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Growing Internet Use and Public Online Participation in China

Bin Liang, Associate Professor, Oklahoma State University
December 6, 2011
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With a late start in the mid-1990s, China’s Internet use has witnessed an explosive growth. Annual survey data by the Chinese Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC, http://www.cnnic.cn/) showed that the total number of Internet users in China reached 2 million in 1998, surpassed 100 million in 2005, and rose to 298 million by the end of 2008 (and replaced the United States as the largest Internet user of the world). The most recent survey result, published in July, reached a new high of 485 million users by June 2011 (36.2% of China’s total population).

One interesting finding of the July survey showed that among a variety of Internet uses, the fastest growing use in recent years has been the use of blogs and micro-blogs (boke and weibo in Chinese respectively), with the former reached 318 million users and the latter reached 195 million. As suggested by the survey report, “the use of blogs and micro-blogs has already affected how Internet users utilize traditional online news sources” (p.26).

Given its increasing accessibility and wide coverage, Internet sources such as blogs and micro-blogs have become an emerging new avenue to express Internet users’ opinions. Unlike traditional news sources (even including online news sources) which tend to be censored, supervised and dispersed ‘top-down’, this new form of information sharing, to many, represents a real form of grassroots, ‘bottom-up’ public opinion.

There is a strong belief, especially among Westerners, that Internet development, free flow of information, and formation of civil cyber groups pose potential threat to authoritarian regimes, including China. However, Internet use and development in China has so far failed such an expectation and some even argue that the Internet has become a new tool for governmental control.

One possible answer could be found in the profile of Chinese Internet users. The majority of Chinese Internet users have showed seemingly apathy for political communications. Instead, they turn to the Internet for gaming, entertainment, and study and career opportunities. The July CNNIC survey indicated that 58.1% of Internet users are under the age of 30 (81.3% under the age of 40) and 43.8% of Internet users have received maximally middle-school education (plus another 33.9% with high-school education). Students, representing 29.9% of the total users, still far surpassed all other professional groups as the largest Internet user group in China.

Nevertheless, it is still perplexing why we witness such lack of interests in politics: for instance, such political apathy could well be attributed to the political reality in China (e.g., tight control over political discussion). On the other hand, while Chinese Internet users may have deliberately shunned away from sensitive political discussions, they have paid increasing attention in recent years to issues on social injustice (e.g., corruption by high-level officials epitomized by the Lai Changxing case) and sudden key events with great impact (e.g., the deadly high-speed train crash near the city of Wenzhou in July).

Take the 2009 “hiding from the cat” event for example. In January, 2009, Li Qiaoming was arrested and put into jail in Jinning county, Yunan province. On February 8th, Li was mysteriously injured and died in a local hospital on the 12th. After a perfunctory investigation, local police and procuratorate announced that Li got injured when he was playing a game called “hiding from the cat” (duo maomao) with his jail mates. What was unexpected afterwards this time was the strong criticism and questioning by Internet users, and suddenly “hiding from the cat” became a new online bomb.

Under the pressure to discover the “truth”, the Yunan Party Propaganda Department recruited five Internet users to form a special investigation committee (and two of them even chaired the committee). On the 20th, the committee visited Jinning and conducted its investigation. Due to lack of access to key evidence (e.g., the coroner report, surveillance tape of the jail), the committee could not reach a conclusion but posted its investigation online. On the 27th, the Public Security and Procuratorate officials of the Yunan province announced the result of its official investigation. According to its report, Li was bullied numerous times by his jail mates and suffered injuries. On the 8th, his jail mates blindfolded Li and beat him up. Li’s head was hit and bumped into the wall, which eventually caused his death. A story was made up to cover the truth. The report also disclosed various violations of prison management rules and regulations by prison guards. Afterwards, one procuratorate director in Jinning was deposed, and three jail mates were charged with assaults and sentenced in August along with two prison guards who were found negligent.

It is true that public engagement in major events such as the “hiding from the cat” is nonsystematic, spontaneous, and unpredictable, and often shows in a unique form (event driven) at critical moments (sometimes unexpected). However, given the growing mass of Internet users and their use of Internet technologies, Internet users’ online response, reaction, and participation have already created an unexpected amplification of public engagement.

The Blue Book of New Media (the 2011 annual report on development of new media in China), published by the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS) in July 2011, tallied 210 key social events from 1998 to 2010 which stirred great discussion and/or debate online (zhongda wangluo yulun shijian), and its results showed that in 67% of those events, Internet discussion and/or debate “played a positive role in prompting and helping the government to find solution to the problems”. “Public opinion online has become a mainstream positive force”, in CASS’s judgment.
As Internet use is gaining ground in China, top national leaders have already realized its importance and potential, and they even discussed “four rights” in the age of new technology: i.e., right to information (zhiqing quan), self-expression (biaoda quan), participation (canyu quan), and supervision (jiandu quan). Nevertheless, how to honor those rights is the key, and so far the evidence seems to point to very uneven development across different sectors of the government, not to mention that efforts to honor these rights are often tangled with other purposes. For instance, the Government Online Project (zhengfu shangwang gongcheng), kicked off in 1999, is an effort of increasing government transparency and organizational efficiency. At the same time, it also functions to strengthen official propaganda, reestablish the legitimacy of the Party, contain or eradicate more pressing political problems, and gain better control over lower-level and/or local cadres.

In addition, don’t forget that China’s Internet censorship still functions as the ‘Great Firewall of China’. From infrastructure building to Internet access granting, the Chinese government has set strict control, restriction, and censorship over Internet information. Empirical testing of the Chinese filtering system showed that it is rather dynamic and has been self-changing and refining over time, aiming at keeping the vast majority from sensitive materials and preventing the nonconforming small minority from mounting a real challenge.

As Internet use keeps growing and Internet users keep seeking their rights of information, self-expression, participation and perhaps supervision, there will be more questions and challenges faced by both Internet users and the Chinese government.

Bin Liang is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Oklahoma State University.

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