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

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1.5 The structure of the thesis

The thesis consists of seven chapters with the Introduction constituting Chapter 1. The second chapter of the thesis forms the literature review which provides both a historical and theoretical overview of the major works relevant to this thesis and contextualises the research topic. Chapter 2 is composed of four sections. The first section theoretically reflects on the important contributing elements in the democratisation process including citizens of a democracy, an open and accountable political culture, free markets with varying degrees of internal regulation, economic growth, civil society, the public sphere, political participation, and political efficacy. With the theoretical framework provided in the first section, the second section explores China’s political tradition and the role that historical factors have in shaping contemporary political culture. The third section examines debates about the transition process in contemporary China since 1978. The final section of the chapter details the literature concerning the development and impact that the Internet has had on China.

Chapter 3 presents the overall epistemological approach and research design of the thesis along with a justification of the research methods and tools. It consists of four sections. The chapter commences with a presentation of the overall epistemological approach and research design. As an exploratory effort to interpret the influence of the Internet in the transition process in China from university students’ understanding of their Internet use, the research takes a grounded theory approach informed by realism ontologically and constructivism epistemologically. University students are chosen as the population, because they are a key part of China's future, in the midst of an important period of growth that will impact the rest of their lives, and more technologically savvy. University students have played a leading role in protests and social movements in the history of modern China. Data are collected by concrete techniques of sampling, six in-depth interviews, one focus group, online search and analysis of reported websites and web content, digital auto-ethnography, and literature review. Finally, data analysis goes through four phrases of coding, namely open coding, focused coding, axial coding, and theoretical coding as required by the grounded theory approach and NVivo 10 is used for analysis.

Chapters 4 and 5 present the substantive findings of the study including details of the participants’ use of the Internet and their understandings of five relevant issues. Of significance here is a detailed theoretical framing of the research and the categories of ‘Internet use’. Chapter 4 explores the lifeworld of the participants’ Internet use and examines previous debates about the impact of certain Internet applications. It commences with a general description of their Internet use habits and online activities and follows with a detailed demonstration of participants’ every online activity. In each section, the researcher briefly introduces the Internet application in China, reviews previous literature on the impact of the Internet application, and reflects on how the findings of the study contribute to a better understanding of the research topic. Rich data paint a vivid picture of participants’ online lifeworld. Their articulations and perceptions provide detailed and nuanced empirical evidence to better understand conclusions and assumptions of previous research and also throw light on new ways to understand the role of the Internet in the process of democratisation in China.

Chapter 5 focuses on how the participants articulate and perceive their online experience. It is composed of five sections each of which looks into a specific issue. The first section presents findings about the participants’ belief in how the Internet influences China, how they can have influence through the Internet, and how they are influenced. The study finds that only two participants who used tools to climb over the Great Firewall believed the power of the Internet in politics while most of the participants seldom thought about and never thought deeply about the topic. The participants believed that online public opinions and concerns, opinion leaders, and media exposure had a positive influence on social issues and governmental decision-making, while extreme comments did not have influence. However, they also believed that the influence was limited and did not have a profound influence on the political system, the people, or the Chinese culture due to government control, the disengaged public, the limited resources a small number of pioneers had, and the social environment. Two participants who shared social and political information and comments with intent to make a difference believed that they had a little influence through the Internet, while three others held disbelief in their influence. The participants believed that the Internet had a series of positive influences on their views, attitudes and behaviour including broadening their view, improving their networking abilities and so on.

Section two demonstrates that although most participants held a sceptical attitude toward user-generated content, they also believed that online comments were valuable and helped them to clarify their own thoughts and to see from different perspectives. Section three displays that the participants did not think that the social or political issues or problems exposed online affected their life, work, self-development, interests, or material gains. Section four shows that the participants did not think that Internet censorship was a major reason affecting their choice of reading online political content, but the influence of Internet censorship on online deliberation is evident. Their attitudes toward censorship are different: negative, neutral, complex, or unconcerned. The last section presents findings about the participants’ attitude toward government corruption. Two participants thought that government corruption was severe in China.

