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

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1.3 Research background

The research topic is situated within a broader debate relating to the extent to which the Internet might help democratise China. China has a history of over two thousand years of authoritarian regime and dominance of authoritarian political ideas. There was a period in the history of China before the establishment of the Qin Dynasty, the first unified authoritarian regime, when the Hundred Schools of Thought flourished. There are also pro-democratic elements in Chinese culture. However, the dominant political ideas are antidemocratic. They emphasise unchecked authority instead of mutual checks and balances, social order and stability instead of conflicts, communication and compromise, hierarchy instead of equality, and the rule of virtue (the rule of men) instead of the rule of law. The dominance of antidemocratic and authoritarian political ideas has been established and maintained by rigid control with severe punishment, active promotion through the education system and the civil-service examination system. The centralised authoritarian regime persisted in China, although there have been repeated opportunities for China to depart from the authoritarian. It is arguable that the factors that have shaped the history of China and its dominant political ideas may continue to shape its political future.

The author argues that China has been undergoing a process of democratisation since the reform and opening-up began in 1978. In the area of the economy, there was a transformation from the command (or plan) economy to the market economy and increasing integration with the world. The transformation and increased integration resulted in dramatic economic growth, including improved living standards, and expansion of urbanisation, education and media, and consequently a more plural society. Moreover, it led to the decentralisation of governmental economic power and gave rise to civil society in China. To promote economic growth and to cope with problems that emerged in the course of economic reform, the Party and the Chinese government have implemented the according measures. Those measures, such as the administrative reform to cut down the number of civil servants and to institutionalise the selection of political elites, localisation of government power, promotion of the rule of law and institutionalisation of political rights, have been gradually changing the political system in China and pushing it towards democracy.

What role the Internet plays in shaping the political future of China in such a complex context is the central topic of the thesis. On the one hand, the Chinese government has realised the importance of the Internet to China’s economic growth. Since the reform, economic growth has become the cornerstone of the Chinese government’s legitimacy. The Internet is important to economic development as a source of information, a platform for communication and trade, and an industry itself. The last two decades have seen explosive growth of the Internet in China in terms of content, infrastructure and users, which has contributed much to the economic growth and government revenue. The Internet in China, as a network of business networks, has ‘adapted more rapidly than other areas of the world to the new technologies and to the new forms of global competition’ (Castells, 1996, p.173). The Chinese government has been playing an active role in promoting the development of the Internet.

At the same time, the Chinese government’s strategy to control the so-called ‘negative’ political influence of the Internet seems to work, at least in the short term. The government’s cyber strategy works in two ways. One is to eliminate or block the undesirable content by regulation, technology, and control of infrastructure. The other is to generate and lead content favourable to the government through projects like the Government Online Projects and by online versions of traditional mass media controlled by the government. The high growth rate of the Internet as a technology and an economy, juxtaposed with the continuing power of the Communist Party of China (CPC), calls into question many existing conceptions of technology-society relations formulated in the context of liberal democracies of late capitalism.

Moreover the rapid development of the Internet has brought changes that may lead to long-term evolution in China. In the process of democratisation in China in theory, the Internet works as a catalyst to democratic changes. It promotes the development of the public sphere and civil society in China, and provides new channels for political participation.

Why were university students in mainland China chosen as the population for the research? Because university students are technologically savvy, in the midst of an important period of growth that will impact the rest of their lives, and a key part of China's future. Another important attribute is that university students have played a leading role in protests and social movements in the history of modern China. Well-known examples include the May Fourth Movement during the period from 1915 to 1921 and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

The research uses a social constructivist approach, one that also includes the researcher’s own reflections and perspectives on democracy and democratisation. The researcher’s background, experience and views of democracy and the future of mainland China have undoubtedly influenced the whole process of the research. The reflections of the researcher will therefore be added to the appendix for readers to better understand the researcher’s theoretical orientation and reflexivity.

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