Review of Guobin Yang’s Power of the Internet in China

September 29, 2009

A country whose public is fiercely nationalistic, but whose NGOs maintain an unusually high degree of contact with organizations in other countries. A country where organizations with relatively poor Internet connections and little money make significantly greater use of the Internet than organizations with much better Internet connections and far greater resources. And a country where the hoary old technology of bulletin boards (BBSes) is enormously popular, with far more users than the social networking sites that have deep penetration in other countries.

All in all, it’s hard to comprehend and generalize about the 338 million Internet users that China now boasts. Guobin Yang’s recent book, The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online, is more useful as a starting point for discussion than an authority to resolve debates. Yang has found some interesting new data, as well as summarizing other reports, about Internet use in China. And I think he helps the rest of us to ask better questions, although any answers he offers are tentative.

In this article I’ll extract some of Yang’s research and ladle on a good amount of my own opinions.

Expression, dissent, and the Internet

Let’s start by delving into one odd technical detail, the enduring popularity of BSSes in China. Yang did not say why BBSes still attract so many people in contrast to newer types of forums, but I can draw some conclusions from the history of Internet use he describes.

China had true Internet access for the first time in 1994. This predated blogs, wikis, web-based forums of the Yahoo! Group type, and Friendster-style social networks. But there were BBSes, and they attained instant popularity. It seems that Internet users in China were more interested in chatting than in web surfing.

I try to understand this explosion of interest by imagining someone who signs up for college courses but can never spend free time on campus because she has to rush off to work or do child care. For years she comes to classrooms, hears lectures, and runs off.

Then, having a bit of extra time one day, she happens upon a lounge filled with dozens of groups of students like her, talking up a storm about their courses and every other topic under the sun. Imagine the excitement of finding this unrestrained flow of ideas. And now extend this feeling to a Chinese person who has grown up hearing nothing in the media but official pronouncements her whole life. That, to me, explains the rush to BBSes and their firm hold on Internet communication in China.

In short, BBSes were the most advanced social networking tools available when people started going online in large numbers, and the forums filled such a hunger that they became the dominant mode of online communication and stayed that way. (Bandwidth may also be a consideration.)

Yang describes the joy that Chinese Internet users have when they discover they can exchange ideas with ordinary people throughout the country, and further notes that the culture online lends itself to attacks on authority. No public figure, no institution, no cultural icon is sacred enough to avoid derision and parody. The iconoclasm is rarely explicitly political, but it definitely creates an environment that tolerates distrust of authority.

Yang’s impression is that online culture, at least in China, tends to be flippant. I don’t know whether his data supports that impression, because he also quotes plenty of righteously enraged postings by people protesting injustice. His broad view of the subtly subversive nature of grassroots online contributions, and the way that everyday commentary on culture can carry a subversive message even when they’re not overtly political, fits well with the research of Henry Jenkins in books such as Convergence Culture.

But in any case, I agree with Yang that offering people a forum for self-expression will inevitably lead to disagreement. Some of the disagreement is trivial—clashing opinions about pop musicians, or spats over living arrangements in college—but some of it takes on a tinge of social and political commentary. In order to treat all these forms of disagreement together (the trivial, the subjective, the significant, and the political), Yang uses the term “contention” more than “dissent” and claims that the Internet is naturally “contentious.”

The next question is how far a person can go in posting controversial ideas. Some are trivial enough to be uttered safely, while others can hide under the wings of official sanction. For instance, one can usually call for better environmental enforcement, investigations of local corruption, or a protest against Japanese justifications of their World War Two record, because the central government officially supports each of these positions.

When a Chinese person wants to challenge the government’s view more directly, the chance of censorship or punishment depends on a host of factors, including the current political climate, which forum he posts to, the time of day he’s posting, and even whether the post starts a new thread. By posting an answer to an existing thread, a person is less likely to attract notice. But his hope is to have alert readers pick up the post and repost it elsewhere, until the flood of postings is too large to be retracted.

Yang’s technological optimism dominated the concluding section of the book, which recycled common notions that the Internet tends naturally to be a forum for free debate and social change. It should be noted that many observers are more cautious in their assessment, such as the 2003 report Open Networks, Closed Regimes, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Connectivity, inside and outside China

Yang’s most interesting investigations come in Chapter 6, which presents data about the use of the Internet by Chinese civic associations, and Chapter 8, where he looks at the connections between Chinese and non-Chinese organizations. Both of these phenomena are higher than most people would expect, and apparently higher than comparable data for other developing nations.

There is a clear correlation between an organization’s ability to get on the Internet—the number of computers per person, and the number of Internet-connected computers—and the organization’s use of the Internet. But the correlation is negative. In other words, organizations with less opportunity to get on the Internet actually use it more.

The reason, according to Yang, is that better-connected organizations tend to be businesses and tend to have strong connections with the government. Unmediated, person-to-person connections are more powerful and effective everywhere than Internet connections, and in China these unmediated connections are effective at getting businesses what they need from the government or other major institutions. The Internet just isn’t a major part of their strategy.

In contrast, it’s the more marginal organizations, particularly non-profit civil associations, that lack person-to-person connections with powerful actors and have to resort to broader communications, such as grassroots appeals and collaboration with other organizations like their own. Therefore, they’re more likely to maintain web pages and use the Internet in other ways.

Newer organizations also use the Internet more often than older ones.

