As a platform for unorganised individual Chinese expression, how is today’s internet democratising China?
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As a platform for unorganised individual Chinese expression, how is today’s internet democratising China?

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My Dissertation: At the turn of the twentieth century, conventional wisdom dictated that the Internet would be the harbinger of democratic revolution in authoritarian countries such as China. A decade ...

My Dissertation: At the turn of the twentieth century, conventional wisdom dictated that the Internet would be the harbinger of democratic revolution in authoritarian countries such as China. A decade later, the “Web 2.0 Revolution” holds new promise for real world revolution. However, Internet-assisted revolution in China has been limited by a lack of cyber-dissidents and stymied by a censorship system which has adapted to meet the challenges of Web 2.0. At the same time, discussion on both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 is facilitating an increasingly powerful representative public opinion and is nurturing democratic values. As such, this online discussion holds significance in its potential for “Democratisation 2.0”; democratic evolution rather than revolution.

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As a platform for unorganised individual Chinese expression, how is today’s internet democratising China? As a platform for unorganised individual Chinese expression, how is today’s internet democratising China? Document Transcript

  • As a Platform for Unorganised Individual Chinese Expression, How Is Today’s Internet Democratising China? Jeremy Webb BA Chinese (Modern) May 2008 Length: 6232 words (Not including Abstract: 106 words) 1
  • Table of Contents Abstract.........................................................................................................................3 1 Introduction ...............................................................................................................4 2 Censorship of Domestic Content before Web 2.0...................................................7 3 Web 2.0 & Democratic Revolution...........................................................................9 3.1 Domestic Web 2.0 Sites ................................................................................9 3.1.1 Blog Providers ......................................................................................9 3.1.2 Video-sharing Sites ............................................................................10 3.2 Foreign Web 2.0 Sites ................................................................................11 3.3 Anyone for Cyber-dissent?........................................................................13 4 Web 1.0, Web 2.0 & Democratic Evolution ..........................................................16 4.1 Fake Tigergate: An Overview ...................................................................17 4.2 Analysis of Fake Tigergate and Online Discussion in General ..............18 5 Conclusion................................................................................................................21 Bibliography 1.0: Print Sources...............................................................................23 Bibliography 2.0: Online Sources ............................................................................25 2
  • Abstract At the turn of the twentieth century, conventional wisdom dictated that the Internet would be the harbinger of democratic revolution in authoritarian countries such as China. A decade later, the “Web 2.0 Revolution” holds new promise for real world revolution. However, Internet-assisted revolution in China has been limited by a lack of cyber-dissidents and stymied by a censorship system which has adapted to meet the challenges of Web 2.0. At the same time, discussion on both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 is facilitating an increasingly powerful representative public opinion and is nurturing democratic values. As such, this online discussion holds significance in its potential for “Democratisation 2.0”; democratic evolution rather than revolution. 3
  • 1 Introduction ‘Imagine if the Internet took hold in China. Imagine how freedom would spread.’ - George W. Bush, December 1999. When the soon to be president of the United States made this remark in the final months of the twentieth century, official estimates claimed the amount of Internet users in China to have reached four million, a mere 0.3% of the population (CNNIC, 1999). According to the most recent report by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), China’s netizens have now reached a total of 210 million (CNNIC, 2008).1 While these figures certainly indicate that the Internet has begun to take hold in China, many agree that political freedoms have not (Pei, 2006, p.45). It is likely that Bush’s view was informed by the tide of technological determinism prevalent toward the end of the twentieth century. In 1998, Henry Perritt (p.423) noted that ‘most of the literature in which the exploration of cyberspace has been discussed asserts that the Internet threatens traditional political institutions’. Political change was to be assisted by the Internet, a ‘raucous highly democratic world with no overlords or gatekeepers’ (Warf & Grimes, 1997, p.261). Such dramatic language, powerful images such as that of the sole protester defying a tank in Tiananmen Square, as well as experience of successful revolutions in Eastern Europe appealed to a widely imagined idea of how democratic change would come about, through revolution (Ho, 2008, pp.1-2). One role the Internet would play would be as a platform for individuals to disseminate subversive ideas; this would help to inspire an offline movement leading to the overthrow of the China’s ruling party. However, as we will see, the Chinese government has remained both effective ‘overlord’ and ‘gatekeeper’ of the Internet, effectively ruling out any potential for assisting democratic revolution. 1 Doubts have been raised about the use of CNNIC data as a basis for exact scientific analysis (Geise, 2003, p.30). It should therefore be noted that as with most of the related discourse, CNNIC data in this study is used only as a reflection of rough trends. 4
