The title of China’s Contested Internet evokes images of a battle between the Chinese government (or Chinese Communist Party) and the popularly-termed Chinese “netizens”, the 642 million users of the Internet in China. On the contrary, the contributors to China’s Contested Internet demonstrate throughout the book’s 10 chapters that most scholars’ narrow focus on government vs netizen seriously limits the scope and depth of scholarship of online interactions in China. In fact, there are multiple contestants in and contests over China’s Internet, and they all have important parts to play in the story of its evolution.
The term “netizen” itself is challenged; in her chapter ‘Hackerspaces and the Internet of things in China’, Silvia Lindtner argues that rather than being considered passive users of the Internet, netizens should be actually viewed as empowered individuals who contribute to knowledge production by developing new technologies. With the Chinese government largely perceived as a monolithic entity, it is sometimes easy to forget the agency that individuals have in changing, adapting, or even creating the systems in place.
Similarly, official microblogging accounts of government departments are usually viewed as being under the direct command of China’s central government. This is perhaps a byproduct of a general lack of awareness, on a more basic level, of divergent interest groups within the central and local governments. However, as Jesper Schlaeger and Min Jiang explain in their chapter ‘Official microblogging and social management by local governments in China’, far from simply being pawns of an all-powerful body, local governments are afforded a certain degree of freedom and flexibility in their approach to managing official microblogs and responding to citizen feedback, and may be described as “fragmented” in their approaches.
Of course, fragmented interest groups also exist among China’s “netizens”. In examining the case study of the so-called Southern Weekly incident of 2013, Sally Xiaojin Chen demonstrates that the online and offline action taken by those protesting the Guangdong propaganda department censorship of Southern Weekly’s New Year editorial reflected distinct motivations and expressions, all facilitated by the medium of the Internet. Therefore, in this case, the contest was not only between citizens and the government, but also citizens and media outlets, between different media outlets, former journalists and media outlets, and citizens with conflicting goals, as each party sought to shape the outcome of the ensuing protests.
In general, China’s Internet is either studied through the lens of total control, or as a component of “liberation technologies” enabling ordinary people to create freedom and democracy in an otherwise oppressed society. In her chapter ‘Voice, power and connectivity in China’s microblogosphere’, Marina Svensson highlights analyses of the 2011 Wukan protests, which resulted in the overthrow of the local government and election of a new village leader, as well as responses to the Wenzhou train crash in the same year, as popular examples of this trend. Svensson challenges this narrow view of liberation technologies, noting that while there are more Weibo users in China than Twitter users in the West, only a very small fraction of these users are what are described as “amplifiers” or “transmitters” with any voice or influence over online debates. Online and offline, those occupying influential and public positions, rather than ordinary citizens or marginalized groups, are those whom many netizens consider “opinion leaders”, and therefore of whom the government is most afraid.
On the other side of the coin, Jian Xu argues there is an online weiguan or “spectator” culture, rooted in historical and political traditions, that is reflected in participation in such online forums as Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and Weibo. His chapter ‘Online weiguan in web 2.0 China’ posits that the
… virtual, leaderless and networked weiguan action has become one of the most important collective actions in present-day China to express disagreement, grievance and dissent, and form public opinion…
and that “active spectators” have the potential to influence both government and citizen campaigns.
China’s Contested Internet is based on the notion that, in editor Guobin Yang’s words,
[t]he Internet in China has taken on such distinctly Chinese characteristics that it may now be called the Chinese Internet in the same way… we call China’s literature ‘Chinese literature’ or China’s politics ‘Chinese politics’.
In other words, scholars should not simply conceptualise the Internet in China, but consider it a unique world known as as the Chinese Internet.
However, after reading the 10 chapters of this volume, which explore topics as diverse as hackerspaces, online novels, government consultation, community groups, and ethnic identity and racial contestation, readers will discover that, while the linguistic and political features of China’s Internet may be distinctive, it shares characteristics with the Internet elsewhere. It is multifaceted and complex, and its use varies depending on which section of society, institution or individual is examined and what issues are at stake.The contestants and contests are not necessarily unique to China. After all, the Internet is about connections, not isolation.
This book review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books on 15 March 2016.