Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 Ultimately, does the introduction of the Internet bring democracy to authoritarian nations such as the People’s Republic of China? Throughout this study’s literature review, it has been observed that the civil liberties afforded to Chinese citizens have been deliberately restrained online, yet this virtual space remains ever contested between society and state. In the short run, the Internet has limited influence to promote the democratic process and has instead been used to strengthen the government’s rule. From a broader perspective, despite the government’s politically-oriented censorship online, the Chinese citizens are enjoying greater freedom of expression through information sharing, much more than before Internet access became publicly available in China. In the long run, the Internet poses greater cultural and political ramification for Chinese society. While the Chinese government enthusiastically embraced and controlled the Internet, individual citizens have responded with impassioned campaigns against authoritarian control of information flow. The emergence of a civil society mediated through cyberspace has had profound effect on China. Based on an Internet campaign in 2003, the Chinese Supreme People’s Court overturned the ruling of a local court for the first time since the Communist Party came into power in 1949 (Tai, 2006). As such, the most pertinent question has been not whether the Internet will democratize China, but rather where and to what extent communication is democratizing in China. As mentioned previously, even though the Freedom House classifies China as “Not Free” due to numerous human rights violations, the number of journalist and cyberdissident arrests are on a decline, and modern Chinese citizens are already enjoying a growing sense of autonomy in aspects of society outside of politics.

Comment Icon0 Ironically, China’s autocratic rule may have contributed to its steady growth as an economic superpower today. This aspect becomes visible when China is compared with the largest democracy in the world, India. When renowned author and journalist Thomas Friedman tried to summarize the idea of India and China, he gave an analogy of two giant superhighways with each having a big question mark hanging over its future. The Chinese superhighway would be perfectly paved, with sidewalks everywhere and street lights and white lines neatly drawn in the middle of the road. In the distance is a speed bump called “political reform”. The Indian superhighway would be riddled with potholes, unfinished sidewalks, no street lights or visible line dividers. In the distance is a perfect six-lane superhighway, but it could simply be a mirage (Nilekani, 2009).

Comment Icon0 The interplay of socio-historical, political and economic forces has transformed both these once-poor agrarian societies into economic powerhouses. As evidence, both China and India are home to about two-fifth of humanity and they are currently the world’s fastest-growing economies. Even so, globalization is scarcely a seamless process, as both of these republics have experienced, having taken different routes to reach their present state. Over the past three decades, China’s transition from a self-sufficient, centrally-planned economy towards a socialist market economy underpinned by global economic integration has generated robust economic growth. While the Chinese Community Party still rules China, the regimented monotony of citizens in their traditional Mao outfits have melted into obscurity, giving way to consumables such as Internet service, mobile phones, credit cards, exotic vacations, automobiles and designer couture, among other symbols of modern affluence. China’s opening to the world, which began in earnest in 1978, has gone through a number of distinct, if not synchronized, phases. Each has been characterized by government policies allowing market forces to have greater influence over domestic economic activity, and deeper global integration through the adoption of particular sets of “open-door” stratagems and policies. Unlike China’s opportune progression into its globalized economy, India’s economic liberalization reform in early 1991 was hastily mandated after Indian political elites realized their country’s hemorrhaging economy. As a result of India’s sudden burst, pro-market policies have followed a difficult meandering path, often losing a sense of direction and urgency. As is observable in the state of Internet penetration in India, this problem would typically be attributed to the contingencies of India’s democratic politics rather than economic prudence (Sharma, 2009). In Imagining India (2009), Nandan Nilekani, one of India’s most successful software entrepreneurs, lends credibility with his contemporary book, stating that “[a]t the time of independence, India’s leaders were clearly ahead of the people. The creation of a new, secular democracy with universal suffrage, anchored by the Indian Constitution, was a leap of faith the government took with an uncompromising, yet trusting country. Sixty years on, however, it seems that the roles have reversed. The people have gained more confidence and are reaching for the stars. India’s leaders, however, seem timorous – our politics has become more tactical than visionary and, as Montek points out, what we now see among our politicians ‘is a strong consensus for weak reforms’”.

Comment Icon0 Just as this study argues that technological determinism may be a myth, so would the perception that the type of governance would have sole impact on the socio-economic well-being of a nation. Societal consequences differ, as seen in how the liberal democracy of the United States contrasts with that of the Republic of India, just as how the socialist autocracy of the Soviet Union contrasts with that of the People’s Republic of China. In Capitalism Without Democracy (2007), researcher Kellee Tsai conducted a nationwide survey on the aspirations of several hundred private entrepreneurs who drive China’s economic growth. Instead of agitating for democracy, she discovered that most entrepreneurs felt that China’s system of governance generally worked for them, where their day-to-day activities was seen as being subtly more effective than voting, lobbying and protesting in the streets. For instance, in collaboration with local officials, entrepreneurs have created a range of adaptive informal institutions, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which in turn fundamentally alter China’s political and regulatory landscape.

Comment Icon0 While it has been popularized that the Internet has profoundly enhanced political participation in China, such civil affordance of communication technology is not unprecedented in Chinese history. In Historicizing Online Politics (2005), Yongming Zhou drew from the fields of anthropology, history, political science and media studies to systematically study the way the Chinese have participated in politics through telegraphy in the late Qing, all the way to the present Internet age. That said, while the Internet allows for greater political participation, it should not be viewed as an exception in history. Throughout the history of information communication technology, civilization has appreciated its use in view of multiple forces, such as those highlighted in Lessig’s Pathetic Dot model which includes factors such as law, market, architecture and norms. Such factors can be observed to play out in Yongnian Zheng’s Technological Empowerment (2007). In reviewing statistical trends on the interaction of Internet, state and society in China, Zheng makes four key findings in his book. First, the Internet empowers both the state and society, where the Internet has played an important role in facilitating political liberalization, and made government more open, transparent and accountable. Secondly, the Internet produces enormous benefits which are highly decentralized and beyond the reach of state power. Thirdly, the Internet has created a new infrastructure for the state and society in their engagement and disengagement from each other. Fourthly, the Internet produces a recursive relationship between state and society, where the interactions between the state and society over the Internet end up reshaping both the state and society. Chinese academic Guobing Yang went a step further to argue that the Internet as an information architecture also co-evolves with civil society (2003).

Chapter 10.4 – Co-evolution of Internet, Society and State

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