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Comment Icon0 While there are numerous scholarly studies related to China’s media censorship practices, there is an apparent disconnect between the Western media’s view and Chinese netizens’ view of China’s Internet landscape. While most Western media focus on the helplessness of the Chinese blogosphere, the Chinese netizens see something completely different altogether. This particular issue was raised in a panel discussion at the recent Chinese Blogger Conference 2007, where German observer Peter Wu shared his report entitled “The Chinese Blogosphere in the Eyes of Western Researchers and Why They’re Wrong”. Peter remarked that amongst the “Western researchers”, quite a number of these people were, indeed, Chinese. He argued that if researchers focused too much on the censorship, scholars would underestimate much of the Chinese blogosphere’s potential. Peter noted that Chinese blogs form the “civilian” intelligentsia, the creation of the “different viewpoint” from Beijing, and the change in Chinese society. He also observed that there were seven processes to this – free thinking, free expression, shared imagination, shared meanings, a group with a goal, mutual action and social change. Ideas, thoughts, and movements also form an integral part (Feng, 2007).

Comment Icon0 The issue that Peter Wu hinted at was reflected distinctly in Lokman Tsui’s paper on the sociopolitical Internet in China (2005). Tsui noted that the Internet phenomenon in China had caught the attention of media and academics alike, but this attention had always been skewed towards the democratization effect the Internet would have on China. In contrast, he explained that there was much more that the Internet could offer China in terms of sociopolitical development, which would go beyond the democratization frame. His rationale was that this approach was too technologically deterministic, where he noted how “[t]echnology is never isolated from a context but is always enmeshed in the social constructs consisting of models of thought intertwined with habits, beliefs, and values in a specific culture”. The suggested approach involves understanding China in a larger context of sociopolitical impact, which is more than just issues related to Internet control, regulation and censorship.

Comment Icon0 In an enlightening luncheon talk, 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, at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Having experienced the controversial removal of his own blog by Microsoft in China, Anti discussed how the recent surge in blogging in China had changed the state-run media landscape of China and altered the centralized control the ruling party held over free expression in the world’s most populous nation (Zuckerman, 2007). He mentioned that there were many blogs monitoring China’s Internet situation, such as Global Voices and China Media Project. Anti noted that in 2004 and 2005, it made sense to follow blogs to find such interesting news, but he stated that those were the ‘golden years’ for the Chinese blogosphere as they were now over. The beginning of the golden age was marked by Muzi Mei’s sex diary, where she detailed her encounters with various men in late 2003. Anti believed that the removal of his blog by Microsoft in late 2005 was when the golden era ended. Blogs were easy targets for removal, since the government could control every aspect of speech via keyword censorship, firewalls and self-censorship.

Comment Icon0 In a technological retrograde, Anti noted that since 2006, most of the interesting and dissenting news now came from chatrooms. For the spread of dissention in China, chatrooms have been used since 1998, while email, particularly mailing lists, has been in use since 1996. Reflecting technology use, Anti noted that “[w]e’re making social change using web 1.0, not using web 2.0”. Web 2.0 has been associated with democratization and decentralization in the Western nations, where these tools make it possible for people to have a voice, which in turn reinforces voices in the offline space. In an ironic twist, Anti astutely pointed out how such features could only function in democratic countries. In China, the problem with these tools is that they tend to be centralized on a single server, making it easy to block the entire service via firewalls and government-centralized control. Despite being earlier-generation Internet communication technology, email and chatrooms were found to be not as centralized. Anti believed that chatrooms resided across numerous servers, while older POP-based email was harder to read into.

Comment Icon0 Ironically, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a recent report based on a series of longitudinal surveys, which showed that although many Americans had assumed that China’s Internet users were unhappy about their government’s control of the Internet, almost 85% say they think the government should be responsible for doing it (Fallows, 2008a). According to the Pew Internet study, the apparent citizen request for Internet control stemmed from the increasing number of Chinese media reports linking the Internet to unfortunate events, often invasively personal, highly detailed and heavy on human interest. A limitation of this study was that the Chinese citizens might want control merely to cope with unethical news reporting, not as much to agree with the government’s politically oriented Internet control policies. To help understand this, Michael Anti believed that the Chinese government wanted to exchange personal freedom for political freedom. He pointed out that the younger Chinese have a life now that is so much better than that of their parents. There is a generation gap; from the children of the 1970s who remember Tiananmen and want social change. However, the newer generation simply accepts this exchange of political freedom for personal freedom. Ultimately, this leads to a very tiny percentage of Chinese people who actually care about political freedom. He stated that “[a]t least 95% of people don’t care about censorship” (Zuckerman, 2007).

Comment Icon0 On the influence of foreign media, while many websites are on China’s Internet blacklist, Chinese Internet use apparently rarely traverses beyond China’s borders. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences produced a survey report (Liang, 2003), which showed that Chinese netizens access local websites 79% of the time. The report noted that this figure did not include Chinese language websites located in Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore, which would consist of another 14%. While the Western media typically assumes government restrictions as the main cause, much of the motivation that lead to this came from the users themselves. These include factors such as language barriers, disinterest in foreign media and self-regulation (Chase & Mulvenon, 2002).

Comment Icon0 Despite the lengthy discourse about Internet in China, there are still around 1.23 billion Chinese who are not yet online. About two-third of this population cite two reasons for being offline: 1) lack of computer or Internet skills; and 2) lack of Internet access (Fallows, 2007). These are typical digital-divide issues shared by other developing countries, and China’s education system as well as competitive market forces may alleviate these problems over time.

Chapter 2.3.3 – Battle of Media Perspectives

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