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

Limitations of existing literature

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1.4 Limitations of existing literature

The exponential growth of the Internet in China has generated debate, on whether or not the Internet will democratise China. The question itself, in the author’s opinion, is problematic in two ways. For one thing, it is philosophically biased by the preference for liberal democracy or the ideology of Western countries0, especially that of the United States, in most cases (e.g. Lagervist, 2006; Tai, 2006; Morozov, 2011). It presumes that democracy, liberal democracy in particular, is good or desirable for China or Chinese people and good for the whole world. It denies the possibilities of emergence and development of alternative forms of democracy or government in different contexts. There is never a want of alternative theories or experiments (Beetham, 1992; Chomsky, 2013). For another, it is methodologically Internet-centric and decontextualises the effect of the Internet from the time and the space it happens (Morozov, 2011). From an historical perspective, democratisation is a long evolutionary process in which preconditions – though different in different societies – emerge and develop to a turning point where a democracy is finally established. A democracy is unstable or the rule of people cannot be guaranteed when certain conditions are absent or immature. The examination of the role that the Internet plays in democratisation in China is far from sufficient to answer the question of whether China is going to be democratised in the sense that democratisation is a complicated process that requires a variety of favourable conditions to be successful. The existence of advanced and uncensored media is just one of those. Any technology on its own, including communication technology, is not a necessary, nor a sufficient, condition for democracy.

Different technologies can be used as tools or vehicles. Given the right circumstances, they may amplify and facilitate positive causes as well as negative ones. Accordingly, the Internet, as a technology, is not in and of itself a cause, but a medium for social and political change (Jiang & Xu, 2009). Therefore, the author argues it is more advisable to ask how the Internet is used and what that indicates in the context of China, instead of asking whether or not it will democratise China.

Efforts have been made to explore the democratic potential of the Internet and a notable amount of literature has been produced. Some believe that the Internet does not automatically bring about democracy and the realisation of its political potential depends on various factors including the polity, government control, economic development, etc. (Hughes, 2002; Kalathil, 2003; Abbott, 2001). Moreover, they argue that the Internet has not been making dramatic political changes, at least in the short term. According to them, three factors contribute to the maintenance of the status quo.

The first is the control of the party-state. It has done, and is doing, much more than censorship to secure its control over the new medium and its users. China operates the most extensive, technologically sophisticated, and broad-reaching system of thought control which is a combination of censorship, agenda-setting, severe punishment by law and personnel regulations of the units (the state or collective employers at different levels), the control of important resources, the education system, rituals and regular social gatherings. As King, Pan and Roberts (2013) put it, ‘the size and sophistication of the Chinese government’s program to selectively censor the expressed views of the Chinese people is unprecedented in recorded world history’ (p.326). Proving unsuccessful in fostering communist belief, this system is greatly successful in making people believe in nothing but material pursuit, generating nationalism and xenophobia and preventing critical thinking and discussion on alternative social or political systems.

In his study, Hughes (2002) pointed out that ‘the political and cultural contexts’ and ‘the nature of the technology itself’ are equally important in determining the impact of ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies). Taking China as a case study, he argued that the impact of the globalisation of ICTs tended to favour regimes rather than their people. According to him, the globalisation of ICTs inclines to ‘reflect attempts to manipulate architecture and the collection and processing of data for the causes of strengthening the legitimacy and security of regimes, rather than the promotion of liberal democratic transformation’ (Hughes, 2002, p.221).

Kalathil (2003) studied the substantial impact of domestic and foreign Internet companies on business sectors and the political environment in China. Due to the fact that the state still controls ‘the fortunes of all those working in the Internet sector’, the changes Internet companies have been trying to make ‘appear to be taking place within an overall framework for media sector development set out by the central government’ (p.489). Benney (2014) observes that to seek maximised profits, ISPs (Internet Service Providers) in China choose to collaborate, not just comply, with the government. Not only do they control the flow of information as required by the government, they also choose to develop their products and services in a way that ‘maximises the cacophonous spectacle of entertainment and minimises reasoned discussion and debate’ in term of ‘design, organization, styles of language’ (Benney, 2014, pp.169-170). Thus ‘the risk of activism, controversial use, and network formation’ can be reduced (p.169). Those that choose not to comply, like Google, are driven out of the market. Such collaboration between Internet companies and the government is not unique to China. Twitter and Facebook are both ‘friends with the U.S. State Department’ and Twitter complied with the U.S. State Department to reschedule its maintenance during the 2009 protests in Iran (Morozov, 2011). Therefore, it is unfounded to expect that ‘their actions – or even their mere presence – will quickly lead to a more liberal political environment’ (Kalathil, 2003, p.499).

