China’s Contested Internet by Guobin Yang (ed.)

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.

China’s Contested Internet, Guobin Yang (ed) (NIAS Press, August 2015)
China’s Contested Internet, Guobin Yang (ed) (NIAS Press, August 2015)

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.

Let One Hundred Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything by Liz Carter

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.

Let One Hundred Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, Liz Carter (IB Tauris, June 2015)
Let One Hundred Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, Liz Carter (IB Tauris, June 2015)

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.

Flashback: Luzhou (part one)

Due to its length, this post will be divided into two parts. Look for Part Two next week.

Last month, the story of Matt Stopera’s trip to China to meet ‘Brother Orange’, the owner of his stolen iPhone, went viral. Matt became somewhat of a celebrity in China and was often overwhelmed by the attention and hospitality he encountered. Inevitably, he and Bro Orange became the best of friends. When I read the story, the first thing that came to mind was that this was definitely one of those ‘only in China’ moments.

I have a story that is in some ways very similar to theirs. It takes place in Luzhou (泸州), Sichuan in July 2010. 

Like Bro Orange’s hometown of Meizhou, you’ve probably never heard of Luzhou, despite its population of 4.8 million. I hadn’t heard of it either, until I began planning my first real trip around China after completing my first semester of exchange in Beijing. I decided it would be interesting to venture to the ancient village of Yaoba, located on the outskirts of the city, where the lack of foreign tourists would make for a more unique travel experience. Thus, I added Luzhou to the itinerary.

Although I did not become a celebrity, like Matt I made wonderful friends in the most unexpected of places.

My story begins like this.

尧坝古镇6
A scene from the town of Yaoba, Luzhou. Photograph taken by the author.

Getting There

After a three-hour bus ride from Chengdu, Sichuan’s provincial capital, S and I were in Luzhou. With no understanding of the bus routes, we opted for a short cab ride to our motel. Our amateur traveller status was revealed by my realisation that the booking confirmation only included the motel’s English name. The driver pretended to know where we were going. Five minutes later, after being told it was ‘across the road’, we were dropped off. 

With nothing resembling a motel in sight, we quickly became lost. Coming to Luzhou suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea.

We started poring over maps, becoming more and more despondent and wondering whether we would ever be able to find this motel. In another display of amateurism, we remembered that we only had one night in Luzhou, and my goal of visiting Yaoba was very unrealistic as we actually had no idea how to get there from the city.

That’s when we met P and Z. 

Having already travelled to a few major cities in China, we had developed a certain level of cynicism. In our experience, friendly faces and offers of assistance were not to be accepted without careful consideration.  

So, when P and Z approached us asking in English if we needed assistance, I replied rather curtly in Chinese that we were fine, just looking for our motel. 

Upon hearing me speak Chinese, the dynamic changed immediately. After looking at our map and ascertaining the location, they offered to drive us there. We were nowhere near it. Unaccustomed to accepting lifts from strangers, we were a little apprehensive. However, as we didn’t really have any choice, we got in.

Having successfully checked in, P and Z waited for us to unload our backpacks.

‘It’s our son’s birthday today. We would like to invite you to our home for lunch! He would love to meet you!’

‘What’s going on?’ asked S.

‘Um… I think we’re going to a birthday party.’