The rise of the internet in China is explored in Guobin Yang’s sophisticated analysis, posing questions for the potential of activism and social change, finds Dan Poulton

Guobin Yang, The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online (Columbia University Press 2009), 320pp.

There are currently 500 million internet users in China; 300 million of them use microblogs, ‘cloned’ equivalents of Twitter and Facebook. Two million workers are employed by the state to monitor microblog content. Since 2009 internet use in China has exploded. The opportunities afforded to Chinese citizens for dissent and political criticism are manifold, as are the challenges to a state desperate to keep its populace under control.

The story of the internet in China is long and complex. It raises many questions about the role of communication technology in modern capitalist societies, the potential for these technologies to be subverted by ordinary people; and the limits of repression, censorship and political control in autocratic states. For those who wish to grapple with such questions, Guobin Yang’s comprehensive study, The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online, is an essential read.

Brave new world

Yang sees contemporary China as a brave new world where ‘online communities are hotbeds for contention’ and the there is ‘a remarkable level of Internet use, especially among organizations committed to social change’ (p.24). The rise of the internet is one significant factor in a whole new era of political protest in the post-1989 era. Yang believes that China is in the grip of a ‘long revolution’: a protracted period of social transformation as rapid changes take root in Chinese society, as the once isolationist country opens up to the global market, and its citizens struggle for political freedoms and democracy (p.40). Yang does not want to draw crude distinctions between ‘old and new’ forms of protest, preferring to see elements of the old in the new as well as analysing departures from old modes of activism.

Beyond the Democracy Wall

The ‘Democracy Wall’ movement of the late 1970s in many ways was a prefiguring of the modes of protest that would come to dominate online activism. After a dissident poet posted poetry on the walls near a statue of former Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, the wall became a world-famous site of political defiance. Yang describes the potency of the Democracy Wall, which rapidly became:

‘… an informal centre for public information and gatherings. People hung posters on it or went there to read or copy posters. Many “people’s publications”, the most important aspect of the movement, were first posted on the wall or distributed there. There were meetings, public speeches, debates, and protests’ (p.86).

This was in many ways the beginning of the pro-democracy movement that would be so brutally crushed in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Yang saw the movement in epic scale, as the ‘grandest narrative of China’s enlightenment project in recent history’ (p.87). Back then intellectuals played a significant role in the movement, but have done less so in the new movement, Yang argues. He puts this down to improvements in the material conditions of intellectuals as the country embarked on a striking economic resurgence throughout the 1990s. As they became more ‘comfortable’ so their ‘sense of idealism has decreased in proportion’ (p.98).

The seeds of online activism were present in the 1989 movement as activists used email and online newsgroups to exchange information. As protests escalated an ‘intricate web of communication emerged’ linking students inside China with the Chinese diaspora and the outside world in general. Telephones, faxes and mass media played the most important role but the internet also had a presence. Chinese overseas students used the internet to raise funds for student protesters at home. Statements of support were issued electronically and demonstrations were organised around the world: ‘They would call up their friends in Chinese universities to get event updates and then report back to the popular newsgroup SCC (Social Culture China) or e-mail list ENCS (Electronic Newsletter for Chinese Students)’. After the June 4th crackdown, numerous newsgroup messages called on Chinese students overseas to contact their friends and families in China and ‘inform them of the truth’ (pp.28-9).

One online message read: “Hi, everybody! I called a teacher in ZU last night in order to tell people the bloodshed had happened in Beijing. I was told that ZU students held a demonstration in Hangzhou as soon as they heard the event. They have telephone contacts with the students in Beijing, and also, the can know the truth from VOA [Voice of America]” (p.29). Of the hundreds of Usenet newsgroups established at the time, Social Culture China (SCC) had the most traffic (p.29). As the student movement grew, so did internet activity outside of China:

‘… the number of messages rose to 624 in March 1989, 833 in April, 2,198 in May, and 3,183 in June. By April 1990, SCC had become one of the twenty most active groups among the 1,473 newsgroups on Usenet, with an estimated readership of twenty thousand. SCC became a success story in the history of newsgroups in the United States.’

Internet activism inside China was still several years away however, for both technological and social reasons.

China gets connected

China did not become fully hooked up to the internet until 1994 and even then access was limited. The internet did not become available to ‘average urban consumers’ until after 1996. Even then, there were only ‘scattered reports’ of internet protests (p.29). However, a resurgence of protest had been underway, beginning around 1992 when waves of protest swept China. In 1993 China’s Ministry of Public Security recorded 8,700 ‘mass incidents’. This number rose to 32,000 in 1999, 58,000 in 2003 and 87,000 by 2005 (p.25).

