To the stability-obsessed Chinese government, social media is one of the most destabilizing factors in the 21st century. Soon after Tunisia and Egypt’s revolutions broke out, a group of followers called on a “Chinese Jasmine Revolution” on Weibo, which was quickly suppressed by local government. Therefore, people naturally expect social media could help stir up the “harmonious society” – an official slogan which was often ridiculed online, insinuating that the government tried to suppress all the troubling factors of the society. The cyber-optimists have three main arguments, which I have described in my second post, they are:
- Social media facilitate collective actions.
- Social media create (or transform) the public sphere that has liberalizing effects on the public.
- Social media will break through government’s surveillance and control of information.
The cyber-pessimists’ have found many ways to question the validity of cyber-optimists’ arguments (listed correspondingly):
- Social media act only as a catalyst; revolutions happen(ed) with or without social media.
- Social media create weak ties among users; the public sphere can be either liberal or conservative; censorship disrupts online debate and discussion.
- Government censorship adapts to new technology.
Speaking only of two opposite views will miss the useful middle ground – some less certain, less antithetical opinions. In my final post, I want to pick up some interesting points that are hard to fit in any of the two camps above.
Dismissing the authenticity of social media’s effects on collective action for the moment, the amount of dissatisfaction expressed on Weibo proves at least one thing to the Chinese government: that the society is not yet in harmony. James C. Scott points out that grievance from below are expressed in two forms: “public transcript” and “hidden transcript.” While “public transcript” is usually open, direct and visible, “hidden transcript” reflects the powerlessness of the dominated. Social media can serve to empower the weak and turn their protest into “public.”
In the protest of Wukan last year, social media has played a critical role in organizing the villagers. In Chinese peasant area, the village chiefs are usually the most powerful and richest, who usually suppress any protest against their interest. The Wukan villagers’ communal land had been secretly sold by their village chief for years. Villagers were angry about the corrupt transactions but for years chose obedience. In Scott’s view, villagers were not completely silent but they decided to protest in the back to avoid punishment. The decisive moment came when an anonymous villager created a discussion group in Tencent QQ, an online chatting service. More and more villagers, either living within the village or working outside, joined the discussion group and most active members of the group became the leaders in the afterward protest.
Obviously, Wukan’s protest is a textbook case of “collective action.” It is also important that social media has provided a channel to translate the “hidden transcript” into the “public transcript.” This may be beneficial to the central government as they are now able to hear the people directly. There seems to be a trend that the government are cooperating with this emerging power, which many people the government fear as a threat. For example, government utilize the grass-root, non-institutional anti-corruption and converge it with the official, institutional anti-corruption program. Government respond quickly to the corruption exposures by the public. It appears that the government and the people are on the same side, and the power of the government is indispensible in the efforts to root out corruption.
To conclude, studying the impacts of social media on Chinese governance is a subtle inquiry. Internet is a tool that has no set effects but possibilities. Some possibilities are realized and some doors are closed. The purpose of this research is to find out what those effects are. There is enormous space to fill in this research, such as the use of social media (internet) for political participation, or “internet activism”; comparative studies of social media; internet censorship in China (who controls it? How it works?). In the end, this research of social media reinforces my understandings about authoritarianism and democratization, which are fascinating subjects in International Relations.
I want to end with a funny and representative picture circulated on Weibo recently: A TV hostess reading contents on Weibo to the audience! (a complete victory of new media over traditional media? )