In 2008, China surpassed the U.S – not in economic size or military spending – in how many people are online. In 2011, there were 565 million English internet users, compared to 510 million Chinese users. Just like in many other countries, Internet has changed the lives Chinese people. Among Chinese web users, it has been estimated about 210 million are online shoppers. Also the Internet has also become a major source of entertainment, accelerated by mobile phone access.
But unlike many other countries, Internet has become an important channel for the Chinese public to air their grievances. Exposures of corruptions and other government misconducts easily find their ways to the public through Weibo (microblog). Social media alleviates collective action problem and makes it easier for the discontented to organize and receive public attention. Topics of public concerns have been enthusiastically discussed on the Internet, creating a virtual “public sphere” in China. Participation has developed to such a degree that a common “netizen” can write a “weibo” (like a “tweet”) about a corrupt official where he lives. This can lead to the corrupt official losing their office after millions of people share the “tweet.” Professor Guobin Yang of Columbia University calls these internet-related struggles “online activism” in his book The Power of the Internet in China. “Net opinions,” opinions present on the Internet, become an important kind of political participation while more direct participations and criticisms of the government (such as protests and demonstrations) are less viable. The Internet has apparently challenged current mode of governance in China.
During the critical time when the new Chinese leadership is coming on the stage: the expectation of change is high. Optimists believe the Internet and social media will lead to Western style democratization in China. Pessimists worry that exuberant online activism will force the government to take a reactionary stance to the disastrous Cultural Revolution’s style of governance. “Realistic” observers take a middle path pointing out that the Chinese government still control public opinions and expressions; moreover, the internet to some extent is utilized by government as a tool to centralize and control information. On the one hand, the government shows its benignity by being responsive to public criticisms and endorsing some degree of Internet activism. On the other hand, China has been grouped by Freedom House with Iran and Cuba as the three countries of lowest degree of internet freedom. The main reason why a “Jasmine Revolution” did not take place in China is to a very large extent due to government’s efficient control over the Internet. The ongoing contention between “more liberty” and “tighter control” is shaping the future of governance in China.
In this project, I want to explore the impacts of social media on governance in China. Questions I hope to answer by the end of the project are concerned with three keywords: popular participation, challenge, official reaction.
Popular participation: to what extent do social media outlets such as Weibo facilitate and stimulate Chinese participation in public affairs? What is involved in “popular participation” (for example, as a channel to air grievances and articulations of interest)? How meaningful is the increase of popular participation to the current governance? Does increased participation create a Habermasian “public sphere” in China? What does popular participation tell us about modern Chinese attitudes towards “government” (i.e. where does government’s legitimacy come from?) and “a good government” (i.e. how Chinese people evaluate the government)? Is legitimacy of the party-government questioned by public expressions? Finally, how possible is China going to democratize?
Challenge: In what ways are social media used to challenge (or improve) governance? How effective are they? What are the political aspirations behind net opinions? How do social media alleviate collective action problems in China?
Official reaction: How does the central government cope with the new dynamism of civil participation facilitated by the Internet? Is censorship efficient enough to control public opinions? What does the public think of government censorship? Is it more likely that social media lead to a crisis of current governance or an opportunity of reform?
Because of the massive amount of informationon the internet, it is impossible for me in this project to make a comprehensive survey on all the popular websites in China. In fact, I will spend my first week compiling a list of websites as well as the time period I want to cover. My selective criterion will base on their relevance to the questions I intend to answer in this project. For example, domestic affairs will receive more concerns than foreign policy because the former reflects more truths about the current governance of the CCP. Next, I will evaluate relevant literature in Chinese and the English world, for the purpose of offering a theoretic background/context for this project before I offer my own findings. Finally, I will look carefully at the chosen websites and give my own observation of the impacts of social media on the Chinese governance.
Impacts of social media are tangible where internet is available. In democratic states, social media influence the way electoral campaign is conducted. In authoritarian states, social media create many new difficulties for government control. As we have already seen in the Arab Spring, social media accelerated the demise of authoritarian regimes and the process of democratization. China as one of the most persistent (and biggest) authoritarian states in the world is also being challenged by the new media. How the new Chinese leadership react to the challenge is a topic of immense interest.