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China’s complicated internet culture

The Chinese internet is lots more complicated than you think.

That’s the core message of Rebecca MacKinnon’s talk at the Berkman Center on the Chinese internet, deliberative government and internet filtering. Most of the models we have for understanding the Chinese internet are wrong, or at the very least, deceptive. Scholars who follow the Chinese internet closely, like Rebecca, and wrestling with explanations of what, in fact, is happening with the Internet and movements towards participatory democracy.

Rebecca begins her talk with a quote from Lao-tzu, which talks about the difficulty of maintaining control by grasping at something. This reminds her of a quote by Bill Clinton, who in referring to Chinese internet censorship in the 1990s, remarked that “trying to control the internet is like trying to nail Jell-o to the wall.”

Some of that nailed Jell-o might look a little like a video of The Back Dorm Boys, a pair of guys from Guangzhou who posted a YouTube video of themselves lipsynching to the Back Street Boys. These guys have become incredibly famous, spawning fan clubs and landing a recording contract. Rebecca argues that they signify “a loss of control by the government over culture – you no longer have to wait for a gatekeeper to allow you to be published. Novelists, poets, and singers are finding audiences, and circumventing state apparatus.”

The internet is a profound influence on youth culture in China. The web is the main source of video entertainment for 66% of Chinese youth, who are finding videos like the Back Dorm Boys via social networks and instant messaging with their friends. Many of these youth consider officially sanctioned culture to be lobotomized and boring, while this web-based media is intriguing and exciting.

Despite the rise of web video, “no one has managed to organized an opposition party on the web,” Rebecca points out. “There’s no Lech Walenza, no religious movement – Falun Gong has been squished pretty thoroughly.”

We tend to think that these movements are squelched via censorship and police pressure. But the situation is far more complicated. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao recently conducted a two hour live chat online with Chinese netizens, answering questions that were both political and personal. “Grandpa Wen” built a great deal of internet goodwill by starting his remarks by declaring, “My mother told me always to be honest, so I will try to be honest and upfront with you guys,” and answering questions about his skills at cooking dumplings.

Not all the questions were softballs about his kitchen skills – Wen Jiabao took questions on economic problems, on corruption and on rural issues. This makes clear that questions and criticisms aren’t always met with crackdowns – they’re sometimes met with a proactive PR approach.

This isn’t the only example of internet openness in contemporary China. An online service center at the Gov.CN site allows citizens to access government information much as on e-government sites anywhere else in the world. A new site associated with the “two conferences” – the annual people’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress – invites people to participate in the “strong nation’s forum” and offer questions about governance. Participants in the fora have offered questions on fighting corruption, improving safety in coal mines, and “cracking down on illegal medicine as hard as the government is cracking down on pornography.” One comment thread includes an edgy proposal on ending the one-child policy and allowing population rates to increase, as well as a hearty debate both for and against the proposition.

Is this Chinese cyber-glastnost, Rebecca wonders? People are starting to talk about the internet as a framework for democratic discussion in China, a new form of “Internet democracy”.

Not so fast, she warns. An edgy political blogger, Wang Xiaofeng, offered a post suggesting that Chinese netizens were celebrating too much about the Premier’s online chat. This was political theatre, he asserted – without changes to political structures, this is all we’re going to get, and ultimately, it’s meaningless. This morning, his blog was closed with a note that said, “Due to certain problems, Wang Xiaofeng’s blog is closed temporarily (for a few days” – Rebecca believes that Wang was told to close the blog and briefly took it down rather than having it be censored. Now Chinese bloggers are discussing the fact that his blog was “temporarily ‘smutted'” – a reference to January’s anti-smut campaign, which closed down political sites by claiming they were disseminating pornography.

Before celebrating too much about “Internet democracy”, it’s worth remembering that dissidents like Hu Jia are still in prison, and that the leader of the nascent “Chinese netizen party” is behind bars. So should we see this as “Cybertarianism”, a form of internet populist authoritarianism? Here Rebecca is influenced by Yongnian Zheng’s idea of “authoritarian deliberation”, articulated in his book Technological Empowerment – the Internet, State andSsociety in China. Zheng argues that you can have an authoritarian state with a great deal of deliberation, but not have it be a democracy. A democracy has rule of law and strong protections for free speech – widespread deliberation can take place even in deeply repressive societies.

