Looking back at China’s internet in 2011, there were three broad trends that deserve greater attention. The first trend was a general shift from emotionally-driven nationalist chatter as the defining tone of China’s internet toward a more basic attention to issues of public welfare. The second was the rise of what we can call the “social power of the internet” (网络社会力). And the third trend was a more pronounced deficit in understanding on the government’s part about the role it should play in a networked society. While it became readily apparent, that is, that we now have a networked civil society in China, it became clearer at the same time that we lack government administrators who are internet literate (网络化的治理者).
The Turn from Online Nationalism
Nationalism has been a defining issue on China’s internet since the very beginning. For example, People’s University of China professor Peng Lan (彭兰) has argued that one landmark event in the emergence of online public opinion in China [as a social force] was internet-based opposition by the international Chinese community (including mainland Chinese) against attacks on ethnic Chinese during the Indonesian riots in May 1998.
In “The Glory and Promise of Online Public Opinion” (网上舆论的光荣与梦想), written by Lin Chufang (林楚方) and Zhao Ling (赵凌) and published in Southern Weekly on June 5, 2003, the authors argued that, “The turning-point date when domestic [Chinese] web platforms were used to voice public opinion was May 9, 1999, when People’s Daily Online opened up a forum to rally opposition to the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO forces. This was the first current affairs news-related forum to be opened up by the website of a traditional media outlet.”
Nationalist sentiment has long persisted as a perennial hot topic on China’s internet. Issues like Sino-American relations, Sino-Japanese relations and the question of Taiwan have always invited fierce activity on the internet in China, even sometimes setting off mass rallies offline. This trend has been noted frequently by observers outside China. The Economist magazine even at one time devoted a sub-headed section to China’s “online nationalism” in a report on the digital era.
The nationalist trend online peaked in 2008 following March riots in Tibet that year, and in the midst of the international torch relay for the Beijing Olympics. That time marked an unfortunate setback in the relations of China and the West, ushering in a deeper sense of isolation in China that threatened to push China into a more protective and less open posture. This is an ongoing issue, and if the West continues to take an antagonistic attitude toward China’s rise, it is conceivable that China could be pushed back further, even onto its old path of isolation and decline.
The successful hosting of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was a symbolic moment for China’s rise, and a moment of deep pride for Chinese. But just as the curtain closed on the Olympics, the revelation of widespread melamine contamination throughout China’s dairy industry, a scandal directly impacting millions of Chinese families, came a jarring reminder that external glory cannot disguise internal decay. The impact on Chinese society and on the country’s manufacturing sector was profound. The widespread sense of debilitating setback was conveyed by Chinese internet users in a vivid couplet:
We labor half a year to turn a new page, 辛辛苦苦大半年，
And in a single night are returned to the pre-Olympic age. 一夜回到奥运前.
Ever since that time, the confident tone of a China rising has flattened into notes of sorrow among Chinese. Shanghai successfully hosted the World Expo in 2010, but quite quickly came news of a disastrous fire in Shanghai that claimed 58 lives and injured scores of others. Just as in the eyes of some the so-called China Model was in its flushest moment of success, even meriting emulation by other countries, the high-speed rail collision last summer completely annihilated this fantasy.
People started questioning whether this was really a system at all. Online public opinion grew turbulent, and one user famously wrote: “China, please slow your soaring steps, wait for your people, wait for your soul, wait for your morals, wait for your conscience! We don’t want train collisions or bridge collapses. We don’t want our roads becoming pitfalls, or our homes becoming deathtraps. Move more slowly. Let all lives enjoy freedom and dignity, so that no one is cast aside by the times, so that every person can reach our destination smoothly and in peace.”
Many people still sympathetically push for greater Chinese nationalism, calling for a stronger China. But ever since 2008 the trend has been for nationalistic agendas to take a back seat to agendas relating to the welfare of the people. As social tensions in China have grown more serious, Chinese have devoted more attention to social development issues that are more concretely relevant to their lives. As the anniversary of Japan’s invasion of China approached in 2010, the mood at Sina Weibo, one of China’s top social media platforms, was extremely tense — the fear being that Chinese might try to organize anti-Japanese rallies, drawing the ire of the authorities to the Sina Weibo platform itself, which at the time was merely a “beta version” and could be shuttered at a moment’s notice.
In the end, “September 18”, this date that had erstwhile been so sensitive, never became a major topic of discussion on Sina Weibo in 2010. Instead, the hottest discussion centered on the Yihuang self-immolation case in southern China’s Jiangxi province, a case exposing the evils of forced property demolition in China and lack of rights protection.
Clearly, the winds are changing. When you cannot find safe milk for your child to drink, when their school buses are hazardous, when you worry that you might be exposed to dangerous recycled cooking oils if you go out to a local restaurant, when the city where you live is choked with pollution and you have no idea what the actual PM2.5 measures for the most dangerous air particles are, the question that possesses you above all else is what direction Chinese society is heading. You care more about how the people of China can enjoy lives of peace and prosperity, and less about the murderous logic of the Boxer Rebellion. [NOTE: Hu is suggesting here that trends of extreme nationalism in China are marked with the same sort of anti-foreign violence seen during the Boxer Rebellion.]