  • Perritt (1998, p.426) remarked that ‘the Internet joins a long historical heritage of new information technologies threatening to upset the existing nature of politics within nation states’. The term “Web 2.0” is used broadly to describe today’s Internet, a medium increasingly dominated by user-generated content (UGC) and nontextual information. Web 2.0, also referred to as the “second wave” of the Internet, is next in line to join Perritt’s so-called ‘historical heritage’. In Andrew Keen’s bestseller The Cult of the Amateur (2007), these changes to the Internet are referred to as the ‘Web 2.0 Revolution’. This study examines two concrete examples of Web 2.0 in China, blog providers which represent the spread of UGC, and video-sharing sites which have eased the spread of nontextual information. By looking at government measures to deal with them and the composition of Chinese Internet users, we see that this so- called technological revolution is not significantly more likely to spur offline democratic revolution. However, this essay will argue that advocates of Web 2.0’s democratising potential tend to miss the point since they emphasise democratisation as a product of revolution, not evolution. Chapter four will examine a body of thought gaining momentum in the discourse concerning China’s Internet. These arguments, which I term “Democratisation 2.0”, assert that by providing spaces for discussion, the Internet is fostering Chinese civil society. It is doing this firstly by communicating an increasingly powerful, more representative semi-autonomous public opinion and secondly by nurturing essential democratic values. Cyberspace used in this way is causing gradual change to China, or in other words, engendering democratic evolution. This evolution is happening as much on earlier forms of the Internet, sometimes called “Web 1.0”, with its precocious BBS forums, as it is on Web 2.0 with its video- sharing and blogs. In contrast to dissidents, those participating in online civil society are democratising China without needing to access and publish illegal subversive material. Without an external crisis to foment the anger necessary to incite people to break the law, China’s civil society will continue to grow more directly proportional to the rise in the online population. The Western media tends to place its spotlight on China’s cyber-dissidents. As well as leaving the evolutionary potential of the Internet largely unexplored, other important factors are left in the dark. E-Government, or as Shaanthi Kalathil (2003) describes it, Dot Com for Dictators, is thought to facilitate greater democracy. As 5
  • nations such as China embrace the Web to streamline government they also create ‘opportunities for greater transparency, accountability, and freedom’ (Kalathil, 2003, p.43). Scholars also note the work of foreigners and Overseas Chinese using the Internet to support Chinese causes (Saunders & Ding, 2006; Tai, 2006, pp.103-108). The Internet used by groups rather than individuals is another important factor which falls outside the scope of this essay. By allowing members to communicate more effectively, the Internet has made organisation of these groups easier (Shirk, 2007, p.47). Web 2.0 tools present groups of organised netizens with interesting new opportunities, for example Social Networking Sites (SNS). These groups represent interests in a democratic way and wield increasing power in China (Taubman, 1998, p.260; Kalathil & Boas, 2003, p.27). These factors all warrant further research, especially in light of the Web 2.0 revolution. However, due to space limitations this essay acknowledges their role as a supplement to the main focus of the essay, namely the 210 million unorganised individual netizens residing within China’s borders. 6
  • 2 Censorship of Domestic Content before Web 2.0 ‘Information infrastructure is expected to stimulate economic growth, increase productivity, create jobs, increase the quality of services, and improve the quality of life’ (Tai, 2006, p.82). To these ends, Kalathil (2003, p.44) notes that China has thrown government weight behind domestic information technology industries. However, ‘because of the concern about an influx of ideas, information, and images and its effect on the continued incumbency of the Chinese Communist Party’, Geoffry Taubman predicted in 1998 that the government would ‘implement measures that … could hamper its [the Internet’s] full utilisation’ (p.256). In 2000, less than a year after George Bush lauded the freedom that a more wired China would enjoy, a raft of new regulations was enacted in China to regulate the Internet. Among other things, these rules vaguely listed the types of content forbidden on the Internet and laid out the penalties for breaking the rules. The regulations constituted ‘an effort by the Chinese government to … provide itself with better instruments for influencing activities in