Tag Archives: 1984

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 Tianya.cn 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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