Tag Archives: internet

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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How internet changes the handling of social incidents in China

Today I want to begin with a pretty good summary of how internet change the way social incidents are treated in China.  It was from a speech intended to give at the 2008 Chinese blogger conference by Roland Soong, one of the most influential bloggers in the Greater China Area who translates daily news and updates from the Chinese blogsphere into English.  You can find his blog “EastSouthWestNorth” here.

There are two observations we can get from the pictures he gives: First, after the arrival of the internet, social grievances have many more channels to be heard and its more likely for them to be addressed.  Second, it seems like afte the internet boom in China, western media plays a much less influential role in shaping governments’ response to social incidents.  One reason is perhaps that they cannot be as updated as the p2p communication on net, and another is perhaps, after China’s rise, CCP honestly does not care that much about what foreign media says anymore.  It’s the opinion of the people that they take serious notice of.   And it’s arguably true that, foreign media in general lost their credibility to shape the opionion of Chinese people due to their hostilities – some perceived, some manisfested – towards China’s rise since the 2008 Olympic Games.

In Soong’s view, that’s how social incidents are treated in the pre-internet era:

1. A bad thing happens somewhere in China (such as police brutality, government malfeasance, a forced eviction, a coal mine disaster, etc).

2. The local government suppresses all information.

3. All media reports are censored.  [If it wasn’t reported, it didn’t happen as far as people are concerned.]

4. The victims begin a petitioning process up the hierarchy in order to seek justice.  The road is long and hard (see The Long Road To Petition) with dim prospects.

Yet things start to change around 2003 when Soong himself started blogging.

1. A bad thing happens somewhere in China (such as police brutality, government malfeasance, a forced eviction, a coal mine disaster, etc).

2. The local government suppresses all information.

3. All media reports are censored.  [But if it wasn’t reported in traditional media, there are other alternatives now on the Internet.]

4. The victims begin a petitioning process up the hierarchy in order to seek justice.  The road is long and hard, and nothing ever comes out of it.

5. The Internet forums/blogs rushed to report on the case.  But within approximately 48 hours, all traces of information are erased by order of the authorities.  [Thus, one of the excitements of my blogging activity was to find and translate that information before this window closes.]

6. Western media catch wind of the incident, and follow through.  This creates an international scandal.

7. Senior Chinese officials take notice, and corrective actions are taken.

And that’s how things are done now:

1. A bad thing happens somewhere in China (such as police brutality, government malfeasance, a forced eviction, a coal mine disaster, etc).

2. The local government suppresses all information.

3. All media reports are censored.

4. The victims begin a petitioning process up the hierarchy in order to seek justice.  The road is long and hard and nothing ever results.

5. The Internet forums/blogs rushed to report on the case.

6a. Within 48 hours, all traces of negative (i.e. against the authorities) information are erased by order of the authorities, or else by self-censorship at the portals/forums/blog service providers.

6b. Positive (i.e. on behalf of the authorities) information appear from Internet commentators who are paid by the authorities for their efforts.

6. Western media catch wind of the incident, and follow through with an international incident.

7.  But there are just too many portals/forums/blogs that important information will eventually seep through.

8. Senior Chinese officials take notice, and corrective actions are taken.

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About the Title…

Forgive me if I’m being cliche – yes, the dragon here refers to something about China.  Specifically the cybersphere in China.  It’s powerful, mighty, and full of mischievous funs, yet its strength is seriously limited.  It’s restrained, by one of the most notorious and paternalistic censorship in the world. Yet the dragon is recalcitrant, and it never gives up on fighting and finding its way out.  And that comes the charm of China’s internet.  You never lose the tension and excitement watching this two forces making their moves and combating each other.  This blog is intended to record the fun happenings along the battles.

But why wonderland?  Well, the wonderland to me refers to China.  Forgive me again that I could not settle for a better word to describe my feeling towards the country. China is a wonderland, because of its energy, adventure, and miracles, and its strange figures, extravagant endeavors and bizarre rules.  And to quote a saying about China popular among expats who are living there: its a land where nothing is permissible, yet everything is possible.

The stories of the recalcitrant dragon are set against the backdrop of this wonderland.   I welcome you to join my explorations.

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