Jens Damm. Critical Asian Studies. Volume 39, Issue 2. 2007.
This article examines the usage and content of the Chinese Internet, with its focus on consumerism and lifestyle, to argue that dominant discourses, both Western and Chinese, are wrong in their assessment of the impact of the Internet on Chinese society because they pay inadequate attention to a consumerist postmodernity that emerged in China during the early 1990s. The first part of the article reviews the dominant Western and Chinese approaches to the study of the Internet in China. The second part draws on evidence from some influential Chinese Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) to demonstrate how and why Chinese Internet users consider social and commercial uses of the Internet much more important than political uses.
Western Mainstream Discourses on the Internet
The Liberation Discourse: “Spamming for Freedom”
The Internet boom at the end of the 1990s and during the first years of this millennium increased speculation about the degree of change that could be expected in Chinese society: media commentators, politicians, and political scientists in the West, the so-called “China-watchers,” have all focused on the great changes that might be wrought in China by the introduction of the Internet. In much of this research, a deterministic view of technology prevails: users, in pursuit of “objective” information, are expected to be highly IT-savvy and able to employ the newest technologies to circumvent the censorship measures of the Chinese government. Technologies such as P2P (peer-to-peer), which are used in the West for downloading various kinds of allegedly “illegal” content such as copyright-protected films and music, are expected to be used in China for downloading Falun Gong-related material and the Tiananmen papers. That is to say, the specific features and characteristics of the media shape our society and politics, or in the words of McLuhan “we shape our tools and they in turn shape us.” In the case of the Internet, “The biggest of big brothers is increasingly helpless against communications technology. Information is the oxygen of the modern age,” as former U.S. president Ronald Reagan once said. Such predictions are based on the structure of the flow of information. In contrast to “traditional” media, including TV and radio, which have a “one-to-many” structure with a one-sided flow of communication, the Internet covers all possible means of communication: one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many, and many-to-one; it also allows an interactive dialogue. In addition, the Internet is said to offer the opportunity for everybody to become his/her own publisher with only marginal costs.
Thus, the first discourse on the Internet in China could be entitled the “liberation discourse,” where, in addition to the involvement of Chinese users, the role of the West is emphasized: “How the U.S. can free China’s Internet” is a typical heading in this kind of discourse. The “China watchers,” have often also expressed great “enthusiasm” for the supposedly liberating effects of this technology. They not only see the Internet as an uncontrollable form of technology, they also refer to the wealth of information available on the Internet that subverts attempts at silencing voices. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton pointed out that “attempting to control the Internet in China was like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.” The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has remarked that “the Internet will almost certainly become a more important, positive force in facilitating the rights of Chinese users to be informed, and to be heard” and has concluded that “as the number of Internet users grows,…the medium will become an increasingly important tool in fostering the development of civil society in China.” The Internet is thus regarded as a “technology of freedom.” Even mass mailings — usually named “spam” in the West — are considered to be valuable for the dissemination of information; Chinese dissident groups in the United States, including Falun Gong, are notorious for sending hundred of thousands of pieces of unwanted mail to Chinese email-accounts.
Research carried out on the role of the Internet in China also reflects the dominance of one particular concern of the West: the question of freedom versus state controls. Western research has focused, for the most part, on the controls implemented by the Chinese government, an approach that is clearly visible in two prestigious Internet research projects on China: “Internet Filtering in China,” by Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin G. Edelman, and “Berkeley China Internet Project,” headed by Xiao Qiang. Xiao Qiang wrote in 2004: “Ever since the Communist party took power in 1949, the Chinese media have been tightly controlled by the government. Online publishing is a real threat to that control, and the government is clearly worried. A crackdown in 2003 closed websites and Internet cafes and saw the arrest of dozens of online commentators.” The problem lies not in the facts as they are presented by Xiao Qiang, but rather in his mono-causal interpretation. He also fails to take into account the thousands of other websites, forums, and blogs left untouched. These are not focused specifically on political issues, but nevertheless discuss essential societal developments in China. This narrow approach to research, focusing only on censorship and crackdowns, disregards the much wider societal implications of the Internet; only recently have some scholars started to extend the scope of their work beyond the previously limited field to gain a more comprehensive picture of the impact of the Internet in China.
