Is the Internet the Bedrock of Civil Society in China?

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In China, the importance of the internet exceeds even that which we attach to it in the rest of the world. It has become the only available public space where everyone's dreams, ambitions and fantasies lie. To see the extent of the internet's omnipresence, it suffices to take notice of some recent debates in the Chinese and international press.

The revelations by Google and other corporations of highly sophisticated cyber spying attacks against them have pointed the spotlight on the more than dubious methods possibly being employed by the Chinese state to maximise her political and industrial advantages. However this is not the essential point and furthermore, the participation of the Chinese state has yet to be proved. What is clear for all to see is the proliferation of Chinese hackers; their sophistication, their active cooperation and their ability to share the work in order to reach their pre-designated target. Some of these networks could be linked to prestigious universities and others could merely be random cells. What's for sure is that there is an alliance between a highly lucrative new market and the coming of a generation who have grown up in, and been raised by, the internet. This generation is caught inside this web, with no other professional or personal way out other than by marauding at the web's boundaries. In other words, the proliferation of Chinese hackers is a manifestation of what we could call the 'desocialisation' of China - the impoverishment of their traditional social networks and their reconstruction on fraudulent and clandestine foundations.

On that note, I was recently witness to a very typical case. In Shanxi province entrepreneurs have formed well-protected hoax networks on the internet (e.g. the selling of nonexistent wares). To 'bait' the naive clients, they recruit youths from the most underprivileged provinces. Then, following brainwashing and training in the techniques of baiting they spend their days and nights glued to the screen in search of their prey. They are paid nothing, instead being deluded by promises of riches to come; a type of enslavement. One of them has recently managed to escape from the network, but since his name has been compromised as one of the participants in the fraudulence, he dares not expose the group.

Another worrying trait of the internet's proliferation is the 'hunt for human flesh' as it's known in Chinese (人肉搜索). The revealing of real or imaginary abuses has become a national sport. For example someone shows a video of another who had tortured an animal or committed an act that goes against public civility. The netizens get asked to help identify this person. As soon as his name gets out, the accusations multiply and, almost automatically the person is laid off and most of the time forced to move to a different town. This type of 'mobbing' of which we have seen examples in Korea, can be considered as the collective letting off steam or even a new game of pirates.

These points are important in understanding that the internet is not only an instrument for the 'liberation' of China, as some have dreamt. It's also a milieu for dependency, exploitation and persecution. This should not obscure the great role it plays in the formation of civil society in China. Opinions can be expressed, exchanged, discussed; and news can travel more freely than by any other method. Scandals committed by party cadres were denounced fairly and successfully, and the netizens consistently managed to make the government fall back. The censorship of most 'social networking' sites and Youtube videos means nothing; the Chinese just 'jump the wall', using proxies to view banned sites and learning how to decrypt all the latest news. The netizens are showing themselves to be more and more sophisticated in their employment of this unique source of information and opinions.

A real showdown has begun between the government and people. The authorities want to install pirate software on all new computers; they now prohibit the registering of sites by a person not acting on behalf of an organisation; and they are employing an army of mercenaries to intervene in the forums. For the moment however, these manoeuvres still fail to bring full ideological control over the population as the number, ingenuity and determination of netizens grows by the day. The Chinese middle class have found in the internet what the rising classes of past Europe used to find in cafes, newspapers and pamphlets: an irreplaceable instrument for education and democratisation.

The internet contributes greatly in making the Chinese middle classes conscious of their identity and power. It remains to be seen with which values the middle classes will shape and determine the internet: if it's the spirit of resentment, egotism and greed that prevails, then the internet will never be a  force for true civility. It's up to the social, religious and cultural organisations to make the internet the vehicle of a China which can debate peacefully with herself and the world.

Translated from French by N. Coulson

(Photo copyright of eRenlai)

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34
Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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