Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
- Wendell Phillips (1852)

Comment Icon0 In June 1989, Chinese students coordinated reports via emails, fax and a U.S.- based newsgroup in a bid to keep abreast of the mass demonstration turned massacre around Tiananmen Square. At that moment, conservative members of the Communist Party were worried that the Internet represented a weapon of U.S. domination over their national culture (Green, 2000). While most governments acknowledge the Internet as a powerful asset to any country’s communication infrastructure, they also note the potential for numerous forms of anarchy online.

Comment Icon0 In response to similar situations, China has been deploying one of the most elaborate regulatory structures governing the use of the Internet. In the hands of the Chinese government, Internet access around the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been largely controllable. This has been achieved through the Chinese government’s potent combination of advances in Internet-filtering technology, state-legislated restrictions on Internet use, as well as economic sanctions, which steer commercial enterprises towards Internet regulation. As a testimony to their determination, the Chinese government has been reported to be building a massive censorship and surveillance project dubbed the “Golden Shield Project” at an estimated cost of US$800 million (Epoch Times, 2003).

Comment Icon0 China’s desire for Internet control has had its share of flak from its Western counterparts, as seen in the sheer number of publications displaying unfavorable sentiment. In March 2000, President Bill Clinton shared his opinion on China: “We know how much the Internet has changed America, and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China. Now, there’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the Internet – good luck. That’s sort of like trying to nail Jello to the wall.” (Drake, Kalathil, & Boas, 2000).

Comment Icon0 This sentiment was shared by Jason Lacharite in a journal article entitled “Electronic Decentralization in China” in which he noted how the flow of ‘illegal’ and ‘undesirable’ information continued to bypass the state’s primitive regulatory system, rendering China’s digital censorship unworkable (Lacharite, 2002). Similarly, Assafa Endeshaw argued that “China has not succeeded in finding an appropriate formula to deal with the Internet; it continues to fight a rear-guard battle with the power of the Internet” and that this act would only shorten the days of the dictatorship (Endeshaw, 2004).

Comment Icon0 While it is tempting to be cynical about China’s success in regulating the Internet, from the technological perspective, the Chinese prowess has often been understated. After close to a decade since the conception of the Golden Shield Project in 1998, there has been little political power shift in the Chinese government as predicted by Western observers. In the Financial Times, writer Dickie (2007) noted how “[f]ar from being overwhelmed by the information age, China’s Communist Party censors have proved surprisingly adept at blunting its political challenge – and even, in some cases,  turning its technologies into powerful new tools for their regime.” In the same article, Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert in new media at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, realized how “[t]he early idealists and companies and governments have all assumed that the Internet will bring freedom. Yet China proves that this is not the case.” As such, academics and the media have started drifting towards a common sentiment that the Internet censorship in China will likely be successful.

Comment Icon0 Preceding these events were multitudes of scholarly perspectives, including suppressive theories where the Internet would reinforce existing social power, by means of electronic surveillance and subtle forms of social control (Lyon, 1998), as well as how it would only serve to reinforce the existing gap between the technologically rich and poor, otherwise known as the perennial problem of the digital divide. The question does remain whether parties, interest groups and governments use the Net to encourage interactive participation, or whether the technology would be used as another form of ‘top-down’ communications (Norris, 2001). On an extreme note, the Reporters Without Borders declared 2003 “a black year” for journalists, with Asia declared as the “world’s largest prison for journalists, cyberdissidents and Internet users”. China has the biggest number of Internet users in prison, with a total of 48 as of 1 January 2004. Nine cyberdissidents were jailed in Vietnam, as the country has set up a computer research department exclusively devoted to creating Internet surveillance software (Reporters Without Borders, 2004a).

Comment Icon0 While scholars have long debated on whether new information technologies, especially the Internet, would bring freedom and democracy to authoritarian China, an interesting paradigm was realized more recently around the Chinese Blogger Conference in 2007. At the event, German observer Peter Wu presented his report that “by focusing too critically on Internet censorship in China, scholars would underestimate a lot of the Chinese blogosphere’s potential”. He noted that Chinese blogs form the “civilian” intelligentsia, the creation of the “different viewpoint” from Beijing, and the change in Chinese society (Feng, 2007). This ‘missing’ Chinese perspective was affirmed by Michael Anti (Zhao Jing), a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and journalism researcher with the Beijing Bureau of New York Times, who explained that the recent surge in blogging in China has changed the state-run media landscape of China and altered the centralized control the ruling party holds over free expression in the world’s most populous nation (Weinberger, 2007). As a testimony of the citizen perspective, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a recent report based on a series of longitudinal surveys, which showed that although many Americans assume that China’s Internet users are unhappy about their government’s control of the Internet, almost 85% say they think the government should be responsible for managing it (Fallows, 2008a).

Comment Icon0 Since the advent of the Internet, these recent events have shown that while the Chinese government maintains political control, Chinese citizens would appear to enjoy an increased sense of personal freedom. As such, rather than consider the Internet as an direct outcome of political forces, this dissertation looks at the new dynamics of socio-political changes in China, where both state and civil powers are transforming in Internet-mediated public space.

Chapter 1.1 – Internet & Democracy


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