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Online Activism in China

By Jan Servaes

BANGKOK| 15 March 2024 (IDN) —There are already more than 1 billion netizens in China, more than 3 times the population of the USA and almost one and a half times that of Europe. This means that about 20% of the world’s internet users, or almost 1 in 5, live in China.

Two overly simplistic stories have long dominated news reports and academic studies of the Chinese Internet. One touts the Internet’s potential to boost trade and communication as an example of the triumph of capitalism in a post-socialist society. The other complains about state control and censorship, and measures against the forces of political transformation.

This split obscures the complexity of the dynamic forces operating in the Chinese Internet and the diversity of Internet-related phenomena, argues Song Shi, my former doctoral student who is now an assistant professor in the School of Computing and Information and the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. Since 2010, he has also been associate director of the New Media Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. He has specialized in Internet research for the past fifteen years and has close ties to many of the activists and NGOs analyzed in this book.

“China and the Internet” shows how Chinese activists, NGOs and government agencies have used the internet to combat rural malnutrition, the digital divide, the COVID-19 pandemic and other pressing issues facing millions of people.

It presents six theoretically grounded case studies of how new media have been used in development and social change interventions:

– Connecting Every Village Project: Government Engagement in ICT for Development;

– The NGO 2.0 Project: Using New Media for the Empowerment of NGOs;

– Tiger Gate: A New Media Action for Government Accountability;

– Free Lunches: Activist, NGO, and State Collaboration in Development and Social Change; -Contention and Reciprocity in the Free Lunch Project: Complex and Multi-dimensional Relations between Activists, the State, and Corporations; and

– NCP Life Support Network: New Media Actions against Covid-19, how activists fought against COVID-19.

Furthermore, this book takes a Communication for Development perspective to explore the use and impact of the Chinese Internet. Although widely used in Internet studies internationally, Communication for Development and Social Change has not yet been rigorously applied in studies of the Chinese Internet.

Therefore, this study, together with MIT-researcher Jing Wang’s ‘The Other Digital China. Nonconfrontational Activism on the Social Web’ may be one of the first studies to use this new perspective to thoroughly investigate the Internet and related phenomena in Chinese society.

Online activism works

The Chinese government has increased digital censorship under Xi Jinping. Why? Because online activism works, argues Jing Wang, scientist at MIT and activist in China. In ‘The Other Digital China’ she debunks the view that citizens of non-liberal societies are either brainwashed or complicit, imprisoned for speaking out, or paralyzed by fear.

Instead, Wang shows the impact of a less confrontational kind of activism. While Westerners often equate action with open criticism and street revolutions, Chinese activists are building a covert and silent coalition to promote incremental progress in their society.

Many Chinese changemakers practice non-confrontational activism. They prefer to walk around obstacles rather than break through them, tactfully navigating between what is legal and what is not legal. The Other Digital China describes this vast gray zone where NGOs, digital entrepreneurs, university students, IT companies such as Tencent and Sina, and technology communities operate.

They study the gradually changing policies in Beijing and figure out ways to make their case without antagonizing the regime. Within the Chinese communist system, ideas about social action necessarily differ from the views dominant in Western liberal societies. What is emerging is an ever-expanding networked activism on a large scale.

Under extreme ideological constraints, the majority of Chinese activists choose neither revolution nor inertia. They share a mentality common in China: rules are meant to be bent.

Interesting case studies

The book provides accessible case studies that China watchers and policymakers may find informative. I doubt it will appeal to a general audience, but it will probably catch the attention of students and researchers in Asian studies, sociology and political science, who are interested in the role of the Internet in China’s ongoing political, economic and social development.

Song Shi’s book is informative because it provides enough new material to describe several interesting recent cases of how new media were used for social development in China. The attractive aspect of the book is the empirical data, which largely seem descriptive rather than explanatory.

The author emphasizes that the relationships between the Chinese government and activists/NGOs in using new media for social change are “context-based, complex, multi-dimensional and dynamic.” On the coexistence of cooperation and confrontation (sometimes avoidance) between the government and activists/NGOs, it is interesting to see how these relationships evolve. Under what circumstances will cooperation lead to conflict or to cooperation?

Such dynamics are context-based, but not necessarily idiosyncratic. After all, there are patterns that can systematically explain the causal processes of cooperation/confrontation and its conversion. For example, are certain characteristics or strategies of the activists/NGOs, or certain issue areas more likely to lead to cooperation/confrontation?

In the final chapter, Song Shi summarizes the problem clearly in the following table (p. 289):

    Goals (ends)    
    Similar Dissimilar  
Preferred strategies (means) Similar Cooperation Co-optation  
  Dissimilar Complementary Confrontation  

The book concludes that while Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are crucial tools to facilitate development and social change, their effects must be assessed in conjunction with various other communication channels, including mass media and interpersonal communication, which co-exist and are even interdependent with ICTs.  In new media interventions, ICTs and other communication channels are not mutually exclusive; they interact with each other and reinforce each other. An exclusive focus on ICTs can therefore diminish and limit the richness of Communication for Development and Social Change research.

Hence, future research in the field of Communication for Development should use a multichannel perspective to better understand the impact of new media and ICTs for development and social change. [IDN-InDepthNews]

China and the Internet. Using New Media for Development and Social Change by Song Shi. Published by: Rutgers University Press. ISBN: 9781978834736. 380 Pages.

The Other Digital China. Nonconfrontational Activism on the Social Web by Jing Wang. Published by: Harvard University Press. ISBN: 9780674980921 320 Pages

Image credit: IDN-INPS

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate

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