So what then is the reason for the current Western interest on the Internet and control? It could be argued that the emphasis on the Internet’s purported role in the creation of a civil society and criticism of all state interference in its functioning can be traced back to a very early phase of the Internet in the West. In the 1980s, most users of the Internet were students and academics in prestigious U.S. universities. During those years, it was not the World Wide Web, which we today often equate with the Internet, but Usenet and other forms of newsgroups that shaped the Net. The role of the noncommercial Usenet was celebrated in academic publications. Many observers regarded the Internet as a tool to overcome geographical borders and to establish new kinds of communities. There was, therefore, an emphasis on the democratizing and equalizing effects of the Internet, not with regard to “authoritarian” states, but with regard to the United States itself: there was a widely held belief that the Internet would lead to the much wider participation of U.S. citizens in the democratic processes and to the revival of civil society. Today, however, the commercialization of the Internet in the West is loudly lamented and the power and influence of the big media companies is indisputable.
Howard Rheingold, one of the early pioneers in the field of virtual communities, commented: “Civil society, a web of informal relationships that exist independently of government institutions or business organizations, is the social adhesive necessary to hold divergent communities of interest together into democratic societies. The future of civil society in America and elsewhere is uncertain, even gloomy.” He then posed the question: “Can virtual communities help revitalize civil society or are online debates nothing more than distracting simulations of authentic discourse? Enthusiasts like myself point to examples of many-to-many communication that appear to leverage power in the real world of politics.” Rheingold seemed to be fascinated by the infinite possibilities of many-to-many communication. Unlike direct, one-to-one communication via the telephone or one-to-many communication such as television and radio (where one station can send one message to millions of people, but those people cannot communicate back), the various forms of communication combined in the term “Internet” mean that any user is able to communicate with another person or millions of people at the same time. And they are able to communicate in the same way or with each other. In 1995, Fernback and Thompson wrote, “Ideologically, community within cyberspace appears to emphasize a shared belief in the principles of free speech, individualism, equality, and open access to the same symbolic interests that define the character of American de-mocracy.”
This early discourse on the democratizing and participatory role of the Internet—with regard to the West—has gradually declined and today’s discussion emphasizes the influence of government and multinational corporations on the Internet:
Picture, if you will, an information infrastructure that encourages censor-ship, surveillance and suppression of the creative impulse. Where anonymity is outlawed and every penny spent is accounted for. Where the powers that be can smother subversive (or economically competitive)ideas in the cradle, and no one can publish even a laundry list without the imprimatur of Big Brother. Some prognosticators are saying that such a construct is nearly inevitable. And this infrastructure is none other than the former paradise of rebels and free-speechers: the Internet.
In summary, owing to political considerations and a “feeling of superiority” in the West, images of Internet subversives dominate in Western narratives about the Internet in China. Although the “China’s response to the West” paradigm has not been part of mainstream academic research for more than a decade, it still shapes journalistic and political descriptions of China’s recent de-velopments. These portrayals of the Internet as a liberating and democratizing force that can only be held back by strict governmental control is different from the kinds of narratives that are used to describe the effects of the Internet on Western society. In these discussions, Western observers neglect to mention the role played by the major Chinese companies and innovators in shaping the Internet; they deliberately reduce the numbers of agents to two, the state and the user, and both are described as being involved in an antagonistic relationship.
The Control Discourse: “Big Mama Is Watching You”
It seems that the growth of the Internet in China together with the country’s unexpected political and economic stability has led Western observers to change their views regarding the “liberating potential” of the Internet. Instead of examining the inherent features of the Internet that might possibly counteract or simply neutralize the liberalizing effects, the focus of Western observers has now shifted toward the role of the government: every single action taken by the Chinese authorities is immediately interpreted as a “crackdown” and as censorship: a “control discourse” has emerged or, to use the description of Lokman Tsui, “Big Mama is watching you.” Michael S. Chase and James C. Mulvenon at the RAND Institute in Santa Monica, California, for example, formulate the key questions for their research as follows:
Does the Internet provide dissidents with potent new tools that they can use to promote their causes, break through the barriers of censorship, and perhaps ultimately undermine the power and authority of non-democratic regimes? Or, on the contrary, is it more likely that those authoritarian governments will use the Internet as another instrument to repress dissent, silence their critics, and strengthen their own power?
