China’s Contested Internet:
Historical Struggle and Uncertain Future
In 1995, barely a year after China was connected to the global Internet, Jasmine Zhang founded the first private Internet service provider (ISP) and proclaimed its birth with a gigantic street poster: ‘How far are Chinese people from the information highway? 1,500 meters ahead!’ A short walk of 1,500 metres led to her office, but China’s journey to the ‘information highway’ has been much longer, to say the least. In the 20 years since 1995, China has wired half of its 1.3 billion population. In this process, it has also transformed the meaning of the Internet. The Internet in China has taken on such distinctly Chinese characteristics that it may now be called the Chinese Internet in the same way as we call China’s literature ‘Chinese literature’ or China’s politics ‘Chinese politics’. These characteristics include not only the contents and linguistic features on Chinese websites, but also the ways in which the Internet and social media are used by citizens and businesses and managed by the government.
Claiming that the Internet has taken on distinctly Chinese characteristics raises a number of important questions. If control is a feature of the Chinese Internet, then how is control practised over time and what changes have taken place in the strategies and institutions of policing the Internet and why? If people in China use the web for activism, how does their activism differ from or resemble online activism in other countries? Why does it seem that there is a distinct ‘Internet literature’ in China? Similarly, to understand the future of an internet that the Chinese people want requires an understanding of their lived experiences with the internet, their everyday practices, and the ways in which they make sense of their experiences.
What is needed, in other words, is an understanding of the historicity of the Chinese Internet, that is, its distinct features in a historical process marked by both constraints and contingency. It is important to study the many facets of the Chinese Internet, be they institutional norms or social practices, as processes of change and becoming. Emphasizing change and becoming is to recognize history and historical struggle. It is to affirm that the Internet as we know it today, as it is used by citizens and consumers or governed or surveilled by the state or Internet firms, has not always been like this and will continue to undergo change and transformation, for better or worse.
The history of Internet politics in China may be divided into a pre-Weibo and Weibo period, Weibo meaning microblogging. In the pre-Weibo era, the main web platforms for citizen participation were blogs, web sites, and online bulletin-board forums. Sina Weibo, the most influential microblogging platform in China, was launched in August 2009. The next few years, from 2010 to about 2012, witnessed a strong wave of citizen activism on Sina Weibo as well as growing government efforts to contain it.
As of the first months of 2016, Sina Weibo’s influence on public discussion has clearly weakened and the Internet is governed more tightly than before in the name of national sovereignty, national security, and civility. It seems that the Weibo era, as opposed to the pre-Weibo period, is marked most distinctly by new and expansive forms of Internet control. These new forms of control started on Sina Weibo, in part reflecting Weibo’s growing influence. In November 2010, Sina set up a special seven-person team charged with the mission of ‘stopping rumours’. These seven individuals work around the clock to monitor the content on Weibo. If they determine a user to be spreading a rumour, that person’s account may be temporarily suspended or permanently closed.
The tightening and expansion of Internet control that started with Weibo in 2010 accelerated after Xi Jinping became China’s supreme leader in 2013. Already in 2010, the issuance of the white paper on The Internet in China by the Information Office of China’s State Council signalled the formation of a comprehensive Internet control model by proposing the idea of a ‘Chinese model of Internet administration’. Under Xi, new institutions are established to strengthen China’s Internet governance structure, the most important being the new ministerial-level Cyberspace Administration of China. New campaigns were launched in the summer of 2013 to crack down on online opinion leaders on Sina Weibo. In November 2014, 29 major Chinese Internet firms pledged to strengthen their management of online comments made by Internet users, indicating that government control of Internet speech had penetrated to the deepest corners of the web. Meanwhile, Chinese government agencies and official media institutions have boosted their online presence and activity in a vigorous bid to “occupy the online frontier.” People’s Daily, for example, now maintains an active and often lively presence on Sina Weibo, tweeting regularly and frequently, and in an informal tone that differs markedly from the official tone of its print editions.
Reminiscent of mass mobilization and mass criticism in Mao’s China, Internet control increasingly relies on societal efforts, including the mobilization of community organizations and Internet firms to help enforce community rules, the promotion of self-discipline for Internet businesses and individual users, and the use of media spectacles to publicly shame critical voices into compliance. An example of Maoist mass criticism was the public shaming of the Internet celebrity qua venture capitalist Charles Xue. A naturalized American citizen, Xue was an active and critical commentator on current affairs on the popular microblog platform Sina Weibo. On August 23, 2013, Charles Xue was arrested in Beijing on charges of soliciting prostitution. Three weeks later, he was shown on China’s major television news channels confessing that as a popular blogger with 12 million followers on Weibo, he “felt like an emperor” and had posted unverified information and misguided his followers. It became clear that Xue was a selected target in a national campaign to sanitize internet expression.
Furthermore, in October 2013, the story about a thriving new occupation called “internet opinion analyst” attracted international attention. This is a job to monitor and analyze online expressions for “harmful” contents. Government agencies hire internet opinion analysts to monitor online information considered harmful to their image. Business firms hire them to track online comments on their products. Both government and business agencies may resort to monetary or other means to have negative information removed from the web. Further boosted by government-supported “big data” projects to collect online information, Internet opinion analysis will prove to be an increasingly profitable business as it is used by more and more government agencies and business firms to monitor political or commercial behavior among citizens and consumers.
If Sina Weibo has lost some of its appeal as a public arena for citizen debate and communication, it is partly because of the growing popularity of the new messaging app WeChat, which was released in January 2011 by Sina’s competitor Tencent. Many users who are no longer active on Sina Weibo have migrated to WeChat, which boasts of 600 million monthly active users as of August 2015. Yet as this report shows, censorship is extensively practiced on WeChat as well.
Clearly, censorship has become an everyday, routine affair, and those who care are forced to cultivate skills of living with it. They use circumvention tools and develop habits of saving interesting contents as soon as they appear in case they are censored.
All this suggests that along with the changing forms of Internet governance in China, especially the growing use of propagandistic and ideological methods and reliance on societal mobilization, Chinese state power is assuming multiple faces in its efforts to contain and channel the floods of Internet speech. Everyday users try desperately to retain a space of their own under the new political normal of intensified control. The future of the Internet in China is uncertain but not foreclosed.
Note: Part of this essay is excerpted from Guobin Yang, “Introduction: Deep Approaches to China’s Contested Internet,” in China’s Contested Internet, edited by Guobin Yang. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2015.
Guobin Yang is an Associate Professor of Communication and Sociology at the Annenberg School for Communication and Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online (2009) and The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China (2016). He is the editor of China’s Contested Internet (2015), The Internet, Social Media, and a Changing China (with Jacques deLisle and Avery Goldstein, 2016), and Re-Envisioning the Chinese Revolution: The Politics and Poetics of Collective Memories in Reform China (with Ching- Kwan Lee, 2007). He co-edits the new SAGE journal Communication and the Public with Zhongdang Pan. He tweets at @Yangguobin. For more information, please visit: https://www.asc.upenn.edu/people/faculty/guobin-yang-phd
Banner Image: Photo courtesy of Dr. Dan Du (2014).
Add to favorite