This view challenges the dominant paradigm we use to understand the Chinese internet, the Great Firewall. Rebecca argues that this makes it harder to understand cybertarianism. We’re tempted to assume that if we just lift the Firewall, China will be free… and that’s an extremely naive view. The GFW only ertains to servers hosted outside of China. For sites hosted within China, the Net Nanny is a much better metaphor for understanding content control. Search for “Tiananmen massacre” on Google.cn and you’ll get images of the square, and of the Nanjing massacre, but none of the events of 1989. The same search on Baidu gets nothing at all. Every company operating in China controls content, somehow, but they don’t all do it the same way.

Rebecca’s recently released a major study of Chinese blogging platforms. She tried posting 108 potentially controversial posts on 15 blog hosting services. One service blocked 60 of the posts – another blocked only one. The distribution was broad – each service had very different standards and methods of censorship. Some sites search for keywords and block posts that contain them – others allow controversial posts up, then delete them after the fact. The timing of these posts matters as well – right now, during the “Two Congresses”, speech is especially constrained.

When these constraints come into play, Chinese bloggers get very creative. This past summer, there were riots in Weng’an, where citizens burned the offices of the public security bureau. They were angered by the death of a girl, which the police ruled a suicide, and which the public thought was a murder, covered up by the authorities. The term “Weng’an” was quickly blocked on blogs, so bloggers seized on a strange detail of the case to write about it – a young man was doing pushups on a bridge and witnessed the girl’s leap to her death. So posts about the riots became posts about “pushups”. When censors blocked that term, bloggers posted a plethora of images of young men – and eventually of babies and kittens – doing pushups.

This technique has become pretty common. In my Cute Cat Theory talk, I refer to an image of a river crab, dressed in three watches. This image was created because the term for “harmonize” – the term used in explaining why some blogs have been removed from websites – sounds similar to the term for river crab. The three watches are a pun on “the three represents”, a political philosophy advanced by the previous premier. The image, which was quite common in the Chinese blogosphere, is a commentary on censorship, politics, language and, ultimately, on absurdity.

Or try this example. The video above features a chorus of children singing “The Song of the Alpaca Sheep”. The term for alpaca sheep contains the same sounds as an extremely rude phrase, which translates roughly as “f*ck your mother”. When Chinese is sung, the tones of ordinary speech are replaced with the tones of the song… so the schoolchildren are basically singing extremely crude curses… though the lyrics of the song are sweet, sappy ones about Alpacas. The video, which is becoming increasingly popular, is basically a commentary on the frustration of political censorship and the malleability of the Chinese language to avoid such censorship.

A serious political essay is now making the rounds in the Chinese blogosphere, asking who’s winning: the River Crabs (the censors) or the Alpaca sheep (the clever bloggers, playing with language.)

Of course, not all online speech in China is as lighthearted as the Alpaca video. Cybernationalism has become a major force in the Chinese internet. When Chinese vice premier Xi Jinping gave a talk in Mexico and said , “Some foreigners who have eaten their fill have nothering better to do than point their finger at our affairs,” many Chinese netizens reacted positively, arguing that China needs to be more frank in standing up to foreign critics. The best known of these cybernationalists are the “50 cent party”, a group that includes both paid commenters and volunteers who follow online discussions, post pro-government commentary and spin conversation in certain directions. But there are many groups that are purely voluntary, and groups like Anti-CNN.com probably aren’t paid by the government, but are simply patriotic individuals expressing nationalist sentiments.

These cybernationalists may be at their scariest when they turn into cyber-vigilantes. Rebecca tells us about a campaign to find officials who went on an African junket. Netizens somehow obtained video from the trip, circulated frames that showed the officials and mobilized the “human flesh search engine” – a large group of online citizens united in the task of identifying and harrassing individuals. The officials were identified, shamed and had their careers ruined. Rebecca notes that this is reminiscent of the Red Guards, Mao’s cadres who worked to root out corrupt officials. (The human flesh search engines have also been turned on the family of students who’ve expressed support for Tibetan rights, or other anti-nationalist stances.)

Since these are popular movements, Rebecca wonders if they’re best understood as “cyberbonapartism – a broad, centrist political movement that advocates the idea of a strong and centralized state, based on popular support.” Or perhaps it’s cyberconfucianism, reflecting China’s traditional values and paternalist desire for just, strong, moral leaders.

None of these explanations suffices to describe the entire Chinese blogosphere. Chinese blogger conferences are working to create independent platforms for discussion and dialog, and avatars of this movement, like Isaac Mao, make sophisticated arguments for free speech. Isaac promotes an idea called “sharism”, a belief that the spirit of the open source movement will help liberate Chinese thinkers, helping them first become free thinkers, then to exercise free speech.