In addition, Internet users are hesitant to promote radical changes. Although a variety of different groups of Chinese Internet users can be identified, they share some common characteristics. The average user is young (84.4% under forty), and highly educated (more than 66.1% have a senior high school degree or higher qualification and many of those with lower degrees are students), belongs to the new urban middle class (Damm, 2007) or their children, and has benefited more than any other segment of the Chinese population from the economic, and to some extent, political reforms of the late 1990s and the new millennium. There would need to be a much more profound and acute offline crisis for this group of people to find it worth risking the online and offline freedoms they have gained in exchange for the very uncertain gamble that they might be able to gain even more (MacKinnon, 2008). Abbott (2001) argued that the political potential of the Internet to provide a new medium for dissent and opposition was offset by the existence of a marked ‘digital divide’ and ‘growing commercialization’. Lastly, Chinese traditional culture which has been chosen and shaped by the ruling class to cultivate loyal subjects instead of liberal citizens has lasted for thousands of years and is deeply rooted in Chinese society to pattern people’s thoughts and behaviour. A long history of an authoritarian regime leaves no breeding ground for even the philosophy of democracy to grow. People in such a regime would not know the alternative to tyranny even given the right to choose.

In general, there are some scholars who acknowledge the potential, or the impact, of the Internet based on its features, while they argue simultaneously that the realisation of the potential of the Internet, or the direction of the impact, is dependent on the context in which the Internet is embedded. With regards to the situation in China, they draw a negative conclusion about the democratising power of the Internet. Morozov (2011) even argues that the Internet ‘often strengthened rather than undermined the authoritarian rule’ (p.14).

At the same time, there are some other scholars (eg. Taubman, 1998; Zheng, 2005; Benkler, 2006; Yang, 2006; Yang, 2009) who believe that the Internet is promoting democracy, or democratising China despite the efforts of the government to control it. They attribute the realisation of the Internet’s democratic potential to its technological characteristics, its rapid development and its interplay with the democratic changes that have been emerging and developing in China. Benkler (2006) observes that

‘the basic technologies of information processing, storage, and communication have made nonproprietary models more attractive and effective than was ever before possible. Ubiquitous low-cost processors, storage media, and networked connectivity have made it practically feasible for individuals, alone and in cooperation with others, to create and exchange information, knowledge, and culture in patterns of social reciprocity, redistribution, and sharing, rather than proprietary, market-based production. The basic material capital requirements of information production are now in the hands of a billion people around the globe who are connected to each other more or less seamlessly. These material conditions have given individuals a new practical freedom of action’ (p.480).

Taubman (1998) argued that a number of key features of the Internet, including ‘the scope of and ease in obtaining information on the web, the communication capabilities available to users, and the decentralized nature’ (p.256), could undermine the regimes of undemocratic societies. Regimes like the CPC (the Communist Party of China) have gone to great lengths in order to keep the ‘negative consequences’ of the Internet under control, the Internet nonetheless tends to diminish their control over the ‘ideational and organizational character of domestic affairs’. Similarly, Hachigian (2001) believed in the power of the Internet to shift the ‘control over information’ from the state to the citizens. She argued that the Internet provided a space of free communication, though limited, despite the CPC’s regulations to ‘limit network content and use’. She furthermore asserted that ‘if a future economic or political crisis spurs a challenge to party rule, this shift in information control may decide the outcome’ (Hachigian, 2001, pp.129-133).

Yang (2009) believed that civic activity offline and online would, in due course, bring about China’s long revolution. Zheng (2005) also pointed out in his study, that democratisation might be possible as a result of the continuous effects of the Internet with the expansion of Internet use and development, because the Internet has promoted incremental political liberalisation. Seemingly, in examining the practice and impact of e-government in China, Zhang (2002) made an assumption that e-government had the possibility to accelerate the process of ‘peaceful evolution’ because it would, in the long run, inevitably lead to a breakthrough in the political system and in ways of thinking and behaving.

Yang (2006) concluded in his study of the Internet and civil society in China that the two energised each other. He argued that the co-evolutionary process of the Internet and civil society in China made political control more difficult as the government would face the joint challenge of technological and social forces. This ‘may have long-term consequences for democratic struggle in China’ (Yang, 2006, p.314). Although MacKinnon (2007) admitted that the Chinese government has ‘largely been successful in preventing a democracy infestation, especially in the short term’ (p.44), she also said that the answer could well be ‘yes’ to the question, if this new generation who have grown up using blogs and other forms of online participatory media will be much more ready for reasoned self-governance than the current generation. In general, these scholars agree that the Internet may democratise China, but it is an evolutionary process.

Whatever arguments they hold or what conclusions they arrive at, English language literature on the influence of the Internet in China demonstrates a strong interest in government control, and censorship in particular (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). This overemphasises the power of the regime and leaves the role played by society and common individuals much less-thoroughly studied. It should be acknowledged that individuals also play an important role in shaping the development of the Internet in China. Moreover, the transition of people to being literate, educated, informed, critical-minded and connected citizens is a key factor contributing to the emergence, consolidation and growth of democracy. The influence of the Internet on individual users is not universal. It depends largely on the pattern of how an individual uses the Internet. Moreover, with the dramatic increase in the number of Internet users in China, the Internet users are now much more representative of the whole population. The change may shift the conclusions resulting from previous research on Chinese Internet users. Studying the political impact of the Internet in terms of its users, thus, serves to construct a fuller picture of what the Internet has been doing in China.

Another important gap in the existing literature in the study of Internet use is the lack of proper methods. Internet use is simplified by measuring access to the Internet or recorded online hours, which overlooks the details and differences of Internet use of individuals. Consequently this leads to unreliable results when the correlation of Internet use and other variables is studied.

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