The internet in China has more penetration in urban than rural areas, but by 2007 a not inconsiderable 52 million (7%) of China’s rural population were online (p.6). Nor is protest confined solely to the city. Yang recalls an image which circulated online in 2005 of an eighty-year-old peasant woman holding a megaphone and raising her fist in the air whilst delivering a speech to fellow villagers petitioning to impeach their village head (p.6).

BBS (Bulletin Board System) forums rapidly became the ‘central space for online activism’ in China. The first was established in 1995 at Tsinghua University and became highly influential. BBS’s were quickly established at a string of other universities and research institutions which were ‘traditionally the hotbed for contention’ (p.29). By 1998 the number of web users passed two million and the number of computer hosts exceeded 700,000. In the eight years from 1997 to 2004 the internet underwent rapid development with the years 1999 and 2000 witnessing ‘the most dramatic growth in the number of computer hosts and Internet users’ (p.136). By 2007 BBS and newsgroup use had outstripped online shopping and online payments (p.106). BBS forums allowed for communication on a mass scale and avoided the risks of street protests (p.73).

Blogging boom

In 2002 there were around 230,000 active blogs in China. By 2006 that figure was 7.6 million (p.105). According to polling, by 2008, 66% of China’s over-210 million internet users had contributed content online: ‘Over 35 percent of respondents indicated that in the past six months, they had either posted messages or responded to messages in online forums, while about 32 percent had uploaded pictures and 18 percent had uploaded movies, television programmes, and other video materials’ (pp.104-5). And despite tight online censorship, Chinese internet users were attracted to the internet more for social and political than commercial reasons (p.107).

Modernity and its discontents

Yang’s research reveals a striking range and diversity of dissent in China and views popular contention as being a response to the ‘consequences of Chinese modernity’, arguing that:

‘The wave of popular protests that ushered in the reform era has not subsided. The struggles for political freedom and reform have never stopped. The frequency of worker strikes and rural protests in recent years is well known. There were protests among workers and villagers in the 1980s as well, but they were little known and overshadowed by student activism. Such labor and rural protests have continued to the present day […] material grievances such as wages and living conditions continue to be central concerns in labor protests. Villagers have protested against tax burdens, corruption, and the diversification of public funds. [There have been] protests about land loss to pension, property rights, consumer rights, popular nationalism, animal rights, pollution, migrant labor, HIV/AIDS, and discrimination against hepatitis-B carriers’ (p.26).

This bewildering array of what Yang dubs ‘new citizen activism’ even draws on issues at the heart of Europe’s ‘new social movements’ (p.27).

Online protest: getting results

Online protests ramped up in response to the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 when a BBS called ‘Protest Forum’ was set up to ‘air discontent’ (p.30). Tens of thousands of comments were posted on the forum within days and the forum ‘unintentionally popularised online protest activities at a time when the Internet was just beginning to catch on in China’ (p.30). Online protests continued apace in the 2000s. In 2003 alone six protests occurred in the wake of the killing of migrant worker Sun Zhigang in police custody in Guangzhou and caused an ‘outdated government regulation about urban vagrants’ to be overturned. Another case in the same year led to the reversal of a court verdict. In 2005, an online petition campaigning to oppose Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council collected thirty million signatures. In 2007, residents in Xiamen successfully organized a demonstration using the internet and text messages to oppose the construction of a chemical factory.

January 2008 saw a major online protest following the death of a Chinese citizen ‘at the hands of ruthless city inspectors in Tianmen, Hubei’. In April that year a nationalist anti-CNN campaign, largely conducted online, protested coverage of riots in Tibet. In early May 2008 there was a ‘nationwide civic mobilization’ following earthquakes in Sichuan province (pp.30-1). In Yang’s view all this adds up to a ‘permanent campaign’ of protests and mobilisations inside Chinese society, though as these examples show, the politics of the protests varies greatly.

Spontaneity online?

Most of the most influential and widely promoted online protests tend to be spontaneous and uncoordinated, despite large numbers protesting simultaneously (p.31). Partly, this would seem to be because there are wide-ranging and culturally embedded networks and communities already existing online in China. These appear to provide the circuits around which the current of resistance, once sparked, subsequently flows.

In fact, Yang argues that such spontaneity does not ‘invalidate arguments about the centrality of organization to popular contention’ (p.43). Despite the fragmented (‘cellular’) nature of contemporary protest, ‘Internet protests reveal new possibilities of alliance, networking, and connection. Pockets of resistance are turning into activist networks’ (p.63). Organisations provide a foundation for online activism, and online activism is also a ‘means of organizational building’ (p.154).

