Liu Jianqiang, Zhang Ping, Wang Lixiong: On the Impact of New Media (Photos Added)

In a roundtable discussion at the University of California, Berkeley, on March 18th, participants presented their observations and shared their experiences relating to the rise of the Internet and its interplay with China’s media, society and politics. What is the state of new media in China? How do members of Chinese society employ these technologies to participate in politics and what it is the real impact? How does the Chinese government actually regulate and control the Internet? What role does the rise of Chinese cyber-nationalism play in this complicated process? Ultimately, will this pervasive, many-to-many, and emergent communication platform play a critical role in transforming the Chinese political system by fostering the nascent civil society? — or has it actually enabled China’s authoritarian regime to forestall political reform by turning it into a safety valve or even an Orwellian monster? The panel engaged in discussion and elicited meaningful dialogue on these key questions.

Session Two of the roundtable discussion was entitled “On the Impact of New Media.” The three panelists were Liu Jianqiang, Zhang Ping, and Wang Lixiong. Panelist descriptions can be found at the bottom of the page. Notes from Session One of the discussion will be posted in coming days. Liu Jianqiang and Wang Lixiong presented in Chinese, with Evelyn Shih and Guo Shipeng assisting with English translation. Zhang Ping presented in English. CDT has made minor edits for purposes of clarity.

Liu Jianqiang:

My main point that I want to make is that Internet use has been very empowering for public movements in China. For example, the Sun Zhigang incident. In 2003 in the China Youth Daily, there were many reports like the Sun Zhigang case, but they didn’t have as big an impact. I believe this is because the Internet was not as developed then.

To save time, I will concentrate on one case: the 2007 case in Xiamen when citizens went on the streets to demonstrate against a plant. Before new media came into being, this would be unimaginable. For example, in order to have these public demonstrations or movements, you need a public sphere. Old forms of this included teahouses or salons. But right now, if you look at urban spaces, it’s difficult to imagine a public sphere that’s similar to these former spaces. However, because of text messaging and the Internet, there is no need for a physical space for people to form a public sphere. And on the internet they can cross barriers of class.

There must be very many cases worth protesting, but only in that case in Xiamen did such an open demonstration occur. At that time, the most important fact is that there was no need for leadership. All they had to do in order to amass the several thousand people for the demonstration was send messages that said “let’s go on a stroll on a certain day at a certain time.” This type of mobilization would not have been possible in Tiananmen, which would have required a lot of organization.

The other effect is that there have been other social movements that have disappeared without a trace. Because if you don’t use the Internet, you’re cut off from the outside, and cut off from the support you could receive if you opened up. For example, when everybody in the country knows what’s going on in Xiamen, it’s very difficult for the country to silence the movement and delegitimize what had happened.

The other dramatic thing about the Xiamen incident was that it had gained the support of officials. The officials were able to come out because the event had not been delegitimized by the government, so they could come out in support of the protesters. Nowadays, you might even say that the Internet is a god, because when people don’t have any other recourse, you think of putting it up on the Net, like people who think about the Tibet issue or people who have fallen through the cracks of social welfare, or people who want to point out official corruption: People now have a recourse.

Lastly, I want to point out that the Internet is not omnipotent. When I was in North Korea, I was forced to leave my Internet and mobile connections, which made me sad because I could not get in contact with those who cared about me.

By the time I got back to China, I felt liberated because I was back in the land of the Internet. I wrote an article that I thought would be all right, but my editor edited it beyond recognition. So I posted it on the Internet, which I thought was within my rights. So I posted it, and later was fired for other reasons, but among them was the posting of this article. Ironically, it’s because I posted it that they were able to have evidence against me. So sometimes you might be safer without the Internet because it is also a way to get attacked.

Zhang Ping:

About five years ago, newspaper editors would regularly receive memos from various PR departments, asking them not to republish certain Internet news. Today, the situation is almost reversed: Web editors often receive memos from the Internet management authority (网管办), asking them not to repost certain newspaper articles.

My own case can be thought of as an example of the Internet controls being even stricter than those placed on newspapers. My social commentary can be published in many different newspapers, but it is severely curtailed online. Some mainstream website editors have been informed that they are forbidden to publish, repost or recommend my articles. Some editors have told me that each time they violate this mandate, they are fined $15,000 RMB.

How did we get here? In the past five years of Chinese discourse, there have been more breakthroughs on the internet than in print newspapers. Problems that newspapers don’t dare address can be made into topics of conversation online. Why is it that, under the same restrictions on space for discourse, the Internet has achieved so much more? Many people believe that the new technological developments have created more opportunities for resistance. Certainly, this is one reason, but we should know that the censorship department (监管部门) has as much technology as ordinary netizens. I think the more important fact is that in Internet discourse, an everyday form of resistance on the part of the populace has emerged, differentiated from the speech acts of the elite that occurs in the newspaper medium.

“Everyday forms of resistance” is a term borrowing from a concept formulated by James Scott, a political science and anthropology professor at Yale University. Professor Scott discovered, in studying the resistance actions of Southeast Asian peasants, large-scale resistance movements recorded in the histories of the elite, movements that are great extravagances in the daily life of the peasants. They use, largely, the weapons of the weak in resisting political oppression: laziness, masquerading confusion, wool-gathering, affecting obedience, petty thieving, acting the fool, libel, arson, and idling at the work station.

Chinese netizens face the same situation as the Southeast Asian peasants: an extremely strong, oppressive power and a resistance that doesn’t dare enter direct confrontation. They have chosen similar weapons of the weak, such as buying soy sauce, speaking out about push-ups and hide-and-seek, web neologisms that are often called “subversions.” And like the Southeast Asian peasants, their methods are not dignified, but still very effective, and avoid being attacked because they are able to function without organization or leadership; without slogans or flags; without a set time.

