ARTICLE | Internet and the Transformation of China’s Political Culture

By Jian Xu

This is a follow-up paper for the 2016 SDN Encounter with Yu Keping.

In 1987, China’s first email titled “Crossing the Great Wall to Join the World” was sent out, marking the beginning of China’s Internet history. After two decades of development, China now has 688 million Internet users, more than double the entire population of the United States. China’s digital transformation is probably the most prominent feature of China’s modernisation and globalisation in the 21st century.

The rapid development of the Internet has promoted a participatory political culture among Chinese people. Though still tightly controlled and censored, the Internet is a relatively freer platform, which enables ordinary Chinese to air their discontents, form public sentiments, mobilise online or offline collective actions and, sometimes, successfully set agendas for the government to resolve controversial social problems.

Since the Sun Zhigang incident in 2003, in which the online outcry of netizens effectively added pressure on the government to abolish the custody and repatriation system, a year has seldom passed without what is popularly referred to as ‘Internet incidents’. Examples include the Wenzhou high-speed train crash and the ‘My Dad is Li Gang’ saga.  These Internet incidents have demonstrated that the micro-actions of ordinary people, such as posting, reposting, commenting and sharing, have great potential to generate large-scale communication networks and enormous discursive power online, to force the government to respond. The digitised political engagement, mainly through radical communicative actions in words and images and with few corresponding offline actions, has formed an ‘online spectatorship culture’ (wangluo weiguan wenhua 网络围观文化).

China’s literary giant Lu Xun probably first wrote about China’s weiguan phenomenon in his short novel Medicine. He criticised the ‘culture of gaze’ in Chinese society and took it as one of the deep-rooted weaknesses of the Chinese nation. He thought that if only the democratic revolution could enlighten and unite ordinary Chinese people and turn them from passive spectators into active participants, then the revolution would succeed. Lu Xun’s prediction about China’s revolution was not realised in the bourgeois democratic revolution; instead, it came true in the Chinese Communist revolution that followed, led by Mao Zedong. Mao made use of the Chinese people’s weiguan habit in everyday life and incorporated weiguan in a series of Communist political campaigns from the 1930s to the 1970s. The passive weiguan spectators were strategically organised and mobilised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and transformed into masses with revolutionary fervour. The mass criticism meetings in the Cultural Revolution are the most representative cases. In the post-Mao era, the ‘show-and-shame’ ritual was also widely used by the Party to maintain social and political stability, such as in a series of campaigns on criminal activities since the 1980s.

However, the ‘show-and-shame’ ritual wielded by the CCP to punish its political opponents and manifest its disciplinary power has been reinvented and reversed by disgruntled citizens aided by the Internet to fight official misconduct, corruption and human rights violations under the governance of CCP. The term weiguan has been redefined in cyberspace, transformed into a synonym and cultural metaphor of active political participation. Through active spectatorship online, ‘the few and powerful’ are put under the gaze of the mass spectators, forming what Jamei Cascio vividly called a ‘participatory panopticon’. This has changed the power balance between the Party-state and society. In China, where ordinary people’s free expression and political participation are restricted, official mechanisms for the ‘supervision’ of power sometimes do not work. Online weiguan has provided an affordable and achievable form of public participation and has created an alternative and popular ‘sousveillance’, or supervision from below.

In response to the rise of online weiguan culture, the CCP has shown strong resilience in governance in the digital era. This can be clearly seen since Xi Jinping took office in late 2012. Xi has brought back the Maoist political practice—the ‘mass line’ into the official discourse and has applied it to governance. The Internet is used as a virtual platform to practice ‘online mass line’ (wangluo qunzhong luxian 网络群众路线), through which the Party can better transmit its voice to the public, and hear the voices of people. ‘Internet thought’ (hulianwang siwei 互联网思维) has been repeatedly emphasised in the ‘mass line’ education campaign at the central and local levels. In the last three years, we have seen a series of crackdowns on China’s Internet, but in the meantime impressive are the Party’s innovative and strategic uses of the Internet in publicity work, conflict management and social governance.

After two decades of development, the Internet has become an institution with a logic of its own, a medium to which both state and non-state players have to adapt. It is used as a ‘loudspeaker’ by ordinary people, a tool with which they can weiguan and defend their rights (weiquan维权). At the same time, the Internet is treated as a ‘safety valve’ by the government, as a means through which the Party can better cope with crises and emergencies and maintain what Professor Yu Keping calls ‘dynamic stability’. The contestation, negotiation and interaction between the two Internet-enabled political cultures, both possessing participatory, deliberative and democratic ethos, but probably pursuing different political ends, have reformed and transformed China’s system of political communication.

It would be too optimistic to conclude that the Internet straightforwardly empowers Chinese society. At the same time, the Party’s tightening control and strategic use of the Internet doesn’t warrant pessimistic conclusions. It is important and urgent to examine the ways in which the diverse and ever-changing digitised political practices and cultures now rooted in China’s political rituals and cultures are shaped by the complicated interactions between the Internet, Party-state, market and society. Borrowing the title of Professor Yu Keping’s seminal book Democracy Is a Good Thing, I would say that the Internet is also a good thing, but whether the Internet can make a democratic China is both uncertain and unpredictable.