cyberspace’ (Wacker, 2003, p.65). As we will see later, this effort to control earlier forms of the Internet in China also affects the Internet’s second wave. An initial understanding of how other factors have made this regulation so successful over the last decade is essential to understand the relationship between today’s Internet and democratisation. James Boyle (1997 cited in Wacker, 2003, p.60) used what he described as the ‘panopticon effect’ to explain how Internet regulation can be so effective. The Internet in a country like China is likened to multiple prison cells being watched by a single guard. The guard cannot monitor every cell simultaneously, but since the prisoners cannot see which prisoner the guard is watching, the risk of being monitored is sufficient to discourage bad behaviour. According to this theory, Internet control has been enhanced by the belief that state might be watching individual users and web companies at any one time. Another important factor is known in China as the ‘kill chicken to scare monkey’ (shajixiahou, ) effect. Scholars have documented cases of high-profile shut-downs used to frighten Internet companies into regulating themselves, and high-profile arrests to make individual users reluctant to publish controversial content (Kalathil, 2001, p.2; Hachigian, 2002, p.49). 7
  • The impact of the regulations has been further enhanced by their ambiguity. Since there are no clear regulations as to what can or cannot be published on the Internet, Zhou (2006, p.179) likens the effect to a ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over heads of those controlling the Internet’s content. Such uncertainty combined with the above two factors has caused early web companies to err on the side of caution, resulting in politically sensitive material being kept off the Web altogether. Over the last decade, it has mainly been because of this ‘attitude of self-control and self- censorship’ that the Internet has not been used to trigger any sort of mass political movement or revolution (Wacker, 2003, p.68). 8
  • 3 Web 2.0 & Democratic Revolution This chapter concerns today’s Internet as appropriated by those discontented with the political regime in China. Optimism for early Internet tools, or Web 1.0, imagined these individuals publishing material online which would subvert the government in such a way that would threaten its incumbency. However, as we saw in chapter two, this vision failed to materialise due to effective government control over cyberspace. Some believe that Web 2.0 offers new chances for dissidents to threaten the government in ways that earlier Internet tools never could. Two of the main Web 2.0 tools, blog providers and video-sharing sites, possess promising qualities as platforms for politically subversive expression. Additionally, further opportunities are provided by foreign versions of domestic Web 2.0 sites. However, I will show that the system described in the previous chapter which hobbled the earlier Chinese Internet, along with reactive measures, dramatically limits these new platforms as vehicles for effective political subversion. This conclusion can be further qualified by the composition of netizens. An online population generally uninterested in subversion and dissent further limits the potential of today’s Internet for inspiring democratic revolution in China. 3.1 Domestic Web 2.0 Sites 3.1.1 Blog Providers One of the most talked about of the UGC Web 2.0 tools is the blog provider. These websites allow a user to keep an online journal, commonly referred to as a “blog”. Blog providers have made it much easier for ordinary users to create and maintain an online journal since doing so now requires very little technical knowledge. Blogging is immensely popular in China; the CNNIC 2007 Survey Report on China’s Blog Market claimed that China has 47 million bloggers. At first glance it has never been easier for any number of China’s 210 million netizens to publish subversive articles. However, measures to deal specifically with Web 2.0 and the system already in place has had the effect of coercing blog providers into preventing such material from being posted. In 2005, the government forced 9
  • anyone hosting “non-commercial” websites to register their domain names. This ended what influential Chinese blogger and journalist Zhao Jing (2007) has described as the ‘golden age’ of blogs in China. Many unregistered blogs were taken down and blog providers integrated censorship into their business procedures in order to remain within the good graces of the authorities (Mackinnon, 2007, p.38). As soon as blog providers needed licences to operate, threat of losing these licenses forced them into policing themselves. The strong self-censoring attitude described in section two, was extended from the early web companies to today’s blog providers. The result has been to dramatically reduce the subversive material published on Chinese blogs. 