In the last post, I was trying to argue that China’s internet is a carnival place with heterogeneous topic of interests and a platform to advance new social identities born out of the rapid economic development and social changes. Netizens’ interests, desires, and motivations behind their participation in that carnival space were the focus of analysis last time. Yet as much as they are the leading force of all the noise and excitement of the internet, without the positive interaction between the profit of the internet corporations and the interest of the State, internet in China would not be as vibrant as it is today. The coincidence of the interest of the State and that of the corporations not only sanctions the usually taboo topics in traditional media, but also encourages discussion of certain contentious events for their own different purposes. I’ll explain how this is the case.
The key to internet business is web hits. Web hits boost advertisement contracts and therefore bring profit, and thus the website editors usually try their best to bring traffic. They usually do that in a variety of ways, but to promote heated-up discussions about contentious events is one of the most effective (other ways include toleration of porn-related topics and insider news and scandals of celebrities). In Yang’s book that I mentioned last time, he did an interview with one of the content editors at one of the major websites, during which the interviewee mentioned explicitly that they usually welcome verbal clash, so that it would “sustain attention to the incident”. On the other hand, the necessary baseline of this promotion of controversies is the State’s sanction. If received official notice about the containment of the event (this kind of notice is usually issued on a daily basis from the State Council Information Office, and a latest example can be read here . Local Information Office might issue something of a similar nature to websites registered locally as well), the website would react very quickly to follow the order. The lack of such notice on any particularly sensitive event usually means an acquiesce from the authority, and website sites would try to sensationalize the topic and bring the discussion to the next level, engaging in an exercise called “stir frying” (炒作）an event. Yet different websites’ degree of interests in promoting topics not officially banned yet varied as well. The popular social networking site, renren.com and Baidu.com, China’s No.1 search engine are both known for being extremely conservative in handling of controversial topics; while sina.com, a portal of some of the most popular blogs in China, and forums like Tianya.cn are usually the breeding ground of the latest social/political discourse online.
If the motivation behind internet companies’ active promotion of contentious discussions can be easily seen as a pursuit of their financial interests, the rationale behind the State’s tolerance of, and sometimes the cautious encouragements of dissenting discourses is more intriguing. To be sure, many absolutely taboo topics, such as June.4th Incident, Tibetan Independence, Falun Gong or any straightforward rhetoric attempting to replace the current regime, are still not touchable even on internet, yet why the government tolerates so much more discussions of ineffective rules of the government than that of the traditional media seems to be surprising enough. One helpful theory is that internet is an uninvited yet effective means to channel social discontent when the responsible institutionalized channels in China are not capable at all. Thus although the State didn’t intend internet to be a public sphere of social discourse, it nevertheless did become the most vibrant one in China, and it was recognized by the liberal minds of the government as a good tool to observe social reality, the will of the people and to help dissipate resentments and conflicts in the drastically changing Chinese society before they are becoming too big to deal with. Yet another important rationale is to keep the local government in check. The One-Party system China is having now is more susceptible to corruption, power abuse and careless rule. The central government knows that their legitimacy of ruling not only depends on the general improvement of life the citizens are undergoing, but also people’s first-hand experience of the regime through their interaction in daily life with the local government. Yet as much as the central government tries to contain the local ones through internal inspection, it can go only so far since the power patronage and network of interests is very intricate inside the Party. sBut the netizens’ charges of local malfeasance of power can be a perfect justification for the central government to punish the untamed and to warn the others. Thus, online discourse is not only tolerated by the State, but might be purposefully used by the liberal side of the State to outbid the hardliners and to advance their causes.
Although the above comment might make it sound like the interest of the State is directing the development of internet and ultimately defines the boundary between the permissible and the prohibited, and that the netizens in the end are malleable puppies of the State to advance its own interest, the process is still more of a mutual adjustment between the netizens and the States than the one-way street. The advent of netizens, internet users who are active participants of the social discourse and ardent defendants of their rights, are totally unforeseen by the State, and it was the booming emergence of online discourses pushed by the netizens made the State adjust to its existence and finally find a way to make uses of it. On the other hand, netizens choose to adapt to censorship by inventing creative expressions, avoiding grandeur ideological and revolutionary rhetoric that might seem too threatening , and demanding concrete and specific solutions instead. The list of what is tolerable and what is not is indeed made by the States, but its boundary is nevertheless constantly pushed and expanded by wide-spread social/political concerns of the netizens promoted by profit-seeking websites. Thus the famous line “there is no road in the world until more people walking” from Chinese author Lu Xun is very illuminating here. In the world of China cyber space, nothing is permissible, until more people talking.