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Internet in China: “1984″ or “Brave New World”? II

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, and, China’s No.1 search engine are both known for being extremely conservative in handling of controversial topics; while, a portal of some of the most popular blogs in China, and forums like 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.

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Internet in China: “1984″ or “Brave New World”?

In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.  This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.”

Neil Postman’s book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” was written in 1985 in response the rise of show business on TV.  In the above comparison of Orwell’s novel “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World”, Postman was trying to argue that the more dangerous form of enslavement is not the enslavement by others through means of repression and control, but enslavement to our own primitive desires for sensory satisfactions.  Internet has definitely moved the sophistication of our entertainment industry to the next level: not only is the access to the unprecedented variety of material instant and 24-7, the distinction between the production and consumption of those materials has been blurred as well.   Yet the context of Postman’s writing was Western liberal democracy and free markets.  How does his theory apply to an authoritarian regime with market economy with “Chinese characteristics”?

Immediately after Google’s exit from China, I was doing my routine browse of and was shocked by a comment found under one of the hyped discussion topics then ( I don’t quite remember what it was, but it is possible that it was about this).  The comment said that it is so pathetic that this what the netizens in a country without Google do – to entertain themselves in such trivial and meaningless matters.   Few days ago, I encountered another blog post voiced a similar concern, and suggested that most China’s netizens opt to be enslaved and blinded by their own desires since otherwise they would be literally enslaved by the state if they are too honest and conscious.

Are China’s netizens really as powerless as these worries suggest?  On one hand, they have some legitimate concerns.   In the end, like many news reports on Google’s exit from China pointed out, the most popular features on Chinese websites are social networking and life style service.  And it was the news of a Japanese AV star’s signing up with Twitter that caused 15,000 China’s netizens to scale the GFW and to follow her tweets, not any petition about the democratic movement in China.    And to have a sense about the frequency of sex-related topics on China’s web, you can glimpse through this glossary prepared by Chinasmack staffs on the most popular jargons and abbreviations in discussion forums, and you will see that 21 out of  the total 84 are about sex, and many of them are so technical as to include “Swallowing semen” and threesome.    One Night Stand and extra-marital sex story sharing, homosexual experiences, prostitutes’ (both male and female) confessions, are so prevalent in all major discussion forums and their popularity is usually highly correlated with the level of explicitness of sex description.   Is it really the case that, the desire to engage in public discourse of the Chinese people are so repressed that they have to unleash all their energy in those lower desires?  Perhaps the Chinese government, in their alliance with corporate interest of the technological companies, employs the Huxleyan means to achieve their totalitarian ends?  In the end, who would care about politics and corruption if they have sexual scandals to watch everyday?

Conspiracy theories usually sound amazingly attractive and exciting, but they also tend to ignore common sense and facts.  In the end, the fact that “Every second – 28,258 internet users are viewing pornography” is not a joking matter.  It seems that it is just human nature to consume sex-related products, and it is hard to argue to what degree the authoritarian regime has contributed to its thriving phenomenon in China.  Second, it is simply not true that China’s netizens solely immerse themselves in those “trivial” matters.  They also help create national concerns over social grievances, and by posting, sharing and commenting online, they are turning the traditional form of protest on the street to that online.  Though the lack of people’s physical presence in those activities make them sound much less sensational and interesting, the rapid and instant dissemination of ideas and the varied form of creative expression make their effect no less significant than the traditional form of protest.  In fact, since the Chinese government does not recognize the online mobilizing as a form of protest yet, they are much more receptive to concerns expressed online.  While it’s true many political discourse online takes the form of satire, spoof and prank, as to evade outright censorship, it doesn’t seem to be problematic to me that people can have some fun while advance identities and political opinions.  You might argue that forms of expression are limited as a result of speech control, and that people are forced to engage in political discourse  in such light-hearted manner, yet I think the sole existence of these discourses is already an adequate verification of the agencies of the netizens.   As Yang Guobin argues in his brilliant new book, the Power of Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online, the state control shapes the form of contention, but it cannot prevent it from happening.  Finally, if you look closer to some of the seemingly “trivial” matters, they are not simply base talks.   For one thing,  internet opens the first public platform for homosexual people to seek  their identity and recognition when such discussions in traditional media are absolute taboos.  Their postings on popular forums usually attract large readership for their disclosure of alternative ways of life, and from what I have seen so far most netizens are generally curious and supportive of those sharing, making a possible positive contribution to the feeling of security, recognition and acceptance of homosexual group in China.