3.1.2 Video-sharing Sites One of the biggest changes to the virtual landscape in recent years could be attributed to video-sharing sites. Faster connection speeds have given rise to growth in nontextual communication (BBC, 2007). As a result, websites in China like Tudou.com and 56.com enjoy immense popularity by allowing users to freely upload and view video clips. Video footage can be used to a greater extent than the plain text and still images of the earlier Internet to reveal the truth behind a situation. For example, a video of a protest is a particularly potent reminder of injustices committed against Chinese citizens and could therefore greater undermine the regime in China. It is technically more difficult for an authority to censor nontextual information. Data is transferred through cyberspace in what are called “packets”. Since textual information occupies a small amount of space, many whole words can fit into a single packet. By searching a single packet of text, authorities can easily determine whether the material is subversive by the presence of unacceptable keywords. Søraker (2008, pp.42-3) explains that in the case of nontextual information such as video, which is larger in size, each packet contains only a small amount of the complete video and so is meaningless by itself. As the China Economic Review (2008) points out, China lacks the technology to filter video online as effectively as it filters text. Without the means to determine the semantic content of the packet, an authority like China is unable to decide whether it is politically subversive. In 2007, a telling example which briefly demonstrated the potential of video- sharing sites took place in the North-eastern city of Shenyang. The controversy began 10
  • when Yilishen, a company which sold products derived from ants, suddenly discontinued buying from its large numbers of ant farmers, all of whom had invested 10,000 yuan. Video clips of the several thousand farmers protesting at the Liaoning provincial party committee’s office soon found their way onto the Internet (Kennedy, 2007). Those who believe that the Internet could spur political change by revolution hope that such clips provide an ‘ultimate testimony’ of protests and so might others to take their grievances to the streets. This is what Foreign Policy editor Moíses Naím (2007) calls the ‘Youtube Effect’, something which he thinks could play a role in ‘energising democratic uprising’. As well as demonstrating the potential of these kinds of websites to incite revolutionary change, the Yilishen incident clearly indicated the effectiveness of government measures to prevent the spread of subversive video. John Kennedy (2007), an influential blogger who follows the Chinese Internet, lists examples of protest videos which were soon removed. For example, one clip of the Yilishen protest posted on 56.com received 33 pages of comments before being deleted just four hours later. Mackinnon (2008) believes deletions like this to be the result of China’s Web 2.0 self-censorship, a system whereby firms like 56.com work hard to remove such clips in order to placate the authorities. Despite technical difficulties in censoring video, the government is succeeding in keeping subversive video material off the Internet in China. In addition, further regulation enacted at the beginning of 2008 is likely to reinforce the self-censorship of video-sharing sites. New regulation states that ‘all video sites hosted inside China will have to obtain licenses from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) and the Ministry of Information Industry (MII) in order to be legal’ (SARFT, 2007). Just like early web companies, and more recently blog providers, video-sharing sites must police themselves in order to protect their licences. In light of this system, Naím’s belief in the power of the ‘Youtube Effect’ to inspire democratic revolution seems somewhat optimistic in the case of China. 3.2 Foreign Web 2.0 Sites Before being removed from Chinese sites, the Yilishen video clip mentioned above was uploaded to Youtube.com, a popular America-based video-sharing service 11
  • (dxzine37, 2007). Chinese netizens might also use foreign websites to view and publish subversive blog entries. This section deals with the role such foreign sites might play in assisting in democratic revolution. Since information held on foreign servers does not fall under the jurisdiction of Chinese law, material deemed politically subversive will not be deleted. However, whether the video or blog entry is accessible by the Chinese public depends on the system by which government controls access to foreign webpages. This system is commonly referred to in the West as the “Great Firewall of China” and effectively controls the foreign content accessible by the Chinese public (Harwitt & Clark, 2001, p.397). Moreover, China’s domestic Internet connects to the outside world through a relatively small number of nodes. This makes it particularly easy for authorities to block certain domain names, or even website addresses containing certain words (Fallows, 2008). However, foreign Web 2.0 tools pose unique censorship challenges to the authorities. Since a particular piece of information comes from the same source address as all other information from the same website, it is impossible to selectively censor a specific subversive blog or video clip (Søraker, 2008, p.42). If authorities wish to prevent the Chinese public gaining access to a certain piece of information hosted on a foreign site, they must block access to the entire website. Web 2.0 sites hosted outside of China are frequently denied access to by the Chinese public. For instance, this was why Livejournal.com was blocked in 2007, a blog provider which claims to have several thousand Chinese bloggers (Norton, 2007). Another way the authorities can deal with the challenge of foreign Web 2.0 sites is to seek their cooperation. In 2002, Franda discussed the possibility of the international Internet being restructured to accommodate China. There is evidence that this is beginning to take place as those in charge of foreign websites comply with the Chinese authorities in exchange for access to China’s online market. In the most high-profile case to date, Chinese blogger Zhao Jing had his blog deleted from Microsoft’s MSN Spaces after posting an entry critical of government action. Microsoft came under fire for this and for agreeing to block words like “democracy” and “human rights” from its blog provider for Chinese users (Mackinnon, 2007, p.41). Because of this agreement, unlike other well known foreign content providers, information held on external Microsoft servers can be accessed within China. It 12
