Five Books: Gady Epstein on China and the Internet

For the Five Books series, The Economist’s Gady Epstein suggests five books which helped him understand how the Internet in China works. In April, Epstein produced a special report for the Economist called China’s Internet: A Giant Cage. From the Five Books interview with Epstein:

Yes, what are these books about, generally?

There are three Internet-specific books on the list. Over the years, each of the authors has contributed to my understanding of how the Communist Party manages the Internet, and how effective or not it might be. In the case of Yang Guobin, while he’s clear-eyed about the Party’s abilities to manage the Internet, he still offers a somewhat hopeful interpretation of Chinese activism online. It may not be directly advancing democracy in the Western sense, but it is giving citizens online more democratic-like freedoms and giving them a space, a forum, where they can develop some of the patterns and habits of democracy. This is something you’ll also find in Johan Lagerkvist’s After the Internet, Before Democracy. Lagerkvist also has a relatively hopeful view. The Internet may not be speeding China towards democratization in the short-term, but he believes that inevitably it will make that transformation easier. He’s extremely cognizant, though, of the technological determinism of the cyber-utopians, this idea that the Internet will just lead to democratization. He rejects that, and tries to offer a different understanding, which is quite helpful. What’s really interesting about Lagerkvist’s work is that he compiles different threads of thought about the Internet, and there are many. This list of books – even just the three that are specifically related to the Internet – are just a fraction of the amount of ink that’s been spilled over the Chinese Internet…

And ultimately it’s about whether the Internet in China will lead to democracy or whether it could be a more sinister force, leading to, say, some sort of nationalist autocracy? Is that the key question?

Yes, and it fits into the larger question of “Whither China?” and “Whither the Chinese Communist Party?” which is the big question that everybody asks themselves when they come here, especially to cover it as a story, as journalists do. That’s why I’ve got Anne-Marie Brady’s book on my list as well, Dictatorship. She focuses on the Party-state’s ability to adapt after Tiananmen in 1989, and focus its efforts in to reinforce certain concepts that it wants to spread and have be absorbed by the public. These include not only embracing the economy, but also embracing one-party rule, the need for , nationalism, and, selectively, anti-foreign sentiment. [Source]

Read more interviews about China from the Five Books series, via .

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