During his Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956-7, Mao Zedong encouraged intellectuals to mobilize and publicly criticize the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in order to improve it.
Today, the Internet, with its myriad communication platforms, has become another vehicle for mobilization, as online communities emerge to fight for common causes. While the Party obviously does not encourage public criticism, most of the causes championed by netizens are indeed aimed against CCP policy and practice. Liz Carter’s Let 100 Voices Speak examines these hundred voices (or more accurately, 632 million voices) of the World Wide Web and their impact on Chinese society and politics.
In this book, Carter maps the diverse Internet cultures and countercultures that have emerged in recent years, especially via Sina Weibo, which is often described as China’s Twitter. Causes championed by netizens range from feminism, social mobility, and sexuality to pollution, patriotism, education, and anti-corruption. Carter successfully explores the spectrum of internet-based “parties” or dang, all of which have one thing in common: dissatisfaction with how the all-powerful Party is running China.
Carter demonstrates the power of social media in China through such case studies as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which revealed the tragic lack of adequate infrastructure planning; the 2011 Wenzhou train crash, which created a critical conversation about the pace of China’s economic development; “Brother Watch”, a Shaanxi official whose designer timepieces attracted public attention to his corruption, and Tang Hui, whose battle for justice for her kidnapped daughter who was forced into prostitution stimulated popular debate about China’s judicial system.
Let 100 Voices Speak also captures the debate within China and among scholars about the relationship between the people, Government, and Internet. Does censorship encourage creativity? Is Weibo a force for positive change, even democracy? Who is actually in control: the people or the Government? These questions have no simple answers, but Carter provides a starting point from which to consider the influence of social media on the non-virtual lives and experiences of China’s 1.3 billion people.
Carter argues that the “collective experience of censorship” has drawn Chinese netizens together in ways that would be impossible in real life, and describes the unique ways they circumvent censors, including developing their own subversive online language. The book includes a helpful glossary to explain some of this language. At the same time, Let 100 Voices Speak does not ignore the CCP’s vast resources and power, which have allowed it to successfully stem the flow of online subversion before it gets close to toppling the Party. Carter aptly describes this process as “adaptive authoritarianism”.
Nevertheless, Carter is optimistic that online platforms, especially Weibo, will ultimately lead to change at the highest levels of the Chinese Government. The book’s subtitle, “How the internet is transforming China and changing everything”, reflects this. This optimistic assessment might however be viewed in the experience of the so-called Arab Spring: during the protests and their aftermath, many scholars and commentators claimed the Internet played a decisive role in the downfall of repressive regimes. However, looking at the current situation in Egypt, Syria, and Libya, it is evident that idealism is often short-lived. China itself has a long legacy of stifling dissent and activism: the recently adopted national security law will give the Government even greater legal powers to continue doing so.
We shall have to wait and see whether the hundred voices of China’s Internet will be permitted to speak loudly enough to effect long-lasting, positive change, or suffer the same fate as Mao’s hundred flowers, which were brutally purged and forced to remain silent under the CCP’s censorship machine. In the meantime, Let 100 Voices Speak is an excellent introduction for those who are not well-acquainted with the world of Weibo. It is a highly readable addition to previous research on China’s social media, and accessible enough for the general reader with an interest in Chinese society.
This review was originally published by the Asian Review of Books on 7 July 2015.