Whatever is possible on the Internet, some bloggers and many civil rights laywers argue that internet democracy isn’t real democracy. The struggle may begin on the internet, but ultimately it needs to include institutional transparency, rule of law, accountability and meaningful protections for free speech. But these aren’t values that all Chinese are pushing for. Others see the internet as a space that could easily descend into social dischord… and there’s evidence to prove their case, through nationalist movements that can turn violent, or for local protests that gain national attention and support.

Rebecca sees this as a tension between web freedom and control, a struggle that parallels discussions between Jefferson and Hamilton. She points to internet scholar David Post’s new book, “Jefferson’s Moose”, where Post sees debates over free speech and the prevention of societal dischord playing out online, more than two centuries later. There’s a lively Chinese debate about these issues, Rebecca tells us, centered on the question “Where does the balance lie between freedom and control?”

The best role for those who’d like to promote democracy in China is to promote and enable this debate, Rebecca argues. This may involve looking closely at the institutions that make the internet possible. Between citizens and government, we’re seeing the emergence of a powerful network of web and IT services that enable certain types of interactions and communication. A variety of movements – civil society and otherwise – are trying to shape this layer. Groups like the Global Network Initiative – a group that champions best practices for online companies in nations that control speech – are pushing for one set of practices, while technical and standards bodies sometimes pull in other ways. This debate, ultimately, will involve the engineers and standards geeks, corporate lawyers, human rights activists and government officials… an the stakes are very high. Rebecca wonders whether we need to push back more on this process, and whether we need ” a much better informed global citizenry that can push on these infrastructures and standards.”

For another view of Rebecca’s presentation, please see David Weinberger’s notes on her talk.

23 thoughts on “China’s complicated internet culture”

  1. The best articulation of the concept of authoritarian deliberation is found in He Baogang and Mark E. Warren’s paper “Authoritarian deliberation: The deliberative turn in Chinese political development”. Zheng’s book is definitely a great one but he does not explicitly use the term.

  2. I’m interested in your thoughts on how long the Chinese censors can keep up with this civil disobedience? Will the firewall ever come down?

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  4. Not sure why cyber-vigilantes are termed cyber nationalists. Most of what they expose, like official corruption or unfaithful spouses, have nothing to do with nationalism. Just call them cyber activists. Also, not sure why those “volunteers” are called fifty-centers. If they are not paid, they are merely expressing their own opinions. Right or wrong, those are their own opinions. Should we call supporters of the Bush administration fifty-centers?

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  6. Ethan, excellent overview of the situation. I think that one of your first points is one of your best: the situation is very complicated. As with all things about China, most foreigners have a very simplistic view, a view that is often stubbornly informed by Mao Era concepts of the way China and it’s politics works. Sensitive and careful research like Rebecca’s does the world’s understanding a great deal of good.

    By the by, Peanut Butter, the 50-centers are, in fact, paid. About the equivalent of 50 cents per pro-government post/comment/etc, hence the name. Ethan didn’t explain it in this post but there were several excellent discussions of it on Global Voices some time back.

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  8. Excellent points here Ethan – I think we’ll see the move from broad censorship to censorship that increasingly focuses on protecting the government’s image. Also, from the points you mentioned it’s apparent that there are many similarities between Iran and China as to their internet laws.

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  10. The internet is as much a place of dissent as it is for political rallying behind the CCP. The CCP’s attempt at censorship is half-hearted at best, because they know much of what’s going on the net is actually good for them. Nearly everything can be said on the internet, sometimes to the annoyance of common people more than the government: there are forums/sites famous for their radical and often not so helpful anti-CCP stances, and many Chinese people moan about why the government still hasn’t shut them down yet. And it’s funny how you mentioned the fifty-centers but not the WTs—those who are accused of receiving payments from foreign governments/institutions to post certain opinions, etc. Accusations of WT are just as valid as accusations of fifty-centers. It’s a complicated world, and every word has a plethora of meanings. For example, if you think “river crab” always mean discontent about censorship, you haven’t been hanging around long enough.

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  18. My two cents to add would best be how and why I got to this post. My internet in China has been down for three days. Three days before the National Day celebration. I’ve had access to fewer and fewer websites for a month. Can’t post on my own blog from here as the proxies I’ve used are down.

    All the internet service at this technology university have been down and no one can say why. At a school that teaches future computer engineers?

    It’s not that I just couldn’t go to a facebook page, but I missed my online tutoring with a girl in Afghanistan and some important emails about my job hunt. All, I suppose, to ensure that no one wrote or read something negative about the celebration.

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