CDF Conference: Political Change through the Net?

Under the guidance of Randy Kluver, of Nanyang Technological University, this panel revealed that the effect of the net on Chinese political culture is terribly similar to that in the United States.

There’s a digital divide — Bu Wei, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said 28 percent of people in Beijing were net users, 26.6 percent in Shanghai, but only about 3 percent in less developed cities like Xining and Huhhot. (More of her results are up here.)

Ashley Esarey asked why the net hasn’t reached its potential for affecting the public and the commercial news media. It’s partly, he said, because the websites get their info from the print press. There are censorship boards over the traditional media. The traditional media use the net for stories, but don’t generally lead with stuff off the net. They don’t always admit where they got the stories. Regulations say they can use only Xinhua, People’s Daily, and a few other sources.

He said the digital divide was also part of the problem – the fact that just over 15 percent of the population, mostly young members of the elite, access the internet. For most Chinese, among the 85 percent who can read, the 2,100 or more daily and weekly papers. Also, 98 percent of households watch some of the more than 1,600 TV stations.

However, he said, traditional media do use the net to broadcast their stories. That improves syndication — media around the country can pick up regional stories.

Chat rooms and websites have become more popular news sources. Sun Zhigang or the BMW case have taken off because of the web. And even SARS got known, at least among the elite, via the web.

Benjamin Liebman, Columbia Law School asked how the net is affecting the law in China.

He said it has led to a wider discussion of cases, but mostly it is affecting how courts develop. On the one hand, he said, it could eventually help courts to become more transparent, but for now, it’s just enhanced the party’s involvement in the courts.

This ironic situation goes like this: In both the Lu Yuong case, in which a court took blog heat for reducing a mobster’s sentence, and the BMW case, where a court was criticized for giving no punishment to a rich motorist for running down a peasant, the blogs rise up. Then the politicians react and get involved in the courts. In the Lu Yuong case, it led to the mobster getting executed (one hopes, justly). In the BMW case, it led to no change in the court’s stand. But in both cases, it meant the party state gettin involved in the court — breaking from the liberal democrat’s goal of getting the party out of the court.

Susan Shirk, UC San Diego, said nationalism from the net is pressuring Congress. Especially on Japan, Taiwan, and the United States — the nationalist hot-button issues. When you ask how they know public opinion, they say “the internet and Huan Qiu Shi Bao (The Global Times)” (new commercial print media).

There is a state-run echo chamber on international affairs: The state newspapers run authorized stories. The websites pick up the stories. Then the top leaders look at the websites to see public opinion.

She said International news is now second only to sports in popularity in the news.

They are partially state controlled, but they are also used as info sites for the state leaders — the top leaders reportedly read the net to find out what’s happening with something like SARS.

“If decisionmakers are reading just the internet and Huan Qiu Shi Bao, they’re not getting a very representative view” of public opinion, she said. It’s a more nationalistic view. But that’s OK for stability, she said – they aren’t worried about the regular Shen, they’re worried about the radicals who could organize a mass movement — llike those that brought down the Qing dynasty and the Republican government.

Increasingly, she said, the state uses the net to mobilize collective action. Like in the Diaoyu Islands conflict, the government got people to go demonstrate against the Japanese to protest.

Senior leaders are now holding web-based dialogs on the web, taking hard questions. Including the foreign minister. That leads some Chinese to say they have more media democracy than the United States. Interviews on state TV is more tightly controlled, she said. With the hard-hitting questions on the net, she said some people believe China is more free than the States.

Kluver asked if the digital divide meant that the net just empowers those who are already empowered.

Bu Wei said, “It’s complicated.” There was a media gap before, she said. In the 1980s, not everyone had access to TV or radio. Now there’s a digital divide.

Audience member Richard Baum suggested that the net could help delay true democracy by acting as a pressure release valve. Esarey took a sanguine view, saying that was fine. But Shirk pointed out that it could never be as effective a check on bad government thinking as elections, due to the echo chamber problem mentioned above.

An audience member from Human Rights in China asked about the connection between the blogs and the human rights movement. Shirk said they increased domestic pressure for rights corrections. And Liebman said the net shows people in the country what the international standards are.


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