Indeed, you usually see a recommended post on Tianya’s front page that says ” I have to share with you about what happened on that wonderful night….” side by side to a post that says ” Let’s support the victims of Yushu Earthquake by Replying to this thread!” ,  jarred by the huge disparity of interests of China’s netizens and wonder what on earth those two things are related.  Yet if you really think about it, doesn’t it actually make the perfect sense?  At the end of the day, people are multifaceted and have complicated layers of desires, and the internet just simultaneously brings out all of them.  The heterogeneity of popular topics online makes China’s internet hardly a case for Huxley’s “Brave New World”, and “1984” is a tale that certainly underestimates the creativity of contention forces.   Next time, I will try to examine the complex relationship between corporate interest, market force and government intervention behind the scene.  But to be sure, no force single-handedly decides or knows what happens next.  It’s a much interactive process that the negotiation and coincidence of interests lead the way.

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Where is Han Han Going?

Han Han's magazine " A Chorus of Solos" has been delayed by censorship bereaus for publication

It seems that China’s young netizens are not the only ones who are so hyped by Han Han’s nomination for the Time 100 Most Influential People.  Traditional medias in China, both the propoganda machines and the more independent ones, have rushed to offer their two cents on the phenomenon.   Some of them are sober and objective, while the others are ridiculous.  When you read pieces like this(English )and that (Chinese),  you wonder whether the critical thinking abilities of those authors never passed the level of Chinese primary school education, during which time they were probably taught to moralize every thing and that anything not of ideological significance is garbage.  That is why they never seem to understand a word like “influential” can be neutral, and does not have to have any connotation of heroism or the embodiment of truth.   And of course the even more dangerous line of reasoning in those articles is that Han is being a running dog for American imperialism,  and they are just using him to spread American values that are not suitable for China.  The sources of these two articles are both state-run medias.  Thus you start wondering, is Han Han in  the danger of being officially labelled that way soon?

Last year, when  Time Magazine first profiled Han Han, and seriously mistook him “as generally stays away from sensitive issues such as democracy and human rights”, and “a willing participant in a process that channels the disaffected energy of youth into consumerism”, Raymond Zhou of China Daily wrote a very interesting response to Time’s misrepresentation of Han Han.   Using a sarcastic tone that is similar to Han’s style, Zhou recommend to Han that the only way for the Western media to respect him is to become an “activist or dissident”, and that to put himself into the jail would  surely do the best job.   Being a journalist himself, Zhou ‘s main point is not to dishonor any political dissents by questioning their intentions , but rather to ridicule the stereotypical expectations of Western media for martyrdom when reporting about authoritarian regimes like China where “human rights abuse” occurs everyday.  But Han Han is not.  Like argued in my last post about him, he is an independent thinker who stays true to his conscience and his sensitivity to the evils and ills of the society as a writer.  He is reluctant to subscribe to ideologies.

Thus I do not know what happened to make medias like Time suddenly think  so highly of him.  Well, perhaps still not very high.  If you look at Time’s description of his nomination, you notice that their predominant impression of him is a rebellious writer who in his adolescence has challenged the education system in China, while there is a “btw” note in the end saying that he “pokes fun” at social ills.  Thus what earns him a place in the nomination is his influence – exactly what the poll suppose to be about – not  his identification to “Western Values” or his activist work.   Time is not seeing him on their side yet.   Yet that is also why the language of the propoganda machines quoted above are particularly alarming.   It seems that people at the top are trying to set Han Han up by labelling him as what he is not.

