Tag Archives: China

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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Tentative Censorship Awareness Questions for Chinese Youth (updated)

It’s almost two weeks since Google’s exit from China, and it seems to me that nobody is talking about it anymore inside China.  I’m not sure if it’s because all the “noise” out there has been censored, or that really, China’s netizens are so resilient as Han Han claimed, and they just move on in the post-google world.  Rebecca Mackinnon suggested in her blog that Google’s exit might make more Chinese netizens aware of the censorship issues at home and seek circumvention tools to bypass the GFW.   But really, how optimistic we should be?

Through friends in China, I plan to give this survey to young people who have been abroad and experienced internet without censorship, and see their awareness and tolerance of the internet censorship in China.  Since they have experience the non “tunnel view”,  I think their response would be the most optimistic estimation of the general awaress and tolerance among netizens about censorship.  This is the first time I design a survey so welcome professional advices and any kinds of comments!

1. Before you live abroad, are you aware of the censorship issue in China?

a.)     Knows how it works and how to get around it;

b.)    have experienced it, but don’t know how does it work;

c.)    have heard of it but never experienced it;

d.)    never heard of it;

2.   How much you value a free internet when you first live abroad?

a.)     enjoy it so much, can’t imagine live without it;

b.)    enjoy it very much, but can live without it;

c.)   no difference than at home;

d.)    worse than at home for slower access to Chinese websites and music downloading

3.  When returning home, how much difficulties you had to re-adjust to the censorship?

a.)  Unbearable so I use tools to bypass censorship;

b.)  not very happy about it but doesn’t know/too much trouble to find a sustainable tool;

c.)   not happy about it but got used to it after a while;

d.)   doesn’t experience much difficulty;

4.  If having difficulties re-adjusting, which part you have most difficulties with?

a.)  not being able to use popular sites like Youtube and Facebook;

b.)  too slow when trying to access foreign websites;

c.)  not convenient to do cross-reference reading of current events or to do research about sensitive topics;

d.)  not being able to post anything I like to the internet.

5.   If using circumvention tools, how often you use it?

a.) whenever I go online;

b.) only when I need to go on certain websites;

c.) rarely use it, because having many difficulties finding a stable one;

d.) almost never use it;

6.   What kind of circumvention tools you use?

7.   How convenient you think those tools are?

8. How bad it is for Google to exit from mainland China?

a.) significant regress of internet freedom in China;

b.) too bad that baidu has no more strong competitor, welfare of netizens suffered;

c.) it’s sad news, but people will get use to post-google China;

d.) it won’t have much lasting influence on internet in China;

9.  Do you think Google’s exit would make more people aware of censorship issues?

a.) yes, much more;

b.) yes, to some extent.

c.) those who are concerned with the exit are mostly those who already know. so it doesn’t make more people aware of it;

d.) people are generally apathetic about the event.


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NYT Magazine Article Misconception About the Composition of Chinese Netizens

On the Mar.7th issue of the NYTimes Magazine, an article named “China Cyberposse“, written by Tom Downey, offers an in-depth review of the “Human Flesh Search Engine” phenomenon on China’s cyberspace.   It is one of these valuable times that NYTimes runs something beyond the cliche about Chinese society, and offers insight about how people actually live their lives there.   Yet like most of the other NYTimes articles on China, there are just some little details here and there in the article that keeps on bugging you, and makes you feel like they are not the results of actual experience or careful research, but from pre-conceived judgments.   This comment from the article seems to be particularly misconceived to me:

“While less than a third of China’s population is on the Web, this B.B.S. activity is not as peripheral to Chinese society as it may seem. Internet users tend to be from larger, richer cities and provinces or from the elite, educated class of more remote regions and thus wield influence far greater than their numbers suggest.”

It seems to be a reasonable inference here:  less than a third of China’s population is on the web, and internet access requires certain income and education level, and thus netizens of China must be from richer regions or are the elites of remote places.

Yet as someone who surfs around China’s cyberspace everyday, I usually have the suspicions that the people who spend most time online in China, the most active of Chinese netizens who dig out stories of corrupted officials and excel at “human flesh searching”, are those who are not that privileged.   My basic assumption is that, if the netizens are the elites, and the biggest beneficiary of the current political and economical system, why do they have so much to vent, and why do they have so much incentive to say things against a system in which their interests are so invested?  It just seems counter-intuitive.   Plus if you look at some of the “trivial” yet most popular discussions online, ( usually on extra-marrital affairs or sexual explorations), you wonder, who exactly are those “elites” that have that much time to go online and talk about those “trivial” issues?

