Towards Democratisation?: Understanding university students’ Internet use in mainland China



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Towards Democratisation?: Understanding university students’ Internet use in mainland China

Submitted in accordance with the requirements for the degree of



Doctor of Philosophy

Xuelian Jin
Department of Journalism Studies



September, 2014

Abstract


This research explores university students’ use of the Internet in order to understand in what ways, if any, Internet use might be considered a contributory factor in the process of democratisation in China. The research topic is situated within broader debates about the extent to which the Internet might ‘democratise’ authoritarian regimes in general and China in particular. China is a country with a long history of authoritarian rule, yet some propose that the process of reform post 1978 demonstrates a gradual transition to a more open and democratically accountable system of government; a process that has arguably intensified since the development of the Internet. However the development and expansion of the Internet since the early 2000s, along with its penetration into Chinese life thereafter, has meant that the Chinese authorities have sought to control the purported liberalising tendencies that Internet technologies bring. Systems of censorship and filtering have been a major component in China’s strategy of managing the impact of the Internet. Principally censorship has been undertaken because of perceived challenges to the legitimacy and authority of the Chinese system of government, a perspective not historically divorced from student activism in China. University students in particular have arguably played an important role in protests and social movements in China. Not only therefore are university students of particular concern to the Chinese authorities, they are also technologically savvy and among the largest group of Internet users in China. Such users are also of course central to China’s future as they fuel economic growth into the twenty first century and will no-doubt contribute to the country’s economic and political stability in the future. In attempting to understand the democratic implications of Internet use amongst university students the research takes a grounded theory approach based upon six face-to-face in-depth interviews, one focus group, search and analysis of web content, and digital auto-ethnography. A total of twelve participants were recruited from three universities in the City of Chongqing, in the southwest of China. This thesis provides an original contribution to our understanding of how Chinese university students view the Internet in relation to politics. It produces a number of original findings that will be of interest to the broader community of scholars researching China’s Internet in particular and scholars who study the influence of ICTs on emergence and consolidation of democracy in general. These findings include how university students disengage from political activities for both practical reasons such as a lack of opportunity, or lack of interest and ideological concerns, for example, a revolutionary view of democratisation that democratisation has to necessarily be a radical, revolutionary process, and that individuals are powerless to bring such a revolution about. It reveals patterns of how different Internet applications are employed by an individual to achieve one goal and how a politically sensitive message travels through different platforms online. More importantly, it discovers that seemingly trivial online exchanges may nevertheless contribute to a changing social and political environment, albeit in ways that interviewees may not themselves describe as ‘democratising’. Provided with certain conditions, online entertainment and political disengagement can be a way to liberate, given its potential to distract individuals from the party-state propaganda, to create a plural ideational climate, and to increase discontent with the current system through facilitating social comparison. Participants’ joining and organising associations at private level online is found to cast influence on the real world and provides opportunities to practice skills of democratic citizenship. Those associations thus function as an emerging civil society.





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