One particular incident, the closing down of cybercafes in 2002, highlights the differing perceptions of the Chinese government and Western observers over the role of the Internet in Chinese society: When reported in the West, the event was immediately pounced on by commentators to draw attention to the strict control measures employed by the Chinese government; the reason for this action, as given by the Chinese media, was not taken seriously and viewed only as a pretext. For their part, the Chinese press/media explained that many cybercafes were unlicensed and they quoted worried parents who had tried to prevent their children from visiting Internet cafes where all they did was play games all night and where they also had easy access to porn sites. U.S. press reports focused solely on the closing down of the cafes as the latest form of repression. CNN reported: “China: Cyber cafes closed in new clampdown.…Anony-mous cyber cafes are popular because they allow people to evade tough content laws, whose infringement on a personal homepage or message board authorities are likely to track to its source.” CNN ignored the fact that over the same time period, legislators in the United States were demanding stricter control for cyber cafes in the United States:
Earlier this year, Los Angeles council members passed an ordinance that required the presence of security guards at cyber cafes that stay open to the public at night.…Pending results from the citywide investigation into cyber cafe violence, Zine and fellow city council members are proposing that cyber cafes be more closely regulated and that in addition to the steady presence of security guards, that they carry age restrictions.
Regulations, such as libraries being forced to use filtering software for underage youth in the United States are not seen in connection with control and censorship but in terms of the protection of youth. The explanations offered by the Chinese in defense of their actions are simply disregarded, for example, that certain measures were necessary for the “protection of youth,” or that “unlicensed cyber cafes” without adequate fire and safety precautions represented a hazard. The content of the narratives related to the closing down of cybercafes thus depends on location and on the political stance of the reporter.
The Chinese “Leap-Frogging Discourse”
In sharp contrast to Western discourses, Chinese discourses have focused on the Internet’s role as a tool for China’s economic development with frequent reference being made to Western analysts. Technology-oriented modernization and the leap frogging of industrial development has remained at the heart of Chinese research and the official news agency Xinhua sees a rosy future for China in its Internet development: “Technological leap frogging supports the tomorrow of the Republic.” Another indicator for the dominance of the Chinese teleological discourse on modernity and the role played by ICTs is the popularity of the American “futurologist” Alvin Toffler. His work The Third Wave was translated into Chinese in the early 1980s; all his works are said to have become bestsellers in China and many of his phrases have been widely used in China’s social, economic and cultural lives. The term “technological leap frogging” (jishu kuayue) is used in this context to refer to the idea of omitting a stage in economic development with the help of information and communication technologies, that is, of leap frogging the industrial phase and achieving, through informatization (the third wave), the foundations of the second wave (industri-alization). Agents ranging from the government, the mass media, companies, and average Internet users participate in a public discourse that is shaped by these ideas. This kind of discourse can also be found in the works of Chinese mainstream academics: Xie Kang wrote, for example, “Informatization is one of the most efficient means by which a country can achieve industrialization, gain economic benefits and increase production efficiency…the Internet is a critical multiplier in China’s drive toward achieving an advanced level of economic development.” There is also an astonishing emphasis on the development of the infrastructure and new technology, such as, the introduction of the third generation of mobile phones and the Internet protocol version 6, which will make the — still highly controlled — Chinese Internet one of the fastest in the world.
A young boy plays with his father’s mobile phone in Beijing, February 2002. China, already the world’s largest mobile phone market, surged past the 200 million users mark in January 2002, according to state media.
In China, in addition to these mainstream developments, a few research projects have dealt with Internet use in the hinterland or with the impact of the Internet on “especially vulnerable groups” such as children, women, peasants, migrants, and minorities. This research is based on empirical studies and focuses on the self-image of the groups interviewed. A fairly optimistic attitude about the modernizing potential of the Internet also prevails in these studies. The Internet is portrayed as the technological tool for incorporating backward regions and groups into the modernizing mainstream by providing them with modern information, ideas, and experiences of using equipment.
The Limits of the Discourses and the Diffusion of the Chinese Internet
Discourses dealing with the impact of the Internet on Chinese society capture only a few aspects of the ways in which this technology is promoting change; the arguments remain at best incomplete because insufficient empirical attention is paid to who use the Internet and how they use it. The reasons for this lack of empirical attention are various. One reason is that Western research on the Internet in China is often influenced by Chinese dissidents, now working in various departments of U.S. universities. And these dissidents are well aware of the high priority given to questions of censorship by the U.S. mainstream media. Another reason is that anyone seeking to carry out a content analysis of the Chinese Internet faces the problem of how to deal with the sheer mass of available content. Finally, the Chinese Internet providers are reluctant to provide researchers, whether Westerners or Chinese, with data on Internet usage, such as information about the exact numbers of accesses. In the case of research into BBSs, for example, it is possible to calculate the number of registered users at any particular time, but it is impossible to estimate how many users have only an inactive “observer status.”