  • remains to be seen whether other foreign Web 2.0 companies keen to exploit China’s market, but often left frustrated by the Great Firewall, will follow suit. There are ways that users in China can bypass the Great Firewall. For example, by accessing a foreign system called a “proxy server” netizens in China can retrieve information held on blocked sites. Subversive material is allowed into China since the Great Firewall believes the information is coming from the proxy server, not from its list of blocked sources (Fallows, 2008). However, a 2007 report by Reporters Without Borders believes that China’s censorship is so well developed that it largely prevents the use of such techniques. To circumvent these restrictions, netizens must be technically competent enough and invest time and effort to stay ahead of the authorities by finding proxy servers unbeknown to the government. The amount that successfully access subversive information hosted on foreign websites will therefore be limited by the technological sophistication and the inclination of Chinese netizens. The interaction between foreign websites, the authorities, and individual Chinese netizens is a complex one. The extent to which foreign Web 2.0 sites can be used for effective Chinese dissent depends on whether the authorities succeed in blocking suspect websites, whether foreign websites tempted by the vast Chinese domestic market will integrate self-censorship into their business procedures, and finally, the lengths individuals will go to in order to break through the Great Firewall. 3.3 Anyone for Cyber-dissent? Even with unrestricted access to the foreign and domestic Internet, the user’s choice of what information consumed largely determines whether public Internet use has any political impact (Kalathil & Boas, 2003, p.6; Harwitt & Clark, 2001, p.407). On today’s increasingly user-generated Internet an equally important question is what these individuals choose to publish. When we see that online music is the most used function of the Internet, the CNNIC report that states there to be 210 million Chinese netizens probably becomes less impressive to a student of Chinese politics (CNNIC, 2008). The total number of Internet users in China will increase since the government’s market-led approach is designed to increase popular access to technology (Kalathil & Boas, 2003, p.14). However, a greater number of netizens does not necessarily mean a corresponding rise in the number of cyber-dissidents. 13
  • In 2001, Abbot (p.110) noted that the ‘Internet will come to reflect both the hierarchies and divisions of the existing global capitalist system’. What he referred to is now a reality in China whereby low technical sophistication and weak spending power keep poorer segments of society excluded from the Internet. On the whole, Chinese netizens are young and relatively well-educated (CNNIC, 2008). This affects what information is consumed on the Internet and, more relevant to today’s Internet, what users publish. For much of this cohort, there is little incentive to endanger their future careers by publishing illegal subversive material. They may also be unwilling to sacrifice China’s economic gains for the uncertain future that a collapse of the Communist Party would bring (Tang, 2005). As incomes rise throughout China, new sections of society will come online. An important case could be China’s vast rural population. It could be said that this sector is most likely to push for change as they are doing so offline. 87,000 ‘mass incidents’ were recorded in the countryside during 2005 (So, 2007, p.561). In 2006 Tai Zixue (p.159) noted ‘there is a long way to go before China can bring the cyber world to the majority of the rural population’. However, the most recent CNNIC report claims that those on a low income are increasingly coming in contact with the Internet, and that farmers are an important constituent of Internet growth (CNNIC, 2008). In addition to these government reports, scholars such as Kalathil and Boas (p.23) noted as early as 2003 that ‘usage is beginning to increase beyond the wealthy, educated elite’. Increasing wealth also enables existing netizens to exploit channels for coping with Internet restrictions. According to Corrales & Westhoff (2006, p.918) these include the means to buy their own computers, pay their own connections to the outside world, and to have leisure time to learn about ways to evade state controls. If this is the case, a wealthier China will mean ‘a population more difficult to monitor and potentially harder to restrain that the current generation of Internet users’ (Kalathil & Boas, 2003, p.27). However, there is doubt whether a wealthier China will choose to use the Internet for channelling discontent. The very fact that new netizens now have Internet access indicates that they are more like those who have been using the Internet before them; better off and better educated. As long as they remain in a better position thanks to the economic reforms, just like the existing Internet users they will be less likely to want to disrupt the system which holds such promise for them. The level of pressure 14