The dark side of China’s ‘Great Transformation’

Yang claims Chinese society is gripped by a spontaneous ‘countermovement’ triggered by the ‘unregulated market’. This movement ‘originates most forcefully from deep material grievances, it targets the predatory activities of the market, and it is spontaneous’ (p.34). However, the state is still a ‘crucial element’ motivating this new movement, as local government authorities are also the targets of protest:

‘This is because of the predatory and fragmented nature of the Chinese state. The predatory activities of the state are a source of serious grievances. Its fragmentation and problematic central-local relations are sources of political opportunities for collective action.’

Further complexity is added in that the central Chinese state will at times ‘tolerate and even encourage grassroots protests that target local leadership and local practices’, as it attempts to maintain its grip on power by managing dissent (p.34).

The societal transformations of China’s opening to the market are often celebrated for lifting millions out of poverty and raising material living standards. However, Yang observes a ‘dark side’ to China’s ‘Great Transformation’:

‘… worker protests are largely rooted in grievances incurred by labor commodification and industrial restructuring. Rural protesters make defensive and reactive claims against the violation of existing entitlements such as land seizures, illegal agricultural fees, or industrial pollution of water sources. Similarly, the more recent urban environmental activism and homeowners’ resistance are struggles to defend newly gained property rights and a healthy human habitat’ (p.34).

Profound social changes engender a deep sense of social dislocation and a ‘loss of control’ which create what Yang calls an ‘identity movement’ of resistance which is ‘rooted in the market transformation of Chinese society and the sense of identity crisis it creates’ (p.37). This crisis was evidently the most profound in the 1990s, as the ‘yearning for change’ of the 1980s gave way to a sense of ‘disorientation’, no doubt exacerbated by the crushed dreams of ‘89 (p.38).

China’s rapid economic development brings with it equally rapid polarisation within society. Even as growing sections of society are experiencing newfound prosperity, ‘large proportions’ of the population remain in ‘conditions of economic scarcity … As a middle class takes form, so does a poor class’ (p.40). The market reforms of Deng Xiaoping’s era necessitated the formation of ‘new social-service organizations’ because the existing welfare system had been ‘bankrupted’. This created a ‘large, marginalized population badly in need of social support’ (p.132).

Political freedom

The internet gives China’s ‘netizens’ a newfound sense of political freedom, despite the notable challenges of online dissent in a notoriously repressive society (p.182). Yang notes that in the anti-globalisation movements at the end of the 2000s that online tactics were extensions of ‘conventional forms of radical protests’ including ‘virtual sit-ins’, hacking of websites, ‘e-mail bombing’ and other kinds of ‘electronic disturbance’ (p.33).

Although some of these tactics (especially hacking) are often used in online mobilisation over nationalistic issues, the use of parody and satire online is used to target the rich and powerful and often mocks the lavish lifestyles of government officials. One image of an official was accompanied by this satirical comment: ‘Morning: cruising around in an automobile, noon: eating at lunch tables, afternoon: playing at gambling tables, night: hanging around women’ (p.79). Another popular spoof video that circulated protested the common problem of delayed wages in China (p.81).

By 2006 there were over seven million active blogs in Chinese cyberspace and the use of flash animations, digital photographs and videos were widespread (p.79). There have been many online innovations such as the use of a voting forum leading to one blogger having copyright infringement charges against him dropped (p.82). Yet, Yang warns that both internet access and its creative use for protest are constantly ‘matters of contention. Neither can be taken for granted. Online activity thus stretches the field of Chinese politics into ever more uncharted zones. It challenges state power by stretching its battleground’ (p.84).

Civil society and the internet

The ‘89 crackdown seriously stunted the growth of civil society organisation in China for several years. However, the diffusion of internet connectivity in the late ‘90s saw a raft of civil society organisations going online. The internet supplemented, rather than replaced, so-called ‘offline’ recruitment and PR methods for civil society organisations. The favoured means of publicising recruitment information remain, Yang argues, ‘acquaintances, the telephone, organizational publications, Web sites, and e-mail, in that order’ (my emphasis, p.140).

Yang observes a mutually reinforcing relationship between online activism and so-called ‘offline’ activity, describing a ‘trajectory of coevolution’: ‘Civil society generates online contention, while contention activates civil society and boosts its development’ (pp.16-17). Online activity has its real world analogues, especially amongst students:

‘… some messages in the bulletin boards were printed and posted on the walls in some campus areas, providing a source of wall posters […] online forums were used to announce campus protest events, thus turning the Internet into an organizational space for offline activities’ (p.71).

In one case study, internet use was combined with text messaging to mobilise for an environmental street protest. The so-called ‘leisure walk’ was a protest march under a more gentle guise. Text messages were used to alert people to the event and information was circulated on BBS forums. The march, a protest against the hazardous ‘PX chemical plant’, forced the authorities to stall the project (pp.73-4). Before the demonstration took place, a deputy mayor called a press conference announcing the postponement of the project and that a ‘comprehensive’ assessment of its impact would be carried out. The walk went ahead anyway. It was an effective strategy to avoid repression, Yang argues, because ‘even harsh government authorities would find it hard not to let citizens take “leisure walks” ’ (p.74).