Much of the research on the Internet in China is now being carried out by commercial institutes (such as CCID Saidi-consultant), which have strong interests in promoting e-business and e-commerce. Although these institutes are concerned with lifestyle and consumerist attitudes, they generally do not focus attention on aspects of identity-politics and societal changes, concentrating instead on matters of brand-name building and how to increase the efficiency of the Internet in selling products.
In order to assess whether the Western discourses of censorship and liberation or the Chinese discourses of modernization provide an accurate picture of the influence and impact of the Internet in China today, it is necessary to examine some of the specific features of local Internet usage and content. In the subsequent sections I examine the demographic user profiles as presented in the statistical reports published since 1997 by the Chinese Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), which include information on user demographics, access locations, and average online behavior. Next, I present interviews with users that were carried out in 2002 and 2003 in Fuzhou and Xiamen cities in Fujian Province and in Nanhai city in Guangzhou Province. Finally, I consider the example of one the BBSs/Internet forums that have become an essential part of all big Chinese Internet portals to consider what a qualitative content analysis of a site can tell us about the local usage and local content of the Internet in China and its focus on consumerism and lifestyle.
Who Is Using the Net?
Internet use in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has grown at a tremendous pace: CNNIC statistics show that 130 million Chinese had online access in mid 2006. The Internet arrived at a time when the nonprofit and academic Net had already undergone commercialization worldwide, as reflected in the hype surrounding the “New Economy.” It is therefore hardly surprising that three of the five most popular websites in China today are stock-listed portals: Sina, Sohu, and Netease — the other two being focused search machines, www.3721.com-search and www.baidu.com-search.
Some conclusions about who is using the Net can be drawn from the data in the CNNIC reports. Although a variety of different groups of Chinese Internet users can be identified, they share some common characteristics. The average user is male (60 percent), young (80 percent under thirty-five), and highly educated (more than 75 percent have a senior high school degree or higher qualification), belongs to the new urban middle class, and is a beneficiary of the economic, and to some extent, political reforms of the late 1990s and the new millennium.
The typical Internet user has a highly pragmatic approach toward the government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): for example, English-speaking Western visitors to China, whether business people, students, or tourists, will invariably note after their first stop at a cybercafe that the technology is highly developed, but will complain that the big news portals such as CNN and the New York Times are blocked. For the Chinese, however, this is not astonishing: they expect the government to censor all media. Yet even taking this censorship into account, the Internet, unlike TV and the newspapers, still offers hundreds of thousands of informative and unblocked sites. Even interviewees with an academic background expressed strong support for the filtering of websites; their arguments usually followed the official line that pornography or “evil cults” (that is, Falun Gong) pose a threat to the masses of not-so-well–educated Chinese people. “Many people in China are still very backward, and they could easily be persuaded to believe in the Falun Gong propaganda, but you know, many people have killed themselves because they were told to do so by this evil cult (xiejiao), and it is the duty of our government to protect the people.” This interviewee, however, regarded himself as sufficiently well educated to recognize “good” and “evil” without the help of the government.
These users support the regime’s efforts to establish the Internet as part of a modern economy and society and to control “sensitive political issues.” In their view, a political discourse aimed at overthrowing the current regime would probably lead to political instability (“chaos” or luan). Russia and Taiwan were frequently depicted during the interviews as examples of emerging “chaos.” The democratization processes in Russia were believed to have led to increasing corruption and economic problems, developments that compared unfavorably with China’s rapid economic growth. Taiwan’s democracy, praised in the West, was described in terms of chaos; the interviewees mentioned newspaper pictures and TV reports of members of parliament indulging in fistfights, economic growth well below the rate in the People’s Republic, and many social problems such as pornography, gambling, and corruption. It is remarkable that people in Xiamen who had better opportunities to access various Taiwanese media, including the Internet (only the bigger portals were blocked), were nevertheless highly critical of democratic developments. This was perhaps because the extensive reports in the Taiwanese media on corruption (“black gold politics”) were not interpreted in terms of Taiwan being more open, but in terms of Taiwan being more corrupt. In addition, the interviewees were firmly against any move toward independence by the Taiwanese, and stressed that only a strong CCP would be able to prevent Taiwan from becoming a “renegade province.”