Chapter 6 provides the analysis and in doing so offers a nuanced interpretation of Internet use by the cohort of students. The chapter illustrates the complex nature of online activity by university students and the implications for political engagement and participation within this context. Chapter 6 consists of five sections. Political disengagement has been found common among the participants. This is not a new finding. The study just provides new individualised empirical evidence for the old conclusion that the Internet means play, not work or politics for the vast majority of Chinese (Marolt & Herold, 2014, p.24). It is innovative in two ways. Firstly, it contributes to a better understanding of the causes of online political disengagement from the perspective of university students. The causes include censorship, disbelief in relevance of social problems, belief in a shock therapy, and lack of civic organisations and activities. The participants did not see or think that the social problems or issues exposed online affected their life or development and thus were not motivated enough to care or make efforts to make a difference. The participants were also found to believe democratisation as a revolutionary overturn from the current system to a democratic government and comprehensive dismantling of the institutions of Communist Party rule. Therefore, they did not think they had a role to play or were willing to play a role in that picture in which the process is quite undesirable and the result uncertain and risky. In addition, there was a lack of organisations and activities actively approaching university students and providing channels or ways easily accessible for the university students to involve themselves in politics. Secondly, a close look at who communicates with the participants online and the participants’ understanding of how they are influenced by content from or about different cultures provides news angles from which to interpret the social and political implications of political disengagement and mass entertainment online. The participants’ greater exposure to the Internet, especially to various communicators other than the party-state online, than to the traditional media breaks the party-state’s hegemony over the distribution of information and ideologies through which a pro-authoritarianism political culture is cultivated and secured. Moreover, the author argues that participants’ Internet use creates conditions of ideational pluralism for them. However, whether entertainment is a way of control or a way to liberate is still debatable.

Section two reflects on how the participants thought that they were influenced by their Internet use within the theoretical framework of political efficacy and democratic citizenship. Firstly, the participants believed that they were better-equipped with sources and skills to be a better-informed citizen by the Internet. Secondly, one participant proposed that online exposure to conflicting views and alternative ideas fostered his tolerance of diversity and conflicts among different groups. Thirdly, using online stranger platforms (for definition, see Chapter 3, 3.6.2, category 28, Between acquaintances and strangers) for politics seems to increase participants’ internal political efficacy. Finally, viewing, sharing, and deliberation of social issues, exposure to sensitive topics and restricted on-and-off-line sharing and deliberation of sensitive topics, increases the participants external political efficacy, which in turn, encourages their participation online.

Section three challenges the assumption that a liberalised Internet will inevitably bring liberal democracy to an authoritarian regime by examining the participants’ experience and understanding of climbing over the Great Firewall. It is found that in a liberalised Internet a user does not necessarily acquire knowledge or information that substantially changes his/her views about a political system. It is also found that a liberalised Internet does not necessarily make a user more politically active than a controlled Internet does. Lack of motivation is the major reason that stops the participants from stepping onto the liberalised Internet instead of censorship. However, it is important to note that accessing the liberalised Internet through climbing over the Great Firewall is different from daily use of a liberalised Internet.

Section four demonstrates that civic talk went within and beyond the Internet despite censorship. Moreover, associations at civic or political level are found uncommon among the studied participants while associations at private level are extremely common. A number of Internet applications like online forums, communities, QQ groups and so on, are utilised to bring together people who share an interest. In online communities, forums, or groups, Internet users communicate, exchange information, and arrange activities for the benefits of their members, which casts an influence on the real world. Moreover, Internet users also use the Internet to organise activities and groups to serve their own purposes. This trend of Internet use, the author argues, marks a rise of civil society online.

Chapter 7 summarises the overall findings, highlights the contributions, identifies the scope and limitations of the research and looks into various possibilities for further research. The research collected qualitative data that provided rich details about individuals’ Internet use and their understandings through six in-depth interviews, one focus group, search and analysis of web content, and auto-ethnography. Moreover, the grounded theory approach helps to generate new understandings and ideas that provide imaginative explanations of the topic studied. As qualitative research relying mainly on self-reports of the participants, it is impossible to generalise the findings and conclusion to the population and the author must be cautious not to assume that what the participants reported is what they really did or thought, but what they tried to construct with the researcher and the group members. The research provokes more interesting questions than it solved. For example, how popular are the findings of the research among the population, or other groups of Internet users? What is the difference between what the participants reported and what they really did and why? To name but a few.

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