The book China’s Contested Internet, edited by Associate Professor of Communication and Sociology Guobin Yang and just released this week, is a timely and important contribution to the ongoing debates about Internet governance, censorship, and online participation in China.
It addresses topics such as:
- Is there a pre-Weibo and post-Weibo era in Chinese Internet history?
- Are hackerspaces in China the same as in the West?
- How can the censorship of an Internet novel end up “producing” it?
- What are the multiple ways of being political online?
In his introduction to the volume, Yang highlights the new forms of Internet control in recent years as well as people’s practical, perceptual, and moral experiences with the new technologies, writing:
“There is a shared endeavor among the contributors to dissect the multilayered and complex dimensions of the Chinese Internet. These chapters exemplify an analytical orientation that I call ‘deep Internet studies.’”
Guobin Yang, Ph.D.
Yang will give a public lecture on October 13 at the University of Copenhagen to launch the book, which is published by the NIAS Press of the University of Copenhagen. We recently spoke with him about the book and the Chinese Internet more generally:
What was the genesis of the book?
Yang: As in many things, this volume has multiple origins. One key one was a graduate seminar on Chinese media and communication I taught two years ago. The students in the class and I explored in some detail the approach I called “deep Internet studies,” by which I mean studying not just Internet politics and activism, but also people’s everyday experiences online, including their entertainment and cultural activities. This approach guided me in selecting the contributions to this volume and in writing my introductory essay. So the students in my class contributed to the genesis of the book.
The title of the book uses the word “contested.” What do you mean by that?
Yang: It means the Internet has lost its age of innocence and is now a coliseum of struggle. The contestations are not just between government and citizens, but have become very complicated. They could be between businesses and citizens, or between citizens of different political camps such as the often polarized confrontations between liberal voices and passionate patriots.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is here in the United States this week. Have recent changes in China’s relationship with the U.S. impacted its online space?
Yang: News in the U.S. is picked up on Chinese social media as quickly as news in China is picked up here on Twitter. Important developments in the U.S. always have reverberations in Chinese online spaces. For example, the Edward Snowden effect in China is that it gave Chinese Internet policy makers a new way to talk about Internet governance. It partly explains the ascendance of the language of “Internet sovereignty” and “national security” in Chinese official discourse about the Internet.
The Chinese Internet is often described as rapidly changing. In what ways have you seen it change in recent years?
Yang: At one level, the change is mind-boggling. In 1998, the year when Google was incorporated, China had just about two million Internet users. Now it has about 668 million users, or half of its entire population, and 3.6 million websites. From the perspective of regular users, three developments are most notable in recent years.
One was the launching in 2009 of Sina Weibo, China’s foremost microblogging platform. Within a couple of years, Sina Weibo became the prime venue for online public communication. Another change was the launching of the mobile text and voice messaging service WeChat in 2011. WeChat quickly became a rival for Sina Weibo and may partly account for a decline in the popularity of Sina Weibo.
Of course, the decline of Sina Weibo is also due to the Chinese government’s new approach to managing the web introduced since 2013. A Chinese policy maker characterizes this new approach as the blending of hard power and gentle power, meaning not just the use of raw power and law for governing the Internet, but also the mobilization of ideology, patriotic education, industry self-discipline, and civil society. This new approach is partly responsible for an exodus from Sina Weibo to the more private platform WeChat.
We often read in mainstream Western media about how the Chinese government censors the Internet, but we read relatively little about how that impacts how the everyday Chinese person uses the web. What do you wish Westerners could better understand about the hundreds of millions of Chinese people online today?
Yang: Censorship is the elephant in the room, but we should not be blinded by the censorship elephant. The average Chinese Internet user is not very different from the average American Internet user. They both spend lots of time online shopping, browsing the news, listening to music, watching movies, chatting, texting, socializing. As in the U.S., there is a great deal of trolling as well as polarized political discussions. Chinese Internet life, so to speak, is part of regular Chinese life, with all its bad things and good things, in the same way that the American Internet life is part of regular American life.
Do you have any predictions for where the Chinese Internet is headed in the coming years?
Yang: The future can only be spoken of metaphorically, maybe in language borrowed from Dante: “Midway in its life’s journey, it finds itself astray in a dark wood.”
China’s Contested Internet can be ordered from Amazon here. It has chapters by Thomas Chen, Silvia Lindtner, Steven J. Balla, Ning Zhang, Robeson Taj Frazier and Lin Zhang, Marcella Szablewicz, Jesper Schlæger and Min Jiang, Marina Svensson, Jian Xu, and Sally Xiaojin Chen.
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