This post draws some key paragraphs from my writing on online contention in China, which is a topic I have been researching for the better part of the last 6 months. I find that the success of Internet contention to provoke a positive state response depends largely on the forms of contention –that is, its planning, organization, spontaneity, and geo-temporal origins-- as well as on the contents –that is, whether contention is framed as political or apolitical, and whether protest targets state-efficacy or state-legitimacy.
In a country with a population of over 1.3 billion people, almost anything can be true. According to figures from the China Internet Network Information Center, China had 564 million Internet users in December 2012. In the same year, China had 309 million microbloggers (microblogs are published through services like Twitter, which limit the author to a 140 character count). The Internet pervades all aspects of life in China. Chinese cyberspace is a battlefield of fact and fiction, where netizens and all Chinese institutions –the State, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), business, industry, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)-- deliberate over available information and, in the process, debate civilizational alternatives. As Yang Guobin, arguably the foremost authority on the impacts of the Internet on Chinese society, points out in The Power of the Internet in China, “social change in China is not understandable without looking at the Internet”.
State credibility and national stability are the dominant issues at hand, tbe former for China's netizenry, the latter for the Chinese government. These two priorities share a very uneasy relationship in contemporary China, where the Internet has become a powerful space for the expression of public opinion.
The State, in trying to maintain "national stability" –although often this equates to self-preservation of the Party-- loses credibility when it blatantly tries to steer the public discourse, and also when it does not respond effectively to public opinion. A the State tries to "guide public opinion", the information-abundance of cyberspace makes this seem at best infeasible or at worst makes the State look foolish.
When Chinese authorities allow for online contention, it might often be to collect information about public affairs and opinions, to legitimize its own actions (here, the State might wait to “respond” to online contention after it appears), or to keep local authorities in check. The contradiction between the State's approval for Internet-expansion and its approval for official censorship can put the State in a perilous position where it is vulnerable to being challenged.
While civil and political activism tend to be unsuccessful if originating as a divisive idea, as an overtly political idea, or as directly challenging the State, it is extremely powerful when it arises as a secondary result of social, economic, and cultural rights contention. When a decentralized network of netizens spontaneously protest about an issue which originally concerns state-efficacy and not state-legitimacy, those isolated grievances can quickly agglomerate to become system-wide concerns.
Deliberation without Democracy?
Online contention in China appears to be mutually constitutive with civil society. That is, civil society generates online contention, while online contention also generates civil society. Yang argues that the Internet and civil society in China energize each other in coevolutionary dynamics. This development of civil society through online means in China is showing that democratic deliberation can take place in an environment that is not democratically structured. That is, China exemplifies a type of public opinion agenda-setting in which deliberation takes place without electoral democracy. We see this in the “grand bargain” between citizens and the state in China which is clearly being renegotiated –citizens are no longer content with economic growth as the basis of their government's right to rule. This state-centric model of development is faltering, especially as China's exports are shrinking. The Chinese government and its citizens alike recognize the need for domestic innovation and progress, and see that making these possible requires increased access to information, increased civil liberties, a strengthening of the rule of law, and greater attention paid to the environment and to public health. The less the government addresses these concerns, the more of a crisis it faces in the legality of its rule.
The development of the Internet as a lattice connecting various elements of society –citizens, businesses, non-profits, academia, and the State-- is an inherent result of the structural nature of the Internet itself. As more and more people are networked online and produce and consume content, so does information play an expanding role in individual and group agency, which, following the example of Laura Ahearn, who writes about the intersection of transforming literary and media practices and interpersonal love, can be defined as the “culturally constrained capacity to act" (in Invitations to Love). The question of whether deliberative and collaborative mechanisms online can effectively shape public discourse and national developmental priorities is being posed the world over –look, for example, at recent efforts to “crowdsource” the latest Icelandic Constitution, or at participatory-budgeting initiatives in New York City and Brazil. In the United States, the “open government” and associated “open data” movements are gaining visibility and popularity, and these initiatives represent a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between citizens and government, moving towards a system of open and collaborative governance in which the role of government shifts from arbitration to partnership. Tim O'Reilly famously describes this as Government 2.0., or as “government as platform”.
The Internet shapes and transforms our cultural capacity to act, and this is something all governments have to reckon with. In her book, Wiki Government, Beth Noveck describes how a process of targeted citizen participation in the policy-making process, in combination with strategically-framed uses of open data, can ameliorate the bureaucratic serialism of traditional government processes –essentially, she argues for a formalized system of sourcing citizen-led innovations in governance practices. These systems differ from traditional processes of electoral democracy in that the emphasis is not on deliberation as a means to achieve consensus, but on collaboration as a means to achieve the best solution. In China, we see this distinction between government and governance quite clearly. If government cannot be changed, change governance. This idea of developing an iterative, experimental, and collaborative culture of governance by using Internet technologies is not particular to any one place. However, the ways in which this idea will play out depends very much on the structural conditions of the society in question. It is very much up for debate whether citizen-participation in policy-making and in the administration of government-services is more effective in a democratic or authoritarian context and whether such efforts will ultimately democratize a society or, as some have suggested in the case of China, only strengthen the government's rule.