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

Aim, objectives, and rationale of the research

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1.2 Aim, objectives, and rationale of the research

The core aim of the research is to better understand and contextualise the political impact of the Internet in mainland China from the perspective of university students within the theoretical framework of democratisation.

The explosive expansion of the Internet in China and the Internet’s democratic potential has triggered a heated debate (see The Economists’ special report series on China and the Internet0 and also The Atlantic’s China's Communist Party Isn't Really Afraid of the Internet0) and also given rise to the proliferation of research (see Taubman, 1998; Zhang, 2002; Hughes and Wacker, 2003; McCormick, 2008; Lagerkvist, 2010) on whether or not the Internet is going to bring liberal democracy to China. This debate and research concentrates on freedom of speech and censorship (Taubman, 1998; Qiu, 1999/2000; Boas & Kalathil, 2001; Hachigian, 2001; Harwit & Clark, 2001; Tsui L., 2001; Walton, 2001; Edelman, 2003; Hughes and Wacker, 2003; Kalathil, 2003; BOAS, 2004; Gorman, 2005; Fry, 2006; Crandall, et al., 2007; Dann & Haddow, 2007; MacKinnon, 2007; 2009; Weber and Jia, 2007; Palfrey, 2008), public deliberation (Jiang, 2010), civil society (Yang, 2003a; Yang, 2003b; Tai, 2006), or activism (Chase and Mulvenon, 2002; Harp, et al., 2012) on the Chinese Internet.

The over-proportioned research on the role of the Chinese government and censorship portrays an uneven picture of Chinese cyber space, although the Chinese government does play a crucial role in shaping the landscape of the cyberspace in China. This research is one of the endeavours to understand the less-studied field of how Internet users use the Internet and how they perceive and articulate their use. These endeavours include China Online: locating Society in Online Spaces edited by Marolt and Herold (2014) which puts great emphasis on the connections between the online and offline worlds and the Internet users. In order to further understand the purported democratic impact of the Internet, a specific population of Internet users in China has been chosen as the primary focus of the research: university students who are young, highly educated, and politically active in the history of modern China. In order to arrive at the proposed goal, the research will achieve four objectives:

Objective 1: To explore the lifeworld of the participants’ Internet use

To understand the democratic potential of the Internet, it is of great importance to know and understand how people use it for ‘the extent to which technologies live up to their potential is contingent on the social and institutional contexts as well as how people use them and what they use them for’ (Chen, 2014). Internet use in mainland China has been investigated regularly, twice a year, by the China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC, and once by Guo, et al. (2007) with structured questionnaire surveys. The Chinese Internet is home to various users who utilise the Internet in their quest to shape their lives. Their quests and lives and thus their online experiences are too diverse for standardised surveys to capture. Therefore, such surveys sacrifice the rich detail of individuals’ online experience and also impose the researchers’ perceptions of categories of Internet use upon their respondents instead of understanding Internet use through users’ perspectives, providing an holistic picture of Internet use in China, or in several cities. The research investigates participants’ Internet use through open-question in-depth interviews and a focus group and attempts to categorise their Internet use by their perceptions and articulation of their experience. The categories and findings of CNNIC’s and Guo’s (2007) research are compared with findings from this research in order to add context and nuance to the overall picture.

CNNIC is ‘an administration and service organization set up on June 3, 1997 upon the approval of China’s State Council and undertakes responsibilities as the national Internet network information centre in China’. It has provided biannual nationwide statistical reports on Internet development and also some special reports on particular Internet applications like online shopping in China since October, 1997. Its reports are based on fixed-line telephone and mobile phone surveys conducted every half year. Its population is the permanent residents aged over six in China and its sample size is 30,000. The sample covers permanent residents across 31 provinces, municipalities, and municipalities directly under the central government0. It is the most authoritative and authentic statistical report on Internet development in China and its credibility is also recognised by international scholars including Harwit and Clark (2001), He and Zhu (2002), Qiu (2003), Yang (2003a; 2003b), Michel (2005), Damm (2007), Ian and Lu (2007), MacKinnon (2009), Yip (2010), Wallis (2011), Leibold (2011), Deans and Miles (2011), Park and Kim (2013), Bondes and Schucher (2014), and so on.

Objective 2: To understand how the participants articulate and perceive their online experience and identify patterns of political significance in Internet use

Not only is the research interested in how the participants are using the Internet, but also it attempts to achieve an insider’s understanding of their online experience, how they make sense of their Internet use. A constructionist approach assumes that meaning is constructed ‘in and out of interaction between human beings and their world, and developed and transmitted within an essentially social context’ (Crotty, 1998, p.42). It is important to note that constructionism does not assume individuals’ construction of meaning is independent of their world. Instead, it is through their interaction with their world that their understanding of the world is constructed. Structural and social constraints have undeniable influence on individuals’ construction of meaning. Therefore, three factors are crucial in shaping the participants’ perceptions of their Internet use. They are the participants, their online experience and the social context they are situated in. Objective 2 focuses on how the participants constructed their understanding of their online experience. Their understanding of their Internet use matters. For one thing, every individual is unique and they have both unique online experience and unique perception of their online experience. Their views provide fresh ways to understand what is studied. For another, individuals base their action on their understanding of reality. How an individual uses the Internet is governed by how they see it. Therefore, to better understand participants’ Internet use and its political implication in the Chinese context, it is of great significance to study how they explain their statements and actions. Furthermore, the research attempts to discover patterns of political significance in Internet use based on analysis of participants’ perceptions. Objective 3 will look into the world that influences the participants’ understandings.

Objective 3: To situate and contextualise the findings

For one thing, constructionism assumes that construction of meanings is situated in the social context. Social, cultural and economic factors play an important role in shaping individuals’ Internet use and thus the direction of the changes their Internet use might bring. For the researcher to better interpret the results and the readers to better understand the findings and to weigh the usefulness of the research, the thesis provides rich background information including the social and cultural background: the on-going transitional process and the Chinese political tradition; the development of the Internet; and the Chinese cyberspace the participants interact with.

Objective 4: To critically reflect the findings within the theoretical framework of democratisation

Since the study aims to contribute to better understanding of the democratic implications of the Internet in mainland China, the study reflects on the concept of democratisation, and some of the important conditions for democracy including political culture, free market, economic growth, civil society, political participation, political efficacy, and the citizen. The findings of the study are critically examined and interpreted within this theoretical framework. Conceptually, democracy, in this thesis, is defined as ‘a mode of decision-making about collectively binding rules and policies over which the people exercise control’ (Beetham, 1992, p.40). According to this definition, ‘the most democratic arrangement’ is a system ‘where all members of the collectivity enjoy effective equal rights to take part in such decision-making directly’ and the most undemocratic one is ‘a system of rule where the people are totally excluded from the decision-making process and any control over it’ (p.40). Democratisation, therefore, is defined as a process in which a society or a nation moves from one end of a spectrum, the most undemocratic arrangement, to the other end, the most democratic one. In practice, democracy refers to liberal democracy. Democratisation refers to the process in which a society or a nation transfers from a non-democratic situation to a liberal democracy.

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