Twitter Hosts a Different Kind of Tea Party

When I think of a cup of tea, I think: calm, tranquil, serene. The mental picture is two hands on a steaming cup, eyes closed while I breathe in vapors that tantalize the senses with hints of chamomile, mint or citrus smells (depending on my mood).  Now thanks to a story from the Associated Press this week on Chinese activists going online to blast “drinking tea” warnings by meddlesome authorities, I’ll never see that cup of tea quite the same way.

According to the Associated Press story:

Police have long tried to shush and isolate potential activists, usually starting with a low-key warning, perhaps over a meal or a cup of tea. Now, the country’s troublemakers are openly blogging and tweeting their stories about “drinking tea” with the cops, allowing the targeted citizens to bond and diluting the intimidation they feel.

The movement is an embarrassment for officials, who are suspicious of anything that looks like an organized challenge to their authority. And it can’t help that “drinking tea” stories seem to be spreading among ordinary Chinese, including ones who signed a recent online call for political reform.

The country’s top political event of the year, the National People’s Congress, has given the stories another bump. More than 200 people say they’ve been invited by police to “drink tea” since just Friday, when the congress began, said independent political blogger Ran Yunfei.

 That Chinese activists found ways to go around official censorship of the Internet and get their stories out to others helps increased a sense of community for those under scrutiny and reinforces the power potential of the Internet.

 As we saw in Iran following the disputed June 2009 elections and for Haiti after January’s massive earthquake social media like Twitter can simultaneously allow users to spread information about events and draw in a truly international “coalition” of people who feel the same or empathize with the challenges. Those coalition members can and have raised the profile of the issue, raised money and provided invaluable moral support to those struggling through difficult situations.

 It’s a strange kind of magic that unfolds via spells crafted of 140 characters or less. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what practitioners come up with next.

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