Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 Accessibility to the Internet has mostly been understood to exist as a potent opportunity in terms of fostering social change. However, much of this change has often been negatively portrayed in the mass media, especially in the mainstream press of developing countries such as the People’s Republic of China (Liang, 2007). Where relevant data exists, most publicized cases yield results that fail to be generalized beyond their specific culture (Lin & Lu, 2000; Lin, 2002; Stafford, 2003; Tewksbury & Althaus, 2000; Park, 2002). In a similar fashion, the portrayal of governments controlling Internet use has often come under fire as a form of social repression.

Comment Icon0 Sussman (2000) noted that for 400 years, governments learned to censor each new medium as it appeared. His study showed that the independence of the Internet would still be at the government’s will to encourage and sustain a free press. Abbott (2001) argued that while the Internet does offer opportunities for democratization, the digital divide and growing commercialization will continue to be challenges for national democracy and political transformation. Internet filtering, as with press freedom, varies in magnitude but exists as a norm for most countries. Internet filtering takes place in at least 40 states worldwide, including countries in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Related Internet content-control mechanisms are also in place in Canada, the United States and a cluster of countries in Europe (Deibert, 2008). Likewise, regulation of the Internet could be compared to that of the mainstream media, where out of 195 countries and territories, 70 (36%) were rated Free, 61 (31%) Partly Free and 64 (33%) were Not Free, a modest decline from 2007 (Freedom House, 2009a).

Comment Icon0 Managing access to the Internet, as an information and communication technology (ICT), is arguably a societal necessity for every country as it also functions to mirror the cultural needs of every nation. Goldsmith and Wu (2006) documented this as three emergent paradoxical themes from the narrative of “Internet control” observed through history. The first theme involves how even the most ubiquitous information communication technology, the Internet, typically thought to be largely uncontrollable, has always been subject to geography and governance. Almost every networked nation has utilized an array of techniques for controlling information and communication passing through their borders. The second theme involves the diversification of the Internet in terms of culture. While many assumed that the Internet would bridge our myriad of civilizations together into a common place, perhaps even to the state of monoculture, the opposite is happening where the Internet has started to reflect the borders of our physical world, in terms of the local language, content, as well as norms. Several factors have led to this outcome, and these include how nations appropriate data bandwidth, language and content filters. The third theme advances earlier paradoxes by revealing how there are numerous advantages to having a geographically bordered Internet. While one might assume that democratic access to information would allow users to work out differences among themselves, intervention is often needed in situated cultures. Internet control, in the form of legal, political and technical regulations, would help protect the way of life enjoyed by individual users. A bordered Internet appears necessary as it takes into account the disparity among individuals, needs and places.

Comment Icon0 Despite the virtues of legitimizing regional sovereignty over the Internet, a common form of abuse exists as the problem of corruption. As seen in most authoritarian regimes, the People’s Republic of China has been known to use the Internet as a device for political control, specifically there exists a blur in the ideological separation between law and politics. Far from creating a new norm, the Internet has thus far been largely a magnifier of the social intricacies of the physical world. The grandest argument these themes provide is whether there is indeed more to be gained than lost by a nation as a result of Internet control. Rather than subscribing to the notion that Internet use is shaped solely by the relevant government agency, Yang (2003) believed that civil society and the Internet energize each other in their co-evolutionary development in China, whereby the Internet facilitates civil society activities and is in turn shaped by the new possibilities of citizen participation. In essence, rather than to subscribe to the widespread notion that Internet control is 1) solely politically determined by the state government, and 2) an immediate act of civil repression, this study argues for the need to study the specific cultural subtleties of local civil societies in order to ascertain whether the appropriate form of Internet regulation is employed.

Comment Icon0 The most popular research question on Internet regulation in China one would ask is whether the Internet contributes to China’s democratization and civil society development. Since the introduction of the Internet in China in 1993, political democracy has not actually seen the light of day within the authoritarian Chinese regime. However, this does not mean that civil society has less power or influence over their social environment. As highlighted by Jiang (2008) at the Chinese Internet Research Conference (CIRC), there has been emerging evidence that public deliberation is capable of taking place in the non-democratic setting of China. “Public deliberation” occurs when citizens “carefully examine a problem and arrive at a well-reasoned solution after a period of inclusive, respectful consideration of diverse points of view” (Gastil & Black, 2008). In the Western nations, this is visible through informal conversations, media and public opinion, government decision-making, public meetings, elections, juries and communities. In the case of authoritarian China, another form of deliberation exists in the form of “authoritarian deliberation” (He, 2006). Under this form, top leaders are not elected and deliberation occurs under one-party domination. In China, this could be seen through informal conversations, media and public opinion, government decision-making, public meetings, village elections and communities.

Comment Icon0 The concept of public deliberation, be it in democratic or authoritarian settings, runs parallel to Habermas’ Public Sphere (1989), which some scholars argue exists fluidly in the third realm between state and society. The concepts of “bourgeois public sphere” and “civil society” as they have been applied to China presuppose a dichotomous opposition between state and society. Instead of the binary relationship between state and society appropriated from early modern Western experience, it is argued that researchers need to employ a trinary conception, with a third space in between state and society, in which both are able to participate (Huang, 1993). This third space appears to be best represented in the present context as China’s Internet.

Comment Icon0 This study hopes to show that Chinese citizens do not have to depend on a democratic setting for public deliberation and social change to occur. Characteristics of emergent public deliberation would also be determined, and this has thus far been observed to be voluntary, fragmented and ad hoc in coordination (Jiang, 2008). These characteristics were identified as essential to peer-production, which refers to groups of individuals who collaborate on large-scale projects following a diverse cluster of motivational drives and social signals, rather than either market prices or managerial commands (Benkler, 2006). Forming collective action, the citizens have been known to create social forces large enough to turn government decisions that encroach on their personal freedom. For instance, the successful public protest against the government’s development of a toxic chemical plant in Xiamen was coordinated via SMS (Short Messaging System), BBS (Bulletin Board System) and Blogs (Kennedy, 2007).

Comment Icon0 In order to study the elements comprehensively, authoritarian deliberation would be examined as the interplay between the Chinese government and citizens through a multi-layered study of the Internet use and regulation in the People’s Republic of China. By taking this approach, we would be able to determine the social affordances of information communication technology, by comprehending how citizens perceive and adopt the use of Internet in culturally and politically distinct environments. Theoretical frameworks including the “regulability” of the Internet (Lessig, 1999), as well as three specific research methodologies including Uses and Gratification (Blumler and Katz , 1974), Locus of Control (Rotter, 1954) and News Credibility Scale (Gaziano and McGrath, 1986), will be utilized to discover how the public sphere functions adaptively to the generally conservative policies governing its use in China. A framework for understanding interactions will be mapped out, by treating Internet-based media usage as a dependent variable that is affected by government and user expectations. The research questions for this dissertation include:

Comment Icon0 RQ1: Does Internet regulation currently contribute to the development of China’s civil society?

Comment Icon0 RQ2: How do the Uses and Gratifications of the Internet differ between the Chinese government and the citizens?

Chapter 1.2 – Statement of Problem


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