  • from cyber-dissent will therefore depend on the state’s ability to keep these groups happy, whether they are the young middle class who have been using computers for years, or the new lower income and rural cohorts. However, as Nina Hachigian (2001) argues, during a crisis the Internet may refocus national discontent in unprecedented way. As today’s elite Internet users come to encounter financial or political difficulties in their lives, and as more disaffected members of society find access, provided they remain disaffected we may see the Internet emerge as a tool utilised more often for channelling discontent (Harwitt & Clark, 2001, p.407). Until such a crisis, the potential of the Internet to assist democratic revolution, or Democratisation 1.0, will remain limited by the lack of willing participants in online political subversion and dissent. For now it seems that the measures in place to encourage domestic self-censorship, combined with the system for controlling foreign content accessible in China, is preventing today’s limited number of cyber-dissidents from publishing regime-threatening outbreaks of subversion on the blog providers and video-sharing sites of Web 2.0. 15
  • 4 Web 1.0, Web 2.0 & Democratic Evolution Various scholars have used the words “revolution” and “evolution” to describe two possible impacts of the Internet on Chinese politics.2 Revolutionary talk restricts our perspective to a small and probably less significant aspect of the overall situation. On the other hand, those who hope that the Internet may facilitate greater democracy through gradual evolutionary change tend to emphasise the Internet’s relationship to civil society. Such a ‘robust civil society’ is often taken as ‘the basis for democratic politics’ (Yang, 2003, p.406). There are many ways that the Internet can assist the development of a robust civil society, and many ways that a robust civil society can lead to greater democracy. This study focuses on one element of civil society, the Chinese individuals participating in online discursive activities. Two important ways that online discussion engenders political change in China are examined. The first is the Internet’s role in communicating public opinion to government. Secondly, by nurturing the essential democratic value of critical-thinking, online discussion makes the success of any current or future democracy more likely. To reach the above conclusions, recent academics (Wacker, 2003; Mackinnon, 2007; Tai, 2006; Kalathil & Boas, 2003) as well as influential bloggers like Zhao Jing (2007), have started to switch their focus to debates happening on more mundane topics, ones that do not grab headlines in the West. The ‘millions of online conversations taking place daily on the Chinese Internet; conversation that manages to stay comfortably within the confines of censorship’, notes Mackinnon (2007, p.45), can be expected to affect ‘powerful political change’. The next sub-section examines one of these conversations and notes its presence on both Web 2.0 and Web 1.0. This is followed by an analysis of how this conversation and others like it might be affecting political change in China. During the recent run up to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, several interesting cases of online debate have caught the attention of Western observers. However, these are taking place in a unique political and social context to China. Cases like the one discussed below might occur at anytime, with or without the 2 Chase and Mulvenon (2002, p.90) note that the Internet will not bring ‘revolutionary’ political change to China, but will be a key pillar of China’s slower, evolutionary path toward increased pluralisation and possibly even nascent democratisation. Likewise, the role of blogs, believes Mackinnon (2007, p.31), is ‘more likely to involve political evolution, not revolution’. 16
  • heightened levels of nationalism that have surrounded China’s Olympic build-up. Lessons taken from this example have lasting relevance to post-Olympic China. 4.1 Fake Tigergate: An Overview An instructive example of an emerging Internet-facilitated public discourse was “Fake Tigergate”3. State-owned news agency Xinhua reported in October 2007 that Shaanxi farmer Zhou Zhenglong had photographed the South China Tiger, a species long since believed to be extinct in the wild. The report quotes the Shaanxi Forestry Department, which claimed that ‘wild animal and photography experts have authenticated these photographs’. Despite being pronounced genuine by a government ministry and state-owned media organisation, sharp-eyed Chinese netizens soon doubted the image’s authenticity. Many wrote blog entries on the subject, citing various reasons why the photographs could not be genuine, for example the photograph’s irregular illumination and focus.4 As well as blogs, Chinese netizens employed the use of other Web 2.0 tools to make their voice heard on the subject. A search by the author using the Chinese words for Fake Tigergate (weihumen, ) on China’s largest video-sharing sites returned several homemade videos featuring individuals explaining how they believed the photographs were forged. The most popular of these video clips (hbjzxp, 2007) has received over 200,000 views. Although Web 2.0 tools are playing an important role in cases like Fake Tigergate, such nurturing of civil society is taking place not only on blogs and video- sharing sites; discussion surrounding Fake Tigergate also took place throughout the BBS world. For example, Stronger Country Forum, a very popular BBS run by the People’s Daily Online, featured a popular post on the subject. The entry (Huananhuwang, 2008), titled ‘Reasons given for the authentication body’s secrecy are untenable’, demanded a change in government procedure. This post alone had over 40,000 readers and received 95 comments. 3 “Fake Tigergate” is a reference to “Watergate”, the scandal which led to the resignation of US President Richard Nixon in 1974. 4 For an overview of how the debate developed on blogs in China see Eastsouthwestnorth, an English- language China-focused blog written by Roland Soong, a Hong Kong-based blogger (2007). 17