Students at Xiamen University also showed a very ambiguous attitude toward the closing of “illegal” cybercafes in the university neighborhood: on the one hand, they were aware of the problems that could arise from alcohol consumption and smoking in the cafes and could understand parents’ worries; on the other hand, some of the students had also used these cafes because the opening times were very user friendly and these places offered all-night facilities for playing games. In my interviews, nobody mentioned that these Internet cafes might offer easy access to “illegal political sites.” With regard to societal changes and identity politics, the general opinion seemed to be that the Internet offered new space for personal development: the Internet was used to contact people living outside China, and various marginalized groups used the Internet as a virtual meeting place. To mention only one example, there are the gays and lesbians who have started to use the Internet as a virtual meeting place; http://www.gaychina.com, for example, is used as such a forum where links are offered in Chinese and in English, and where forums are used by people of different nationalities and Chinese people who are resident both on the mainland and else-where.
To sum up, China’s Internet users are for the most part the winners of political reform: they are highly educated and live in the well-developed urban regions in China. Even though controls by parents and society are stricter than in the West, Internet users have begun to develop their own private space. Even in poorer regions, though, where one could be expect to find more dissatisfaction with the government, Internet usage appears to be following the same trend. Research carried out by Bu Wei and Guo Liang of the CASS, for example, has revealed that many Internet users reside in small cities where there is a high density of legal and illegal Internet cafes. They showed that more than half of the users in small cities in 2004 were young people aged seventeen to twenty-four (58 percent) who care more about playing online games and chatting than politics. This is not to say that they ignore politics; they are quick to respond when government action threatens to disrupt their seemingly a-politicized lifestyles. As an example, the case of Du Daobin involved a user who had not engaged in any activities that other users would consider unacceptable. He had only lobbied for the release of a fellow cyber-dissident Liu Di (aka Stainless Steel Mouse). It was obvious that the authorities had singled him out to serve as an example, and this led to massive protests by netizens. That is to say that a community of netizens emerged that was willing to act in the event of fellow netizens being arrested. I would argue, however, that on the whole Internet users do not demand the democratization of China or the adoption of a multiparty system but express a high degree of trust in the government as has been shown by opinion polls carried out during recent years. It is simply a matter of their being prepared to protest when the government tries to interfere in the special “zone of freedom” that the Internet has created.
Other politically motivated users include Chinese hackers and nationalist students who also do not use the Internet in accordance with Western expectations. That is, they do not simply use the Internet to fight for “democracy” against the Chinese state. Rather, many of them support the Communist Party regime against “Western neo-imperialism.” This concurs with de Kloet’s argument that hackers’ actions are not usually directed against their own government, as the West usually assumes, but against Western imperialism, as in the case of the plane that was shot down off the coast of China in 2001. A strict dichotomy between the government, seen as the oppressor, and a free, globalhacker initiative is nonexistent. “The Internet does not seem to eliminate national borders and geographical distance,” de Kloet concludes. The Chinese Internet user is, therefore, not necessarily interested in subversive activities against the government, he/she often has a positive stance toward the government and a critical stance toward Western governments and multinational companies; he/she represents the typical “winner” of the economic reforms and sees a positive value in the Internet itself.
Bulletin Board Systems — Symbols for the Chinese Netizen?
If we accept the convincing premise that Chinese Internet users belong to a postmodern consumerist society and that this has led to a nonpolitical kind of “cultural” and “do-it-yourself” citizenship that includes adherence to identity politics, then it is reasonable to expect a more extensive use of certain Internet applications such as chats and BBSs, the latter also being known as (Internet)-forums. All these applications are characterized by many-to-many communication and thus provide an ideal place not only for discussion but also for building virtual online communities.
The great importance of BBSs and chats in the Chinese Internet is confirmed by Giese, who reports that although the Internet in China offers “virtually all services in Chinese that are available on the World Wide Web around the globe,” 34 to 39 percent of Chinese users in later surveys when asked for their favorite web activity stated that they favored online chat most; another 18 to 19 percent stated that they favored BBSs. Giese concluded that this “seems to reflect a particularly strong affinity of Chinese Internet users toward interpersonal communication via the Internet that is not at all consistent with the familiar usage patterns of Western countries.” Guobin Yang and Giese also described these discussions as “insider discussions,” assuming that the users had a high degree of familiarity with the Chinese language, e.g., the use of homonyms and Chinese tradition and culture, as well as with the more recent past, that is, expressions derived from the Cultural Revolution.