On the other hand, the “fifty-cents party” has long tried to conjure up stories of Han Han’s ultimate fate in the cybersphere. ( The “fitfy cents party” are those who are extremely pro-government and try to spread around ideological comments online.  Some of them are voluntary, while others are said to be paid by the CCP to wedge propoganda war against people like Han Han.  Rumor has it that their rate is fifty cents per comment, and hence the origin of their name).  They usually suspect that he would either migrate to Western “imperial” countries once he runs out of his course in China, or he would be “harmonized” like other dissents when his true cause is revealed.   Yet given his immense popularity, and the vows of many his fans that if he is harmonized, they would start a revolution, it’s highly unlikely the CCP would bluntly  use the charge of “threaning social stability” to jail Han Han.   But  there are still many other ways  for them to sabotage his influence… And this post on has offered the most comprehensive list I have found so far about other possibilities, and the most plausible ones to me include: 1. To put pressure on his race car team to make him less outspoken, otherwise to find an excuse to bar him from competing. 2. To see if he has any tax evasion problem. 3. To label his not-yet-published magazine as engaging in “unfair competition”, because it offers a much higher rate to attract writers.  4. To hire gangsters to beat him up, or worse, to set up a car accident for him.

While I think any of the mentioned possibilities might occur, perhaps we can be assured, at least for now, for two things.  First is that there are only two major Party machines, the two links we provided above, which are extremely antagonistic to Han Han.  One of them is a local paper, Shanghai Daily, and the other is the website for People’s Daily.  Thus, it can be argued that Shanghaidaily is being extremely harsh to Han Han only because it does not want people from the national level to accuse them as incompetent.  The other one though runs on the national level, takes place only in the cyberspace.  Thus, criticisms at the national level is not formalised yet, as the choice of platform for discussion is website, not the newpapers themselves.  Furthermore, Party-run English newspapers like China Daily and Global Times both have given a somewhat neutral report on Han Han,  showing that they are not preparing a full scale attack on him yet.

The second reassuring factor, and perhaps the more important one, is Han Han’s sober awareness of  the untouchable part of the Party’s nerve and the limit of his influence.  His first comment upon hearing his nomination was that “Time is just a magazine!”, and asked people not to take the Poll too seriously.  Later, he gave an official response to his nomination in his blog,  the last paragraph of which is particularly moving: ( courtesy of CDT’s translation)

At last, let me return to the point of so-called influence. I often feel very ashamed. I am just a person with a pen. Maybe my writings make people feel like they are releasing some of their anger or resentment. But other than that what’s the real use? The so-called influence is illusory. In China, those who have influence are those who have power. Those who can make rain from clouds, those who can decide if you live or die, or keep you somewhere in between life and death. They are the people who really have influence. However, I am not sure it is just because they are afraid of search engines or they are too fragile to be searched; we often cannot find them by using search engines. We are just a small role on the stage, under the spotlight. But they own the theater. They can at any time bring the curtain down, turn off the lights, close the door and let the dogs out. Later the dogs all disappear and the sky is blue again; there is no trace of what has happened. I just wish those people could really put their influence into good use. And those of us on this stage, even those who built this theater in the past, should make efforts to gradually take down those high walls and light bulbs. Let the sunshine in. That kind of light, no one can extinguish it again.

Han Han is only going to do what he is capable of and what is the realistic.  He’s not going to be your martyr or his hero.   He is just a writer, who tries to stay true to his conscience and humanity.   Let us just hope he can keep on being who he is and only doing the things he wants to do.  If  someday, he really can no longer keep a balance between his conscience and the Party’s nerve , well, it might just mean that it is time to get rid of that nerve…

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