Online Social Power Emerges
The second trend in 2011 was the growing maturing of what we can call “online social power” (网络社会力). Since the 1970s, researchers in China have talked about the need to encourage the development of non-governmental organizations, to move away from urban communities based on the old work unit system and to carry out other social reforms in order to find new points of development. Today we can say without hesitation that an independent and richly participatory civil society is emerging on China’s internet. The internet in China today has quite a different political function from what we see in countries with relatively full political freedoms. The internet cannot usher in dramatic change to political life in China, but it can promote the creation of social capital on the basis of citizen rights and duties, giving rise to and strengthening social forces independent of the Chinese state.
China is entering an era of “rights.” Farmers, workers and an newly-emerging middle class are all fighting for their civil rights. Since the 1990s, along with a number of “important turns and other reversals” (Sun Liping’s phrase), there has been a clear expansion of social conflict and opposition in China, both in terms of frequency and scale. Researchers have observed that perhaps one of the most apparent new characteristics of this [social unrest] is the use of sophisticated electronic technologies, which enable protesters to connect more readily and make it possible also to communicate with media and supporters in the international community.
Thanks to technology, new social relationships and bonds are forming in China, and new forms of mutual interest taking shape. As a direct result, the mobilization capacity (动员能力) for related social movements has increased. The recent Wukan incident in Guangdong is a prime example of this trend.
The efforts by Chinese to fight for their civil rights are of course tied up with efforts to fight for their right to information. In the broadest sense, the right to information means the freedom to converse, connect, gather and coordinate without fear. These rights are the same rights guaranteed through the human rights documents of the United Nations and the constitutions of various countries, all of which collectively affirm the right of citizens to access and share information. For example, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In terms of basic rights on the internet, an international consensus has already emerged, including a firm commitment to freedom of access and the freedom to share information (发布自由). Internet rights, therefore, already exist as a matter of convention within the [international] political context, where many people argue that the same standards of freedom and human rights that operate offline apply to the online environment as well.
Lacking a Networked Mindset in Governance
This brings the third trend that has become clearer in China’s online public opinion environment. This is that while we already have a networked civil society in China, we continue to lack a networked leadership — which is to say a government that understands and accommodates the internet on its own terms.
The internet naturally generates knowledge and value from the end user and not from centralized gatekeepers — and the right to connectivity, use and dissemination are to a great degree built into the fabric of the internet. For this reason, the building of internet governance policies should proceed along the same lines, raising competition, encouraging innovation, permitting free expression, raising credibility, all with minimal government interference.
Unfortunately, internet governance in China at present goes entirely against these principles. If China’s internet is to continue to develop, internet users and the government will have to work together toward mutual interests, jointly formulating principles [for internet use and development].
For the government’s part, it must be clear that web users are not only to be monitored but also to be served — that in fact the principal attitude must be one of service. A totalistic approach [to internet governance] by the government will only engender an internet mob (暴民型网民), while service-oriented [internet governance] will foster a population of responsible internet users. For the government’s part, building a networked society requires first and foremost a change of attitude in governance, a transition from totalistic governance (全能政府) to service-oriented governance (服务型政府).
In such a government approach, internet-related problems should be solved in a “web user–market–society–government” sequence. Issues, that is, that web users can solve themselves should be solved by web users; issues web users cannot solve on their own that can be solved by the market should be solved by the market; issues that the market cannot resolve and that can be resolved by society should be resolved by society; for issues that cannot be resolved by society, the government should step up to offer services and guidance.
A service-oriented government does not mean entirely eliminating controls, only that controls are implemented for the sake of service, not for the sake of controls themselves. Such controls would be restricted the law, with a fixed scope and procedures and a clear system of responsibility.
When people are denied the opportunity to participate in the formulation of rules, these rules lose acceptance and credibility, and stability is difficult to achieve. This principal is as true online as offline.
It is impossible for the government to serve as the only source of public administration (公共治理者) in an atmosphere as complex and diverse as China’s today. The government will have to coordinate with non-governmental organizations, social groups and the public to better manage public affairs. And in the same way, an approach to internet governance based on serving the interests of web users would necessitate a fundamental change in the government’s role.
Drawing hundreds of millions of Chinese web users into the process of internet governance requires, first of all, respect for the basic rights of Chinese internet users. The benefits for China in such a shift would be substantial. Chinese internet users today are not unlike Chinese farmers thirty years ago, or township and village enterprises twenty years ago, capable of unleashing immense [productive] forces outside the state system (非体制的力量).
This commentary was translated and edited from a piece originally appearing in China Newsweekly magazine on January 13.