In China, these BBSs are not only provided by the big portals, but by numerous public, private, and semiprivate websites as well. A typical BBS as presented on the big portals is divided into several topics: culture and art, lifestyle (e.g., film gossip, pop stars, love and emotion, including a tongzhi, queer section, and “night life”) health, women, cars, real estate, finance, and the stock market. For example, Sohu’s BBS start page offers discussion sections such as “culture and art” (wenhua yishu), “lifestyle” (shenghuo shishang), and “camp of love” (qinggan zhenying), among many others. Clearly, the emphasis is on lifestyle and private life, and also reflects the dominance of the urban middle class.
Going into one of the sub-sites, we see how virtual groups are constructed by the big portals. As an example, I have chosen “Sohu’s women’s club” (http://club.women.sohu.com/), which is structured as follows: at the top, there are links to the general BBS topics offered by Sohu; directly below this, there are links to the sub-groups of the “women’s club” such as fashion, makeup, hairstyles, body shaping, gossip, men and women, brides, marriage, men, women’s views, babies, pregnancy, horoscopes, and dating — all in all, a very traditional spread of women’s interests is presented, with women’s roles represented only in terms of motherhood and heterosexual partnerships. Below this, several currently popular threads are highlighted, including [Mid-life people] “Such a strong woman,” [Women are afraid of ghosts] “Love can sometimes embody sinister intentions,” and [Women’s society] “Do women go for money? Or for love?” In addition to text, pictures of young, attractive, fashionably dressed women, mostly Chinese, appear. Amateur photos of Sohu users are also placed online; the women in these photos, however, show a remarkable resemblance to those appearing in the professional shots.
On the left-hand side of the webpage, the user is informed about the number of “clicks,” that is, the number of visitors to the respective subgroups. But these figures do not indicate when the visits were made, or how long users stayed within a group. Nonmainstream topics only appear at the bottom of the page, for example, the community forum (shequ luntan) that covers threads such as “lesbian love,” “what women are afraid of,” and “singles.” A socially conservative stance is prevalent, but the variety of threads offered by mainstream portals reflects a heterogenization of Chinese society that gives some space to nonmainstream topics such as “queer passion” (tongzhi qingshen) and “nights in the city.”
Another feature of the BBSs in China is the localization of virtual communities. It could be assumed, as the term “virtual” indicates, that these communities are borderless, but the popularity of geographically restricted virtual groups and analyses of site content show that users of these groups often eventually make personal contact. Sohu, for example, lists thirty to forty BBSs topics for Beijing alone, including “hotel for all and everybody,” “online love,” “single men and women,” and “tongzhi love.” Indeed, for Guangxi, the province with the lowest rate of Internet usage, we found that forums were established only on the basis of geographical locations: “Guangxi families,” “Nanning city forum,” “forum for Guilin city,” “forum for Baise City,” and “forum for Yulin City.”
This brief overview of the characteristics of the Internet BBS sites in China reveals that they are for the most part concerned not with politics and subversion but with identity politics, in particular, lifestyle identities and regional identities. Lifestyle identities are for the most part oriented around consumerism, as exemplified by discussions of fashionable brands of jeans, though they also include less mainstream concerns such as sexuality (tongzhi love, male city, women’s club). Regional identities are reflected in the geographically localized content of the sites and the role of the Internet in building virtual communities that are geographically limited in their reach (see the examples of Beijing and Guangxi).
Three points need be mentioned: first, the diametrically opposed discourses found in the West and in China on the role of China’s Internet; second, the fragmentation and localization of the Internet, which in many aspects mirrors contemporary Chinese society; third, the interest-focus of Chinese Internet users on consumerism and lifestyle issues, including identity politics.
Fundamental differences can be found between the discourses of Western analysts and the discourses of Chinese analysts regarding the social and political impact of the Internet in China. Western discourses have focused on democratization and political change, paying little attention to broader social changes. During the 1990s, a prevalent view in Western publications, described earlier in this article, was that the introduction of the Internet would result in Western models of democracy and democratic participation taking root in Chinese society. In recent years, however, a new assumption has emerged — one that presents the Chinese Party-state as being successful in controlling the Internet. But this discourse is only an “inverted” version of the discourse focused on democratization and political change. The Chinese discourse, on the other hand, is very technology-deterministic, focused entirely on the potential economic and modernizing benefits of the new communication technologies, while politely ignoring the Internet’s increasingly significant role as a playground for sociality and sexuality. The Chinese discourse has thus to be seen in terms of an uncritical modernization paradigm which not only has shaped the Chinese Party-state and the academic discourse, but has also become part of a seldom questioned general societal discourse.