The other side of my instinct comes from my experience last summer doing research about the Chinese migrant workers (those who migrate from rural and remote areas to seek employment in big industrialized cities).  I traveled to a dozen of factories in the Yangtze-delta and Pearl-delta areas to gather data about the working and living condition of migrant workers.  One of the most striking thing I learned is how accessible internet is to the younger generation of migrant workers.  They usually use cell-phones to read news online and do instant-chatting, some of them even try to save up together to buy second-hand desktops to use in their dorms.   Their elders, however, when asked, usually make comments that they are too old for “such popular culture” and would rather save money to send home.  Thus you might argue income level are not the the predominant barriers for internet access, but a certain cultural conception of it.

Since the NYTimes article excerpt really runs against my instinct, I was trying to look for data to support my view.  CNNIC, China Network Information Center, gives out reports twice a year about the internet development in China.  The latest one, the 25th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China, comes out in January 2010 ( but it has not been translated into English yet. You can access the English version of the 24th here ).

Three things I found in this report that can support my intuition:

1. The majority of China’s netizens, 52% are NOT from the top 10 provinces/cities with most GDP per capita.

2. The majority of China’s netizens, 75.8%,has only received high school education or less.

3. The majority of China’s netizens, 56.2%, has a disposable income less than RMB1500 ( $220), the most modest benchmark for what is considered to be middle-class in China.

I.  I searched for the list of cities/provinces in China that have the most GDP per capita, and here is the rank for 2009 with the number of their internet users ( those who live in those cities/provinces, not necessarily those who hold registration there, which means that if a migrant worker from Hunan went to Guangdong to seek employment and lived there for more than 6 months, he would be counted as an internet user in Guangdong, not Hunan).

Ranking of Provinces by GDP per capita GDP per capita Number of Internet Users Living in the Provinces
1. Shanghai
RMB 11320.41
2. Beijing
RMB 10298.30
3. Tianjin RMB 9295.48 5.64mil
4. Zhejiang
RMB 6582.88
5. Jiangsu
RMB 6437.91
6. Guangdong
RMB 5861.92
7. Neimeng
RMB 5467.30
8. Shandong
RMB 5262.96
9. Liaoning
RMB 5013.66
10. Fujian
RMB 4854.18
Sum 184.83mil

Since the total number of internet users up to December 2009, according to the CNNIC report, is 384 mil, it leaves people living in the richest Ten Places in China counting for 184.83/384=48% of China’s internet users, not even making up half  of the group.  Also, the fact that the CNNIC report counts the migrant workers as internet users in cities where they are working, means that internet users who are regular inhabitants in those most developed places are much less than 184.83mil.  And if you are not convinced that the migrant workers would count for a large sum of this 184.83 mil, please look for the chart in part III about the income level of Chinese netizens.

II. The chart below is the education level of internet users:                                                                                                       

The horizontal columns from left to right reads:  primary school and below; middle school; high school; vocational school; bachelor degree and higher.

This chart means that 8.8%+26.8%+40.2%=75.8% of the internet users have only received high school level or lower education.   Even for a country like China, where the  average education level is probably middle school or below, you wouldn’t call a high school graduate “an educated elites” .

Also an interesting trend to note is that the percentage of people who have only primary school or less education is increasing, while the percentage of college graduate is decreasing.   This just means that a large percentage of the college graduates have had access to internet for a while already, so it is harder for the group to increase their representation in the whole group.  On the other hand, more people who have primary school education or less have not been exposed to internet before, and thus this group has more potential to pull up their representation.

III.  The third chart is the income level distribution of China’s internet users;  the unit of income on the left is RMB, whose exchange rate to dollar is roughly 1 dollar = 6.8 RMB

There are many discussions, both domestically and internationally, about what should be the monthly income level for China’s middle class.  The most modest benchmark I find, is RMB1500, while others contest that it should be RMB 5000.   If we adopt the more radical standard, this would leave middle class only 5.6% of the internet users, which seems rather counter-factual to me.  But even if we use the modest benchmark, RMB 1500, middle class and above would only count for 43.7% of China’s netizens, not being the overwhelming majority.

There are of course issues with the accuracy people report their incomes.  The CNNIC report was conducted through phone interviews of 72,ooo people, and one can certainly imagine interviewees being modest to speak about their income levels in official surveys.  On the other hand, the RMB 1500 benchmark for middle class is definitely very, very modest as well.  Many of the migrant workers I interviewed in the past Summer, can earn up to 2500 Yuan/month, ( but of course through 16hr*6days of work every week), and I don’t see how they can be counted as the middle class in China.   So if we take the modestiy of numbers on both sides, they might actually balance out each other, leaving the “43.7%” result not too far off from reality.


The point o f this post might seem to be trivial, since it is not against the main argument of “China Cyberposse”.  Yet I think it is an important issue to bear in mind about who really are the majority of netizens in China.  Contrary to Downey’s point that it is because netizens are the elites that makes whatever happen on internet “less than peripheral”,  I think it is exactly because the netizens are the mass, and the most grass-root population, that makes them so powerful.  They suffer the most from the current system, and they really have so little to lose in this game to hold up to their rights.

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