  • Following this outpouring of debate in its various forms on both Web 2.0 and Web 1.0, Xinhua issued a notice on Internet portal Sina.com (2008). The report quotes the Shaanxi Forestry Department, which admits ‘carelessly releasing information about the South China Tiger’. The spokesman went on to promise a thorough investigation into the incident and to take steps to improve discipline. 4.2 Analysis of Fake Tigergate and Online Discussion in General As early as 1999, Daniel Lynch (p.173) predicted that ‘a continued haemorrhaging of control over thought work…could over time facilitate the formation of a semi-autonomous critical public opinion’. Fake Tigergate illustrates the emergence of such online public opinion. Tai (2006, p.187) uses other evidence to reach a similar conclusion; ‘the Internet has provided an alternative platform for…individuals in Chinese civil society to vent their opinions, and occasionally demand official accountability’. Since there is no electoral link between higher levels of government and the Chinese people, it is difficult to study the power of public opinion in China. With no official reasons given for the turnaround, it is impossible to state with certainty that the Shaanxi Forestry Department’s apology was a direct result of the online backlash. However, in light of other research, it is reasonable to assume that online opinion was a deciding factor. For example, Tang Wenfang (2005, p.198) argues that China’s government does indeed respond to public opinion. He uses an ancient proverb to compare the importance of public opinion to a river, and the state to a boat – a boat that, if misguided, could easily be overturned (shui neng zai zhou yi neng fu zhou ). Susan Shirk (2007, p.57) goes further by making a link with the Internet. She suggests that as part of the policy-making process, officials pay close attention to what is said on BBSs and blogs. Continuing with the river analogy, by providing visible crystallisation of public opinion, the Internet is acting like navigation equipment to the government boat. By contributing to public opinion by debating issues online, netizens are in control of this navigation equipment and are having an indirect say in how they are governed. 18
  • Debates surrounding issues like these photographs might be laying the groundwork for future self-governance by nurturing democratic values. The significance of Fake Tigergate has also been acknowledged by the government through a piece on the People’s Daily Online (2008). Among other things, the article lauds the event for ‘training people’s power to reason’. Regardless of which form future self-governance may take, one of the most important elements of any political toolkit is reasoning or critical-thinking. Take for example the bloggers who write about Fake Tigergate. After learning of the official turnaround – a perceived victory – they might be encouraged to think more critically since their sense of political efficacy, the belief that they can understand and influence political affairs, has been heightened. A citizenry in the habit of distinguishing between facts and falsehoods, proof and likelihood, opinion and hope, is less likely to be swayed by demagogues, influenced by parochial interests, incited by jingoism, or inflamed by ethnic or religious chauvinism, all things which could limit future democracy’s success in China (Kuhn, 2003, p.392). Therefore, the current Chinese generation who grow up using online participatory media to debate issues and engage in critical thinking will be much more ready for reasoned self-governance than the current generation (Mackinnon, 2007, p.44). Fake Tigergate demonstrates how the explosive development of the Internet in China has opened up ‘a whole new milieu for the nurturing of civil society’ (Tai, 2006, XX). An Internet-facilitated public opinion injects democracy into both current and future systems by forcing official accountability and affecting policy-making; this creates a more responsive form of government. Additionally, those involved in online debate are developing the essential democratic value of critical thinking; this will result in a generation more prepared for self-governance. We have also seen that Web 2.0 cannot take all the credit for this. Chinese civil society online is as much a product of traditional Chinese Internet tools such as BBS as it is of blogs and video-sharing. However, Mackinnon (2007, p.44) is mindful that the Internet and its conversation currently remains the realm of a minority. ‘For the Internet to become a truly effective vehicle for representative democratic discourse, many more people must be brought online, and a substantial digital divide will need to be breached’. As we saw in section three, government reports (CNNIC, 2008) and scholars (Kalathil & Boas, 2003, p.23) indicate that usage is beginning to increase beyond the wealthy, 19
