Can the Internet Tame Governments? – Part II

The internet, so essential for the modern economy, is a bane for autocratic governments thin-skinned about criticism, whose minions strive to eliminate any dissident thoughts or deeds. Internet and cell phones were less widely available in 1989, and global observers can’t help but wonder if such communications might have thwarted China’s violent crackdown on student protests at Tiananmen Square. This two-part series explores governments’ attempt to control the internet. China, the world’s fastest growing economic power, applies selective censorship, such as removing “Egypt” from its search engines. Yet Chinese internet society increasingly recognizes the government’s controlling ways, pursuing a “right to know,” explains Borje Ljunggren, former Swedish ambassador to China, in the second article. Analysts are divided about just how fast the internet is transforming party controls and citizens’ ability to bypass them. China has more internet users than any other nation. As penetration expands beyond 30 percent, the challenges grow. The party leadership knows it must control with care. – YaleGlobal

Can the Internet Tame Governments? – Part II

China’s fast-expanding internet and media development pose new challenges to authoritarian party rule
Borje Ljunggren
Friday, February 11, 2011

STOCKHOLM: While the world is transfixed by the Tahrir Square struggle in Cairo and the role of new media, China quietly removed “Egypt” as a searchable term on its web. Egypt has brought to the fore the challenges China’s next generation of leaders, no less concerned about the way forward, confront.

A popular Chinese joke these days is about a pilot telling passengers that he has good news and bad news: “The good news is that we’re ahead of time; the bad news that we’re lost.” The challenges for the fast-growing economic power range from rebalancing the economy and bridging the gap between urban and rural China to coping with climate change and the ongoing global power shift. According to an increasing number of accounts, the biggest challenge may be the long-term effects of the growing complexity of the relationship between the party state and civil society with cyber media as a major driver.

The phenomenal growth of online civil society has, according to many observers, until now been more favorable to the Communist Party rather than to civil society. China has become a networked authoritarian state in which the party monitors, controls and deliberates public opinion with unlimited resources in terms of manpower, including human search engines, and technology, data mining society in depth.

A vast literature on the subject has emerged with excellent books like Guobin Yang’s “The Power of the Internet in China – Citizen Activism Online” (2009) and, most recently, Johan Lagerkvist’s “After the Internet, Before Democracy – Competing Norms in Chinese Society and Media” (2010) and Susan Shirk’s edited volume “Changing Media Changing China” (2010).

In case after case since 2004, the internet has dramatically changed the course of an event, forcing the party to maneuver between response and repression. Take the case of provincial police official Li Gang and the death of a female student, struck by a car driven by his drunken son. When caught by passersby, the son boasted: “Make a report if you dare – my dad is Li Gang.” Soon Li junior’s statement was on blogs and bulletin boards all over China, part of China’s internet history with his father’s five luxurious villas and all. Putting Li junior on trial became inevitable. The case also put the party on trial. On January 30, Li was sentenced to six years in jail.

Another case involving the Zhong sisters received less international notice, yet offers an example of greater significance. In September, the government was ready to demolish the Zhong family home in Jiangxi province, when one of the daughters, the mother and an uncle set themselves on fire. The uncle died from his injuries. When two of the sisters in the family tried to board a plane to Beijing to tell their story for a television program, local officials threatened them at the airport. The young women took refuge in a toilet and phoned a trusted journalist. Within minutes, the case was on Micro blog, run by Journalists from Beijing called the sisters stuck in the toilet and broadcast conversations live on the internet. The incident became news all over China, and a photograph of the severely burnt sister sitting in the lap of another sister, won China’s Best News Photo Award for 2010.

The authorities had no choice but to open dialogue with the family. Eight officials are under investigation. The staff of, under heavy pressure, deleted all reports and comments on the incident from the blog. But the story spread, a milestone in China’s internet history. Micro blogs have turned into platforms for critical views about corruption and social injustices – with millions of messages now said to be posted in a single day.

These two individual cases are part of a dramatic communications development. Lagerkvist’s and Shirk’s books provide an analytical framework, offering rich material about how the Chinese media industry is growing and how the party-state is trying to cope and control. Lagerkvist’s focus is on the internet while Shirk has a broader media approach in a volume with contributions from Chinese scholars and media persons such as Hu Shuli, founder of the Caijing magazine, and media reformer Zhan Jiang. In both volumes, the internet constitutes the most potent media threat facing the party.

The statistics on quantitative expansion of media in China are mind-boggling: more than 400 million internet users, 220 million blogs, 800 million mobile-phone subscribers, more than 2000 newspapers and 9000 thousand magazines, some 2200 TV stations and more, all increasingly commercialized. Still, the party remains in control. In qualitative terms, both Lagerkvist and Shirk describe a situation of growing competition between established and emerging social norms and growing challenges to the party-state. Shirk, who has gained wide recognition for her book on China as a fragile superpower, goes further than Lagerkvist with her new volume in suggesting that the party is being forced to yield control and that, as Xiao Qiang of China Digital Times puts it in his chapter, a power shift is happening in Chinese society.

Lagerkvist expresses concern about the extent to which he finds Western analysis of China influenced by wishful thinking. He argues that the Chinese party state “is quite robust, confident and able to withstand short-term instability,” “pluralizing internet to its own advantage” and filling media with demobilizing “ideotainment.”  In the same breath, however, he describes “an ongoing erosion of the Party-state’s power over civil society,” giving a vivid picture of increasing activism, the formation of new social norms and values, online as well as offline.

Lagerkvist analyzes transformation within the party among officials of the bureaucratic state, as they themselves spend hours on the internet off-duty, in front of screens at home. They, too, are netizens, and their norms are also changing. Lagerkvist writes that “the final blow to the Party-state’s expansive censorship regime will come as a result of these actors becoming more sensitive to issues of personal freedom, online privacy and the need for a freer dissemination of opinion and information.”  

Censorship is an organic part of the party-state and will no doubt remain a crucial weapon, but its usage is increasingly exposed as the Chinese internet society becomes aware of the extent to which entrenched party interests determine their access to information. As a consequence, an idea of a “right to know” is taking shape in China’s rapidly growing online civil society and this could, in Shirk’s analysis, become “the rallying cry of the next Chinese revolution.”

While internet freedom clearly is not about to be declared, civil society and new technology will over time push limits beyond the axiomatic boundaries of the party-state. A critical point will be, as Lagerkvist puts it, when the demands for changes offline will be sufficiently strong to change the game. The party’s control may be “lost” and tested, but it’s not about to crash and burn. The fifth generation taking over in 2012 can be expected to try more deliberative forms of authoritarianism and new combinations of repression and responsiveness as it struggles to maintain its power monopoly in a society that changes faster than the party can.


Borje Ljunggren served as Swedish ambassador to Vietnam, 1994-97, and to China, 2002-06. He is the author of “Kina – Vår Tids Drama” (“China – The Drama of Our Time”), the second edition published in 2009, and coordinator of the Stockholm China Forum.
Click here to read an excerpt from “After Internet, Before Democracy – Competing Norms in Chinese Media and Society” by Johan Lagerkvist, published by Peter Lang AG , 2010. Click here to an excerpt from Changing Media, Changing China” by Susan L. Shirk, published by Oxford University Press, 2010. Click here to read an excerpt from “The Power of the Internet in China – Citizen Activism Online” by Guobin Yang, published by Columbia University Press, 2009.
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