The weapons of the weak are a kind of deformation and mutation of an open resistance, and it can protect the interests of the weak; but they are hard put to directly change the social structures that are set against them. It can also have negative side effects, such as a tendency to attack the weak while shying away from the powerful, mob mentality and cynicism. In Chinese cyberspace, these negative effects are concentrated on the cyber violence of ordinary people and on the emotions surrounding the extreme ethnic chauvinism of foreigners.

But how will these weapons of the weak change the existing social structure? I don’t know exactly.

Wang Lixiong:

The previous speakers have talked about the advantages of the Internet. Let me speak to one of them: She is Woeser, a Tibetan blogger. Previously, she had authored three blogs, but they were all shut down by departments. These blogs were for a domestic audience. The fourth one was a blog provider from an overseas web provider, but it was shut down shortly after. But still, it survived for overseas audiences. The page views for the blogs have reached over one million. Her work was especially important during the March 2008 Tibet riots. As you know, no foreign correspondents were allowed to be there at that time, and Tibetans within China could not and dared not to speak out against the heavy-handed measures and pressures they faced.

I watched my wife Woeser work in Beijing for about 20 hours a day compiling info on Tibet from hundreds of sources on the Internet. Then she put this information on her blog. Now, this blog had been seen by important overseas media. At that time, her blog was considered the only source of information from Tibetans within China. In a little more than one month, page views exceeded three million. After over a month, her blog was hacked by the Chinese red hackers alliance (hongke). Her blog was restored repeatedly, but again was hacked and sabotaged in various manners afterward. Then we used Google’s blogging system to restore the blog. Maybe the hackers were not capable enough to hack into this system, but a lot of angry youth showed up on the blog. She had to censor a lot of comments from the angry youth. In previous years, her blog had gathered a lot of remarkably talented people from all ethnic groups in China. But after the angry youth showed up, all the serious debaters and thinkers left, with only the angry youth staying on.

So from here, I want to contemplate the other side of the Internet, and think about why the Internet has become a place where emotions are high and verbal abuse is rampant, and why on the Internet consensus is only reached for hot topics.

I’d like to share some of my personal thoughts: People keep talking about the era of Web 2.0. One important distinction from 1.0 is that 2.0 includes participation from everybody. This leads to an excessive amount of information. In this era, we have a lot of bricks, but they cannot be used together to build a mansion. Although the Internet can facilitate conversation, it cannot overcome the limitations of the capability of people to receive information. I would liken this situation to the revolutionary years when Mao received the masses. Everybody would have a little Red Book in his or her hand. Now everyone has a video camera in his or her hand. But he just has no time to think through it and it leads to oversimplification of facts, which then leads to radicalized opinions on the Internet.

If we can’t find an effective mechanism to distill this huge amount of information, maybe we’ll have to return to the Web 1.0 era, where we set up massive centers of information. And we can see that happening because in the face of such a huge amount of information, people only rely on several websites. This has provided opportunities for the authoritarian power to reoccupy the cyberspace in China. On one hand, they can deter several major sources and news portals, and on the other hand they can use the 50 Cents Party to dissuade public opinion. In the face of this danger, we cannot turn back to the Web 1.0 era, but we should upgrade ourselves for the Web 2.0 era. Everyone participates on the Internet, but maybe we can find a way to synthesize this information. So this has raised a question … How should we go about synthesis? How can everybody participate? The only way I think this can happen is the democratic way.

Using democratization, individual participants can have their own prejudices and biases. Overall there will be statistical accuracy. Only based on these democratic mechanisms will citizens recognize the legitimacy of synthesizing this information and only in this way can cohesiveness be maintained. This whole process can then be sustainable without need for external forces.

So my conclusion on this issue is that democracy in the Chinese Internet will look like everybody coming together to make a decision for themselves. On the Internet, there is only participation, but no consensus in the end. We should find a way to have people reach a consensus in the end.

Liu Jianqiang
Liu Jianqiang is a senior investigative reporter with Southern Weekend, one of China’s top investigative newspapers. He has produced a series of influential reports on the environment, and his stories have led China’s central government to suspend illegally constructed dams. Liu was featured in the Wall Street Journal last December. He has an M.A. in journalism from Tsinghua University and a B.A. in political science from East China University of Science and Technology.

Zhang Ping, Guangzhou, China
Zhang Ping, who writes under the pen name Chang Ping, is one of China’s most respected editorial writers. He won an annual award for his news commentary column in China’s most liberal and influential newspaper: the Southern Weekend. He served as deputy editor of the Southern Metropolis Weekly until March of 2008. Before that, Zhang served as deputy editor of Southern Weekend as well as the Bund Pictorial. He was removed from the Southern Weekend deputy editor position in 2001 after the paper published hard-hitting investigative reports. He has also worked for the Chengdu Economic Daily, China’s first market-oriented publication.

Wang Lixiong, Beijing China
Wang Lixiong is an independent writer based in Beijing, China. He was born in 1953 in Changchun, Manchuria, and trained as an auto mechanic during the Cultural Revolution. In 1991 he published the political fiction novel Yellow Peril, inspired by a 1984 raft trip he took down the Yellow River, during which he passed through ethnically Tibetan regions of China and became interested in the Tibet question. His other books include Sky Burial: The Fate of Tibet, Distribution of Power? An Electoral System by Stages, Memories of Xinjiang and The Struggle for Tibet. He is married to the Tibetan blogger and poet Woeser.