  • educated elite. As different sectors of society gain Internet access ‘public opinion is likely to become better informed since participants are exposed to alternative perspectives’ (Min, 2007, p.1369). This is related to what Warf and Grimes (1997, p.267) refer to as the Internet’s ability to communicate intersubjective knowledge. ‘People from different places and with radically variant experiences are able to convey a notion of what it is like to be them, to live their lives via the Net’. One day farmers will join the online discussion alongside Tibetan monks and rich urbanites. They will debate various issues together, leading to the creation of a more representative public opinion. Due to the benefits of economic reform enjoyed by netizens, the government is by no means facing an onslaught of 210 million people baying for regime change and revolution. However, since there is no need to risk breaking the law, there is likely to be a figure closer to 210 million engaging in legal reasoned online discussion and deliberation. Even if China’s successful economic reforms and effective censorship systems keep subversion from the Internet, as netizens grow in number and diversity it is likely that the size and quality of online civil discourse will increase. 20
  • 5 Conclusion Around the time the Internet was launched in China, conventional wisdom imagined that it would allow individual users to contribute to a mass political movement by disseminating subversive material. However, the 2000 Internet regulations, reinforced firstly by the panopticon fear that the state could be watching users and secondly by the deterrent created by well-publicised punishments, have meant that online dissent and subversion have remained almost non-existent over the last decade in China. Publishing one’s own voice, and using nontextual means to do so, is made easier by existence of new Web 2.0 tools, both domestic and foreign. However, the Web 2.0 sites examined in this study have not made it easier for the minority of dissidents to access a wider audience in China. The control systems in place, a combination of measures which pre-date the Web 2.0 revolution and reactive regulation, encourage Web 2.0 sites to police themselves. This has resulted in politically subversive content being kept off the web altogether. The few that succeed in publishing subversive material might do so using foreign websites. In this case they are less likely to reach a wide Chinese audience since the majority of Chinese netizens are denied access by the Great Firewall. Additionally, we have seen that the majority of Internet users are unlikely to want to access and publish subversive material. Offline factors could change this; a financial crisis, for instance, could motivate more people to use the Internet to channel their discontent. However, for now, whether it is individuals using more recent tools of Web 2.0 or traditional methods of online communication, the Internet is unlikely to facilitate an offline revolution, or Democratisation 1.0. Web 2.0, with its blog providers and video-sharing sites, has provided new opportunities for ordinary users to publish opinions that stay within the limits of government censorship. However, ordinary Chinese netizens have been making their voices heard for years on BBSs, a far cry from today’s Web 2.0 sites. As long as users keep to what is considered politically acceptable, the Internet will continue to provide 21
  • avenues for meaningful discussion. By creating a semi-autonomous online public opinion and by nurturing democratic values, online discussion is democratising China through slow, gradual political evolution. Unlike Democratisation 1.0, which relies on a sizeable discontented online population, evolutionary democratisation will be strengthened commensurate with an increase in online population. Since netizens do not need to be angry enough to risk contravening Internet regulations, this will take place even without popular discontent caused by an offline crisis. Online public opinion will become more powerful as numbers of netizens swell. Additionally, as different sectors of society gain Internet access, this public opinion will become more representative of China’s diverse interests. More people engaging in online discussion will also lead to a society with greater democratic values, the nation’s ability to think critically makes the success of future self-governance more likely. Not only will the quality of civil discourse improve, the scope of its discussion is likely to widen. If the government definition of a healthy online environment evolves, netizens will move quickly and creatively to fill the discursive spaces allowed by changes in definition (Tai, 2006, p.206). The speed at which such discussion becomes politically liberal depends on real world political liberalisation, something which is impossible to accurately predict. However, extrapolating from current trends, it is reasonable to believe that there may be further widening of the boundaries of acceptable online discussion. A decade ago, the South China Tiger would be officially brought back from extinction by Mr Zhou’s photographs and the subsequent reporting from the state-owned press. Today, discussion both on Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 has kept the species dead and buried. While it may be a long time before online discussion includes direct criticism of central government policy, the boundaries are likely to continue to be pushed back. Netizens may one day get the opportunity to aim their criticism further up the political hierarchy, from tigers to top politicians. Who knows, Chinese netizens could one day utilise the skills from the use of the Internet today to uncover something like a “Hu Jintaogate”. In the same hypothetical scenario, online public opinion could be powerful enough to turn such a scandal into a successful attack on the very legitimacy of the Communist Party’s rule in China. 22
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