Technology and change

Yang attempts to highlight the importance of the internet for protest in China by, for example, reducing costs and enhancing mobilisations, whilst also avoiding crude technological determinist arguments that ‘technology produces its own effects’ (p.7). He argues that we cannot ‘ignore human intention, purpose and practice’, when discussing the transformative role of the internet in society (p.10). Yang seeks for parallels with the internet in early forms of mass communication, sketching the story of the rise of modern print capitalism, where newspapers and books bound geographically dispersed people together in ‘communities of print’.

However Yang argues that the internet has an even more profound effect on social movements due to its speed, reach and a proliferation of media technologies (p.99). For Yang the communication revolution is also a social revolution in that in it ‘ordinary people assume an unprecedented role as agents of change and because new social formations are among its most profound outcomes’, (p.213), although he is at times in danger of seeing internet activism as an end in itself.

Ministry of Control

China’s‘Ministry of Public Security’ is responsible for ‘safeguarding network security’, which requires a far reaching bureaucracy extending ‘all the way down to township levels’ (p.51). In 2007 a teachers’ strike demanding salary rises led to the immediate publication of stories of demonstrations on a popular BBS teachers’ forum. The next day the forum published a message saying that the discussions had ‘seriously strayed away from the original intentions of this forum’ and the facility to publish new posts was ‘temporarily shut down’ (p.53). Organisations which hosted contentious posts on their servers received ‘friendly visits’ from Chinese officials. Throughout the 2000s, internet control grew into a rapidly ‘more expansive and hegemonic’ apparatus of state control (p.23), with the ‘ “principle of Party supremacy” overruling other considerations’. The CCP walks a constant tightrope of maximising economic growth ‘subject to the constraint of keeping itself in power’ (Yang, citing economists Yingyi Qian and Jinglian We, p.47).

Avoiding crude technological utopianism, Yang observes that whilst the internet provides much potential for dissent and resistance, ‘the same technology that allows internet users to speak out allows the state to censor speech’ (p.49). The Chinese state seeks to frame public debate by using hired people to work as ‘internet commentators’, shaping debate online, ‘to covertly guide the direction of the debates in accordance with the principles laid down by the propaganda departments of the Party’ (p.51).

Some words of warning

Although Yang has a sophisticated grasp of the centrality of human agency as a dominant factor in emancipatory struggle, he at times veers into the kind of either technological determinism or utopianism he tries so hard to avoid. In the concluding thoughts to his admirable book he argues that the power of the internet signals:

‘the probable coming of another revolution […] a different kind of revolution. It may lack revolutionary fanfare, but it will not be lacking in revolutionary power. As civic engagements in unofficial democracy expand, the distance to an officially institutionalized democracy shortens’ (p.226).

The leap from the internet as a means of mass communication and organisation, as a mode of social interaction and of developing cultural affinities, to the internet as a kind of network of digital soviets cannot be sustained by anyone who takes a frank look at the current balance of forces in Chinese society. The strength of the internet lies in its potential role as a means of organisation, and in its capacity to forge cultural – and, more crucially, class – identity through networks of information dissemination. Yet, ultimately, it is the advancement of the class struggle by ordinary Chinese citizens that will forge a more democratic society. The internet has a significant role to play in that, but it is not a defining role. The internet can facilitate the organisation of the class struggle, but it cannot substitute for it.

The power of the internet in China: upgrade

Yang’s book was first published in 2009 and released in paperback in 2011. Since then there has been a concerted effort by the Chinese state to crack down on online dissent. This is both a testament to the power of the internet in contemporary resistance, but also a warning for all those, including at times, it has to be said, Yang himself, who see the internet as an end in itself or the harbinger of a brave new world of digital freedoms. People who post ‘defamatory rumours’ online risk a three year jail sentence and an army of online censors monitor a vast array of content. Offences do not need to be raised by the alleged victims of such ‘rumours’, and the long list of ephemeral crimes includes ‘initiating mass incidents’, ‘causing negative international influence’, ‘severely harming social order and national interests’ and so on.

The financial crisis of 2008 fed into a period of economic volatility in China, reliant on recession-struck Europe for the bulk of its exports. This social-economic volatiltiy, manifested in a resurgent strike-wave in 2010, is accelerated by the internet and social media, as were the uprisings that took place in the Middle East and parts of Africa in 2011. Talk of a potential ‘Chinese Spring’, with social media acting as a now-familiar catalyst for resistance makes for interesting speculation, and there is little doubt the internet will have a significant role to play in any such uprisings.

Dan Poulton

Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner.  His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.