I’m at the 2009 Chinese Internet Research Conference at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. My colleague Hal Roberts and I are presenting some of our research on circumvention tools this afternoon, and I’m enjoying the chance to catch up on research in a field I don’t know a ton about – the Chinese internet. The conference is organized in part by my good friend Lokman Tsui, who apparently hasn’t slept in weeks.
Michael Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School, points out that study of the Chinese internet reminds us that “the internet means very different things in very different settings.” Studying the Internet in China means moving back and forth between understanding the medium itself and understanding the cultures and economic and political settings in which it is placed. The conference, which focuses on the Chinese internet and civil society, includes talks on the public sphere and deliberation, censorship, surveillance, civil society, women and minorities, panics, nationalism and grassroot cultures. Delli Carpini warns us, “Let’s not pretend we understand the internet in the US on these issues” – we’re still figuring out how these online spaces work everywhere in the world.
Min Jiang of UNC Charlotte used to work for CCTV in Beijing, so she’s well positioned to study Chinese media, propoganda and citizen participation. In a talk titled, “Spaces of Authoritarian Deliberation”, she explains that we need to moderate our understanding of the Chinese internet. It’s not a controlled space punctuated by bursts of protest, as usually portrayed in the Western media. Nor is it the emerging deliberative public sphere as Chinese authorities like to claim – it’s somewhere in between.
The online space in China is huge, with 298 million internet users. 2/3rds of these users are under 30, and lots of them are bloggers. (She uses the figure of 162 million, which seems very high to me, but would be interesting to see the number sourced.) 700 million Chinese have mobile phones, and 117 have phones with internet access. This, she suggests, creates an unprecedenced ability for users to engage in collective action.
There’s an impression, she suggests, that “if we bring down the great firewall, China will be free” – in truth, it’s a lot more compicated. China’s not as simple as a repressive dictatorship – it’s a complex authoritarian state, evolving over time, especially in online spaces. She offers the example of a comment by Jackie Chan in a public forum: “We Chinese need to be controlled.” Chan was offered the opportunity to respond, saying “I was quoted out of context.” Chinese netizens didn’t buy it – some suggested that perhaps Chan should be sent to North Korea to see what it’s like to be controlled. “Modern authoritianism is deliberative – it listens and responds to the people.”
She looks closely at four kinds of spaces:
Central propoganda spaces, where the government controls the message. Despite the control of these spaces, there’s a surprising amount of open discussion, including complaints posted about local government and discussions of issues like the global financial crisis.
Government-controlled commercial spaces are even more lively – while the spaces are centered on topics like music, news and messaging, there’s a great deal of discussion on political topics. When these spaces get too frisky, they can get shut down until they tone down – some spaces, after being shut down, reopen overseas. They’re emerging as increasingly important spaces to discuss public issues.
A small number of new spaces are emerging as civic forums. They’re sometimes explicitly focused on defending rights. As a result, these sites are generally asked to register their presence with the government. But other civic spaces are emerging, sometimes on sites like a Facebook clone – these are platforms for self-organizing.
Finally, she considers international deliberative spaces, a category that ranges from international media sites like China Radio International and CCTV online, which try to shape the image of China online, to spaces built by overseas bloggers and translators, like the ECOTeam (which translates The Economist into Chinese), or groups that translate entertainment content like Desperate Housewives.
The open questions Min Jiang is interested in focus on how we can engage emergent civil society in China, engage with reformist bureacrats, and engage the digital generation.
Yuan Le presents a paper that she and Boxu Yang at Peking University developed from studying two Chinese bulletin board communities – Qiangguo Forum and
Maoyan Kanfren Forum. The former is a long-established forum, online since 1999, and seen as an officially sanctioned space. The latter is more associated with the right. Yuan and Yang develop a sophisticated political model that divides Chinese political culture into “old left”, “new left”, “nationalist” and “neoconfucian”. They’re interested in studying what debates emerge between these groups – some are ideological questions, while others are debates over the language used, particularly between old Marxist language and more modern language of the social sciences.
Analyzing 398 threads and 1243 replies, handcoding posts for political opinion, the researchers discovered a clear left/right break between the two studied forums. They also saw evidence of very different agendas between the spaces – on Qiangguo, conversations often centered on issues of social welfare, while discussions of liberal democracy and individual freedom dominated on Maoyan Kanfren.
Sarah Cook of Freedom House presents their recent report, Freedom on the Net. It’s an attempt to rank fifteen countries in terms of internet freedom, using 19 indicators in three thematic areas: obstacles to access, limits on content and violation of user rights.
China comes up as “not free” under the Freedom House methodology, grouped with Cuba, Tunisia and Iran. She posits a paradox – China is aggresively embracing the internet, and is one of six countries they considered where internet penetration has recently doubled, but there’s sophisticated and multi-layered apparatus of control.
Cook points out that there are several phenomena which are unique to China, including strong pre-publication controls (which Rebecca MacKinnon has studied at length). Other controls, like paid manipulators of public opinion, like the 50 cent party, are seen in other venues like Russia and Tunisia.
Freedom House uses a similar points-based methodology to score press freedom, and Cook compares press and online freedom. While there’s not a large difference in highly-controled countries, there is a big gap in partially free countries – there’s more freedom online, though Cook worries that gap is closing.
(I’m not especially thrilled with Freedom House’s decision to try to rank internet freedom on a single hundred-point scale. Comparing Tunisia and China, which have utterly different filtering methodologies and social implications, feels like comparing apples and oranges to me. And trying to correlate two indexes which both measure factors that are very hard to quantify strikes me as potentially very misleading. Then again, I’ve worked closely with colleages at the OpenNet Initiative, and feel like the Freedom House work doesn’t add much to the work they’ve done over the past several years.)