Although the Chinese authorities are stepping up their regulatory efforts, some elements of Chinese society have nonetheless started to use pagers and cell phones for alternative or even oppositional political organisation. Despite the lack of systematic examination, it is likely that three social groups may have used wireless technologies to further their political ends. First is the Falungong group that Beijing denounces as an ‘evil cult’. Second, there have been constant demonstrations by laid-off urbanites or pensioners, such as the massive protests of workers in the petroleum and machinery industries in north-east China in 2002 (Associated Press 2002). Third, in the countryside there have also been protests against the misconduct and corruption of local officials (Duffy and Zhao 2004). Some members of these movements, especially the organisers, may have used wireless technologies (especially the low-end applications such as prepaid phone cards and Little Smart) for small-scale coordination. However, this technical adoption is yet to have any significant impact upon the existing power balance, because so far all these perceived challenges to the state have been kept under control at the national level despite sporadic outbursts in certain localities.

Wireless communication, especially text messages, featured prominently as a means of coordinating the activities of protesters and sending out alerts about ongoing activities, such as spontaneous gatherings or police arrests, at least from the perspective of news coverage of the protests. For example, text messages were used to call a spontaneous rally on 1 September at the pier where arrested protesters were being held by the police (Simon 2004). Other people used text messages to decide which protests they would attend, or to avoid ‘hot spots’ where police brutality was taking place. Especially prominent were warning messages about where police were located and whether they were arresting protesters (see Box 8.1).

The Mobilisation around the Republican National Convention in New York

The Republican Party held its 2004 National Convention (RNC) from 30 August to 2 September amid heightened expectations of disturbances caused by anti-Bush activists. The run-up to the New York convention was characterised by reports and rumours of planned and potentially spontaneous protests and of how the police and security agencies were preparing to deal with these incidents (Carpenter 2004; Gibbs 2004; Shachtman 2004; Terdiman 2004). Comparisons were made to the battle of Seattle in 1999, when over 40,000 protesters descended on the city from all over the world to protest against the policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO), leading to scenes of violence and contributing to the breakdown of the WTO talks. What was particularly interesting about these reports was that the central role of wireless communication was taken for granted, not just in the protests but in all aspects of the convention. In the event, several (mostly non-violent) protests were indeed coordinated primarily via wireless communication and the internet, leading to over 17,000 arrests. The convention itself was hardly affected by the protests apart from a few minor disruptions. In fact, President Bush experienced a bounce of two percentage points in the polls (among likely voters) after the convention (The Economist 2004; Jones 2004). These events occurred too recently for any judgements to be made about their immediate or long-term impact. Preliminary examination, however, indicates that this was a case where the use of wireless communication technologies served to enhance efficiency but not to effect change.

A parliamentary commission investigating the events of 11–14 March produced evidence that, without necessarily lying, at the very least the PP government had delayed the publication of some critical information, and stated as facts propositions that were still under scrutiny. There was clearly an inclination to favour the hypothesis of Basque terrorism and not to give priority to following the Islamic trail, in spite of the early leads of the police in this direction. But, regardless of the extent of manipulation that actually took place, what counts is that thousands of citizens were convinced on 12 and 13 March that such manipulation was happening, and that they decided to diffuse their views to the entire population through wireless communication and the internet. The main television networks, under the direct or indirect control of the government, were supporting the Basque terrorist hypothesis, as did most of the radio networks (though not the largest one) and most of the print media, after the Prime Minister personally called the editors of the main newspapers and gave them his personal word that the attack was carried out by ETA.

Terrorism, political manipulation, autonomous communication, social mobilisation, and political change: Spain, March 2004

On 11 March 2004, a Madrid-based, mainly Moroccan, radical Islamic group associated with Al-Qaeda conducted in Madrid the largest terrorist attack in Europe, bombing three suburban trains, killing 199 people and wounding over 1,000. The bombing was conducted by remote-control-activated cell phones. Indeed, it was the discovery of a cell phone calling card in an unexploded bag that led to the identification of the phone and the arrest of the culprits. Al-Qaeda took responsibility for the bombing later that evening. The attack took place in a very special political context, four days before the Spanish parliamentary elections, which were dominated by the debate on the participation of Spain in the Iraq war, a policy opposed by the vast majority of Spanish citizens. Yet the conservative party, Partido Popular (PP), was considered the likely winner of the election, based on its record on economic policy and its stand on Basque terrorism. However, in the last weeks before the election the young, charismatic Socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero waged an impressive electoral campaign, so that on 10 March 2004 opinion polls rendered the result of the election too close to call one way or another.