The degree of contact between Chinese civic associations and people outside China is also surprisingly high. Some of this is strategic, as evidenced by the following:

But international communication is also quite normal. In Chapter 6, Yang finds that 71% of the civic organizations he surveyed have contact with international organizations, and most use it not only to exchange information but for “project collaboration.” This outpouring of dialog contrasts strikingly with the “Great Firewall of China” impression most outsiders have. Of course, the Chinese government blocks some traffic, but it can’t possibly choke off all relations between people.

But there’s another side to international relations that Yang fails to cover, one that I’ve encountered in other readings. Essentially, the campaigns waged by outsiders are often unpopular with people inside China.

The most pressing issues to many political activists in the West—often inspired by religious convictions of one type or another—are frankly opposed by most ethnic Chinese in China. The people inside the country tend to agree with their government on these issues.

And even on issues where there’s a lot of sympathy among people inside China—such as human rights—the citizens of China are often angered by the tactics used by outsiders when they seem aimed at hurting the country as a whole. This was notably apparent in calls from outsiders to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

I’m not suggesting that people outside China should abandon political campaigns, but that the mismatch between their world view and that of Chinese citizens probably limits the effectiveness of such campaigns.

The cultural context for Internet expression

As a sociologist, Yang finds the social and cultural patterns of Internet use just as interesting as the political patterns. I won’t cover all of his topics here, but I’ll mention the three overaching metaphors he found Chinese using for the Internet. These say a lot about the Chinese attitude toward their country and toward social changes of the past few decades, as well as their attitude toward how they can make effective use of the Internet.

Open space

People coming online are awed by the reach of the Internet. Yang quotes one user comparing it to an ocean. As I mentioned near the beginning of the essay, this feeling contrasts with the rigidity of conventional Chinese media. The aspiration propelling this metaphor is freedom.

Home or community

Yang cites many people who describe their web pages or blogs using metaphors of homes and of inviting people in. The wider sense of a community is also frequently invoked.

The search for community is quite touching in light of the degradation of actual, physical communities in China over the past thirty years. Workers have lost jobs at state-owned facilities they thought were impregnable; migrants have move off to uncertain and temporary lives in the city; neighborhoods have been torn down over the objections of home owners to make way for shiny new complexes.

The use of the Internet to fight for the old communities and to build new ones in China may be an excellent case study that is relevant to the rest of the world. The aspiration propelling this metaphor is trust or solidarity.

Martial arts

Chinese literature has often been set, for many centuries, in a fantasy world known as Rivers and Lakes where good and evil fight out epic battles. One can see this fantasy world in Chinese martial arts films, and it fits quite comfortably with the video or multi-player online games of today.

The Rivers and Lakes metaphor appears in many postings of Internet users who see their forums as battles for underdogs and neglected causes. The metaphor reflects the view that corruption is out of control and that society is no longer supportive—but that using the Internet, people can change all that. The aspiration propelling this metaphor is justice.

Solidarity and justice come together when a poignant story about poverty or mistreatment goes up on an Internet site and draws sympathizers. Victims often raise large sums of money this way. During one high-profile case described by Yang, when Internet users challenged the veracity of the hard-luck story, two citizen journalists traveled long distances to the victim’s home to investigate, a quest oddly similar to a short story I wrote two years ago named Validators.

This kind of phenomenon has apparently gone to the point where “human flesh search engines” trail people who are viewed as corrupt or unethical by communities on the Internet, and post private data to embarrass the offenders and put a halt to their activities. Staff at the O’Reilly Beijing office alerted me to a recent movie called Invisible Killer whose fictional plot explores human flesh search engines.

As a final point about culture, it’s worth looking at Yang’s summary of the political climate in China over recent decades.

The 1980s in China was like the 1960s in much of the rest of the world: idealism and optimism flourished, particularly among young people. There was not only a yearning for radical change but a conviction that change was truly inevitable.

The backlash and disappointment that resulted left its shadow over many subsequent years. As Yang quotes one Chinese scholar, “The age of innocence is gone.” And the 1990s in China resembled what happened to many Western activists in the 1970s.

In both cases, a lot of people concentrated on making money and indulging their consumerism; others turned inward with a variety of spiritual practices. Those who remained politically active shrank their expectations and took on more short-term, achievable goals. Central to many of these campaigns was a focus on the needs of one social group, such as women, gays, or even (in the case of China) the millions of hepatitis-B carriers who face a good deal of unjust discrimination. This focus has been called “identity politics” in the West.

But the end of idealism in China did not involve an apocalyptic catastrophe such as Suharto’s 1965 purge in Indonesia or Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile. Most Chinese activists remained around in the 1990s, and some of the old idealism peeks through regularly.

About the book

The Power of the Internet in China, I should warn you, was written by a sociologist and is directed more at sociologists than at political activists or general observers like me. That doesn’t mean it will be of interest only to sociologists, just that many academic distinctions Yang finds pressing will cause readers like me to shrug.

The book also assumes some sophistication with Chinese culture and history. If you don’t know what the May Fourth movement was or what historical roles were played by political scientist, activist, and journalist Liang Qichao, a bit of web searching will help you understand a lot more of The Power of the Internet in China. This book may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I enjoyed it for both the facts Yang offered and the window he opened into a culture I know very little about but that I’m sure will come to have a bigger and bigger impact on my life.

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Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media. This article represents his views only.

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