ve been arguing here is: there is a threshold where “everyday stuff” becomes “news”. I’m just not sure that this crossed that threshold. How many people in America complain — in groups — about the US gov’t policies everyday? A lot. Why aren’t we hearing about it in newspapers? Because the groups are too small to actually create a large wave in the social fabric; these aren’t “news” — these are daily occurrences.

      Even in China, people complain all of the time in small associations and on different internet venues. But not all of these deserve to be called a large movement. They need to be connected to a large political context with some sort of lasting organizational aspect — even if informal.

      Anyway, the “real” story here, perhaps, is that such terms were removed so quickly — the continued self-censorship by websites. That is worth reporting because it is apart of a larger trend. But the “movement” itself may not have been so big.

      Why do you think?

      • oiasunset

        Last time I checked RFA Chinese service is staffed by FLG followers – what do you expect from them?

        I do support those Chinese twitters’ freedom of speech, but they look more and more like a self-exiled small group of people who speak mostly to themselves. They know that and that aggravates their anger and pushes them into more radical thinkings, which in turn further isolates themselves – a vicious cycle indeed.

        Funny though, Chinese censors mostly tolerate those extreme comments on popular forums, such as “we will slaughter your whole family once we have democracy” etc. Sometimes I wonder if this is a smart CCP plot to radicalise the dissidents so as to scare off the populace.

  8. K

    I have to disagree when you say that RFA: “just like MSNBC and Fox, they influ­ence a lot of views on China, espe­cially on the Amer­i­can side of the divide.”

    How many Americans listen to RFA? Surely the audience for RFA is in Asia, not America?

    • I think they are not seen as the leader in China news by any means, but their stories are widely syndicated on news aggregators, like Google News or Yahoo News. I don’t know the readership, but if they have a wider audience in Asia, too (i.e., a wider reach), then wouldn’t this make the imperative for good journalism even stronger?

      • Kevin makes a good point here. RFA gets a lot of syndication on English language news sources. While their target audience is supposed to be the underserved wool-over-their-eyes Asian population, its arguable that they have far more influence over foreigners and yes, Americans.