When writing about the West, commentators today do not assume an essential role for the Internet in fostering democracy and citizen participation, but they do assume such a role to be vitally important for China and for other “authoritarian third world states.” So, an “early political discourse,” long abandoned in the West, is now being used as the dominant paradigm for research into China’s Internet. The civil society approach, which could be used effectively to describe the role of the Internet in China, is more frequently used in a very narrow sense within the Western discourse, with a dominant focus on political discussions that are largely restricted to topics seen as crucial in the West, such as Taiwan or human rights.
Despite these dominant discourses the current use of the Internet in China is shaped by fragmentation and localization. The fragmentation of the Chinese Internet mirrors the societal developments that Sheldon Lu has convincingly described as emerging “consumerist postmodernity” characterized by “the superimposition of multiple temporalities; the pre-modern, the modern, and the postmodern, which coexist in the same space and at the same moment.” This fragmentation and plurality stand in contrast to cultural, religious, and ideological grand narratives. The Internet, or to be more precise, the Chinese specific forms of the Internet such as forums and interactive, communicative localized features, foster such fragmentation.
This fragmentation can be found in the form of a digital divide between developed and undeveloped regions, urban areas and the hinterland, and within the urban postmodernist society itself. The digital and economic divide in China shapes the different uses of the Internet and these differences in use are much broader than those found in the West. Some more recent Chinese field research carried out in the hinterland came to the conclusion that the Internet was seldom seen as offering an opportunity and as bringing change to China’s rural economy; the dominant view was that ICTs are “toys for the middle class.”
The Chinese middle class, which makes up the most important group of Internet users, is part of a postmodern society, with a strong interest in personalized and individual lifestyles; this group is now much less politicized than it was in the 1980s, when the reforms had just taken off:
Cultural discussion in China has turned away from politically engaged and intellectually oppositional topics: historical and cultural reasons of despotism and tyranny; the urgency of political reform and democracy; the need of social enlightenment and its humanistic values of tolerance, civil liberty, and intellectual freedom; deliberation on the rule of law versus the rule of man; and debate on new authoritarianism versus democracy. Cultural discussion of the 1990s has considerably reshaped its orientation. Most new currents of cultural discussion, by choice or circumstance, have shown either a reconciliation of intellectual inquiry with the prevailing political order or a deliberate avoidance of sensitive sociopolitical issues.
It is no wonder, then, that the Chinese Internet is more a playground for leisure, socializing, and commerce than a hotbed of political activism. The fragmentation within urban postmodernist society is most clearly demonstrated by the popularity of the BBSs. In these BBSs, conservative elements such as the emphasis on traditional gender roles and “family values” are dominant, but other elements also point to a new openness including sexual liberation. While the greater openness does not offset the prevailing conservatism it does illustrate the fragmentation of society. In some ways, this fragmentation has led to more diversity, but since the Internet does not actively encourage communication between different groups, a society has emerged that is shaped by many isolated niches. It has been argued that in contemporary societies “public participation is much higher and more enthusiastic in ‘commercial democracy’ than in the formal mechanics of representative politics.” The citizens of the People’s Republic of China do not have any experience of a representative democracy, but consumerism and economic opportunities in times of globalization and commercialization mean that people develop their very own public spheres: a “‘civil society’ of a nation without borders, without state institutions, and without citizens.” In this context, we should take into consideration that, from the very beginning, the Internet in China was driven mainly by commercial interests that were exploited by private companies such as Sohu, Sina, and Netease and also by state ministries. This commercialization of the Internet is significant because it has underpinned much of the trivialization and de-politicization of Internet content and usage in China. And in many ways, it is precisely this depoliticization that has helped to create social spaces in which marginal groups such as gays and lesbians can claim a voice. Discussions on the emergence of a “Chinese citizen” (shimin, or gongmin) have stressed that a very specific form of “cultural” and “do-it-yourself” citizenship is being created that is not defined by conventional politics so much as by a strong adherence to identity politics (including regional, youth, gender, religious, and minority identities).