The Internet in China and its Political Implications (Literature Review) | MIT Center for Civic Media

The Internet in China and its Political Implications (Literature Review)

This week I examined several books on the political implications of the Internet in China and all of them called for studies on the intricate complexity of the relations between the Internet and political sphere. Factors such as market, state-society, culture, civil society, public opinion and international relations more or less are included in the discussion. There seems to be a consensus from the current literature that the great dynamics and complexity of social conditions should be taken into consideration rather than simply to adopt a technological determinism view that assumes the use of Internet will automatically lead to democratization. It does not sound like a profound discovery, but actually it is one of the most difficult tasks for current scholars to reveal the complexity of various relations in this field. Scholars situate themselves to different levels of interventions, some touching on political backgrounds(Tang, 2005), some historicizing the Internet (Zhou, 2005), some on policy advocacy(Kalathil, 2003). All of the books provide vivid and substantial evidence such as case studies, interviews, and surveys, but not all of them are theoretically coherent. From the books I touched on this week, I particularly recommend Zhao Yuezhi’s Communication in China and Yang Guobin’s The Power of the Internet in China.

Zhao focuses on the role of accelerated market reform and global economic integration, and she adapts the dynamics of communication system, the formation of class, social contention to a framework of “neoliberalism” in Chinese context. She does not simply transplant the western concept of neoliberalism into eastern soil, but rather she incorporates socialist legacy and promises of the state into her larger framework. It does not suggest that she expresses her optimistic attitude toward the party-state, and she spends large portion of the book stressing the problems of unequal distribution of power, social conflicts and ideological tensions. She portrays a contradictory entity in which “competing bureaucratic interests, divergent social forces, and different visions of Chinese modernity” struggle with each other.(P11). She opens debates on the relationship between market and democracy, and specifically for the Internet industry, the commercialization might contribute to open environment but also provides opportunities of control and monopoly.

The primary reason that makes Zhao’s and Yang’s works distinctive to other books is that they have a consistent framework or key concept to address the complexity and dynamics of Chinese online sphere. Zhao locates herself in market economy of China as mentioned above, and Yang examines the contentious character of Chinese online sphere through “multi-interactionism”. He foregrounds online activism in interaction with state power, culture, the market, civil society and transnationalism. His approach moves beyond the structured analysis of different factors in social science studies, and what draws me great interest is that he expands his argument to cultural characteristics of contentious discourses on the Internet. His analysis on the processes of symbolic use of rituals, practices, and power of narratives is another feature that distinguishes from other works.

Other forces that are shaping our understanding of the Chinese political online sphere and are frequently analyzed in scholarly books include the informationalizaion as economic gain(Tai, 2006), the concept of civil society in China (Tai, 2006), the fractured control on the Internet (Kalathil, 2003), e-governance (Kalathil, 2003), historical forces (Zhou, 2005) and so on. Kalathil’s Open Network, Closed Regimes was not specifically written on China but there is one chapter that captured many interesting and important aspects of Chinese politics in relation with democracy. For example he argues that our understanding of the role of government in the online sphere should not be simplified to suppression of the opposite opinions, and he points out the actions of building up a transparent government through the Internet can increase the accountability of the authoritarian regime. At the end, he proposes that the over use of “conventional wisdom” might result in improper international policy. Zhou also criticizes the taken for granted paradigm that the Internet democratizes society, but he made an interesting intervention to support his argument. He compares the different historical periods when the telegraph and the Internet emerged. In the beginning of these two mediums, their potentialities are not fully adopted or regulated, so it creates opportunities of political participation, and also anxieties from the regime. He mentioned the nationalism in both periods legitimized the political engagement. Tai discusses what the concept of civil society is like in Chinese context, and he also embraced a full dimensional view, but it is hard to follow the linkage between his equilibrium analysis and concrete empirical cases. Tang starts his book from reviewing social backgrounds such as Confucius thinking in modern China, communist tradition, open up market, and current mixture of these traditions. He tries to locate the implications of the Internet use into these social environments, but it seems to be an ambitious plan which requires more in-depth analysis and consistent framework.

Kalathil, S., & Boas, T. C. (2003). Open networks, closed regimes: the impact of the Internet on authoritarian rule. Carnegie Endowment.
Tang, W. (2005). Public opinion and political change in China. Stanford University Press.
Zhou, Y. (2006). Historicizing online politics: telegraphy, the Internet, and political participation in China. Stanford University Press.
Tai, Z. (2006). The Internet in China: cyberspace and civil society. CRC Press.
Zhao, Y. (2008). Communication in China: political economy, power, and conflict. Rowman & Littlefield.
Yang, G. (2009). The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. Columbia University Press.