As the day of the election dawned on 19 December 2002, Nosamo members were struck by a deep sense of crisis. With their main web site having been closed for the month preceding election eve, young activists started the day by posting online messages such as ‘Let’s go vote!’ (Rhee 2003: 96). By 11 a.m. exit polls showed that Roh was losing by a margin of 1 to 2 per cent (Fulford 2003; Rhee 2003: 96). At midday, ‘[h]is supporters hit the chat rooms to drum up support. Within minutes more than 800,000 e-mails were sent to mobile phones to urge supporters to go out and vote. Traditionally apathetic young voters surged to the polls, and by 2 p.m., Roh took the lead and went on to win the election’ (Fulford 2003).

Wireless communication and the ‘people who love Roh’ in South Korea

On 19 December 2002, South Korea elected its new president, Roh Moo-Hyun, a major part of whose victory has been widely attributed to Nosamo, an online supporter group known by this Korean acronym of ‘People who Love Roh’. The success of Roh and of Nosamo is now ‘a textbook example for the power of IT’ (Hachigian and Wu 2003: 68), which systematically utilised a combination of the internet and mobile phone-based communication While the internet-based campaign had lasted for years, providing the core political networks, it was the mobile phones that mobilised large number of young voters on the election day and finally reversed the voting result (Fulford 2003; see also S.-D. Kim n.d.; Rhee 2003).

News coverage of the demonstrations invariably highlights the role of new communication technologies, especially short message service (SMS) and the internet, in facilitating the protests. On one account, anti-Estrada information began to accumulate in online forums as soon as he took office in 1998, amounting to some 200 web sites and about 100 e-mail discussion groups by the time People Power II started (Pabico n.d.). A famous online forum is E-Lagda.com, which collected 91,000 e-signatures to support the impeachment through both the internet and SMS (Bagalawis 2001). Besides imparting pure information, many internet and text messages poked fun at Estrada, his (allegedly) corrupted life, and his poor English.

The Philippines: People Power II

In January 2001 thousands of cell-phone touting Filipinos took part in massive demonstrations now dubbed ‘People Power II’ (following the original People Power movement that overthrew Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in 1986). This four-day event has become legendary as the first occasion in human history when the mobile phone played an instrumental role in removing the head of the government of a nation-state (Bagalawis 2001; see also Salterio 2001: 25).

Without prejudging on the desirability of political autonomy (because, naturally, it can be used to support very different kinds of political values and interests), we have observed a growing tendency by people in different contexts to use wireless communication to voice their discontent with the powers that be, and to organise protests by inducing ‘flash mobilisations’ that have sometimes made a considerable impact on formal politics and government decisions. To document this tendency, and to explore its implications, we analyse in this chapter four cases of political mobilisation in which wireless communication played a significant role. These are the ousting of President Estrada from the Philippines in 2001, the election of Korean President Moo-Hyun in 2002, the electoral defeat of the Spanish Partido Popular in 2004 and the organisation of a series of protests during the US Republican Party’s national convention in 2004. In the final section of our chapter we consider two cases in which wireless communication did not result in socio-political mobilisation, and emphasise the importance of political frameworks and institutions in shaping the uses of technology. Thus we briefly discuss the factors underlying the political apathy of mobile phone subscribers in Japan and especially in China during the SARS epidemic of 2003. In our view, any attempt to understand civil society, both global and local, in the twenty-first century will have to pay attention to the interplay between institutions, technology and values in the process and outcomes of social organisation and social mobilisation.

Introduction: civil society and communication technology

The structuring of civil society evolves with its institutional, cultural, and technological context. The more this context maximises the chances of autonomy vis-à-vis the state, the more civil society empowers itself. Interactive electronic communication, and particularly wireless communication, provides a powerful platform for political autonomy on the basis of independent channels of autonomous communication, from person to person, and from group to group. The communication networks that mobile telephony makes possible can be formed and re-formed instantly, and messages are received from a known source, enhancing their credibility. The network logic of the communication process makes it a high-volume communication channel, but with a considerable degree of personalisation and interactivity. In this sense, the wide availability of individually controlled wireless communication effectively bypasses the mass media as a source of information, and creates a new public space.

Without that counterpart the democratic nature of global communication appears very open to question. Did the private video recording and global dissemination of the last living moments of Saddam Hussein, as he was led to execution, help to undermine the authority of the new representative democracy of Iraq by publicising the deep factional loathing that tears at Iraqi society? Or does it show that institutions imposed by force of arms are vulnerable to an even stronger force of global public opinion?