Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 Since it came into power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party has been balancing the use of ICT between economic modernization and political control (Melody, 1997). This duality forms the fundamental tension for Internet development in China. In fact, a mainstream Chinese newspaper stated how “[t]he degree of development of information networking technology has become an important yardstick for measuring a country’s modernization level and its comprehensive national strength” (People’s Daily, 2001). Mao Zedong’s era saw the command economy, where the media’s function was to serve state interests and impose ideological hegemony on society (Lee, 1990). As such, the Chinese government was characterized by vertical and elitist-centric communications, instead of horizontal and public-oriented communication (Lynch, 1999). Deng Xiaoping stepped in with market reforms, which helped liberalize some of the ideological arena and led to partial deregulation of the telecommunications sector. Even then, the government still enforced control and dissemination of official ideology, as well as strategic deployment of telecommunications networks (Lee, 1990).

Comment Icon0 As a product of state initiative, ICT was deployed by the Chinese government as part of an “informatization” movement, which was to modernize China’s economy and help decentralize decision-making. In doing so, this movement also made the administrative process more transparent for better control from central Beijing (Cartledge & Locklock, 1999). Between 1993 and 1994, the government started to establish IP connections between ministries and state-owned enterprises, while China’s academic community established their first computer network and a direct connection to Stanford University that gave China access to the global Internet (Foster & Goodman, 2000). August 1995 saw China’s first Internet-based BBS, called the Shuimu Qinghua BBS. As Internet development accelerated in China, its socially interactive architecture signaled an even greater challenge towards the government’s balance of economic potential and political control. Responding to the challenge, Chinese officials started studying how other Asian governments managed Internet use in their countries. In 1995, China sent a top minister to Singapore, which had over the years developed sophisticated measures to contain political expression and communication. Two months later, the Chinese government mimicked Singapore’s measures by using telecommunications technology to prevent access to external websites, as a method of dealing with potentially subversive political expression on the Internet (Lynch, 1999). These measures expanded to include blocking websites, monitoring chatrooms and online content, selective arrests and crackdowns, and promoting self-censorship. The government has also developed a proactive strategy that includes e-government measures, an increased online propaganda effort, and a nuanced channeling of public discourse (Kalathil & Boas, 2001).

Comment Icon0 As the world’s most populated country, China’s telecommunications industry has been growing almost three times faster than its GDP over the last 10 years (Qiang, 2007). In tandem, as the Internet holds greater significance to the Chinese, many international observers have begun to suggest that ICT poses an insurmountable threat to China’s authoritarian regime. For instance, 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, then 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). This sentiment was shared by Jason Lacharite in a journal article titled “Electronic Decentralization in China”, in which he noted how the flow of ‘illegal’ and ‘undesirable’ information had 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 Mure 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, at 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, observed 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. Political democracy has not actually seen the light of day within the authoritarian Chinese regime since the introduction of the Internet in China in 1993. However, given the way China operates, it could be argued that the state requires more than Marxist communism or capitalist democracy to define itself.

Comment Icon0 In October 2007, the Chinese Communist Party held its 17th congress, with the Western media watching. CNN reported that Chinese President Hu Jintao opened the major event by promising modest reforms to make government institutions more responsive while strengthening one-party rule. More interesting though was that CNN reported it with an enlightening headline “China rules out copying Western democracy”. This headline demonstrated how the Western media might have come to realize that there were alternatives to the Western-style democracy they subscribed to. Eberlein (2008) exclaimed that “[i]t seems typical of American thinking to regard either a republic or parliamentary democracy as absolutely the only right model for all countries. For a political system to succeed, however, it needs to be rooted in the particular country’s cultural history”. This opens up an interesting question: Does China need to adopt a Western model for its political system, be it Marxist communism or capitalist democracy? Eberlein pointed out that among the contemporary Chinese scholars actively seeking solutions for their country’s future, Jiang Qing is exceptional in that he investigated various philosophical schools and ideologies before embracing Confucianism. After his life-long study of Marxism, Buddhism and Christianity, only Confucianism made him feel that he is at home. His ideological choice was largely influenced by how Confucianism ran most parallel to China’s cultural background.

Comment Icon0 In his Chinese book, Political Confucianism, Jiang Qing (2003) drew a blueprint for China’s political future, in which he called for a restoration of Confucianism as the state ideology as it had been in many dynasties. He further distinguished the Confucian political structure as strongly distinct from both Soviet-style communism and Western-style democracy. He argued that democracy is imperfect, since it invests in a single path to legitimacy, which is the popular civil will. A political system with a foundation of majority rule alone is not sufficient to provide good governance, since it does not account for the moral implications of decisions taken. Also, since human desire is innately selfish, those decisions are likely to be self-serving. Jiang Qing makes the case that civil legitimacy alone is not sufficient to build a constructive social order. While an integrated approach seems more accommodating to China’s situation, the Confucian tradition of “respecting the teacher, valuing the tao” runs in stark contrast to the behavior of indifferent youth today. In addition, Chinese scholars have different opinions about integrating Confucianism to state politics. Chen Lai, China’s top Confucianism scholar at Beijing University, believes that Confucianism as the state ideology is impractical. On the contrary, Daniel Bell, a Beijing-based Canadian scholar and author of China’s New Confucianism (2008), optimistically deemed that “it is not entirely fanciful to surmise that the Chinese Communist Party will be re-labeled the Chinese Confucian Party in a few years’ time”. Perhaps the most pragmatic perspective is one summarized by Jiang Qing’s disciple, Miwan, through a classic phrase, “Though unreachable, my heart longs” (Eberlein, 2008). John Thornton, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, explained that the Chinese leaders “do not think of democracy as people in the West generally do, but they are increasingly backing local elections, judicial independence, and oversight of Chinese Communist Party officials”. According to Thornton (2008), China’s great leaders, including Sun Yat-sen, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, all used the term “democracy” before, but each reflected their own interpretations. Regardless of the differences, they all demonstrated that democracy was not an end in itself but rather an on-going mechanism for China’s political future. While traditional notions of the Internet concentrates on the democratization potential it has for incumbent societies, the Chinese government has proven to be effective at maintaining political control of the country, due partly to the conscious effective management and partly to the non-conscious ideological context which the inherent society provides. How effective management occurs will be explored in the next section.

Chapter 5.1.0 – Modernization vs Sovereignty


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