China's Netizens Seek Political Community, Not Just Games

The Internet Is the Crucible of Contemporary Chinese Pop Culture, Says Kaiser Kuo in a Speech at the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues

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LINCOLN, Nebraska ( -- Both an ancient civilization and a rising power, China presents some of the most complex questions facing the world today, a dichotomy addressed by an ongoing lecture series organized by the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues.

The forum in Lincoln, NE, a cooperative project of the Cooper Foundation, The Lied Center for Performing Arts and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has invited a series of experts to address China's rise and its impact on U.S. foreign and economic policy.

Kaiser Kuo, spoke there last month about the role of the internet in China, home to 338 million web users and more than 700 million mobile phone subscribers, and the internet's impact on Sino-American relations.

"Tibet, the Olympic Torch Run, the Olympics...the year 2008 offered unprecedented opportunities for Chinese and Anglophone internet users to communicate. They were standing nose to virtual nose, but they were not, by any means, seeing eye-to-eye," Mr. Kuo said.

Born in the U. S. to Chinese parents, Mr. Kuo lives in Beijing and identifies himself as both American and Chinese. He currently serves as an adviser for the online video-sharing site Before that, he was director of digital strategy for Ogilvy & Mather, Beijing, and has worked as a technology and business writer for publications such as Time, China Economic Review, Asia Inc., Red Herring and the South China Morning Post. He also co-founded the Chinese rock band, Tang Dynasty.

Below is an excerpt from his speech, "Shouting Across the Chasm: Chinese and American Netizens Clash in Cyberspace," about the role of the internet in China.
At first blush, it's fair to say that there's an awful lot of behavioral overlap (between internet users in China and the U.S.), especially when you look at younger American or other Anglophone internet users.

Chinese netizens may use instant messaging more, and use e-mail much less, than their Anglophone counterparts. Chinese tend to congregate online on BBSs, or bulletin-board systems, which are regarded as rather passé among Americans.

Kaiser Kuo
Kaiser Kuo
But in other respects?

The Chinese have their social networks, their internet video sites, their blogs, their microblog sites not too different from Twitter, and of course their online games—none of which perhaps are too radically different from what we know in the U.S.

And of course China has its own universe of oddball characters enjoying ephemeral celebrity or notoriety, an ever-growing lexicon of internet slang that finds its way quickly into popular usage, and of course the memes: Those discrete cultural units that capture China's zeitgeist for a week or a month, and which occasionally draw the amused attention of the western media.

Sometimes, the way a meme will spread with particular virulence says something really meaningful about society or the Chinese polity. Taken together, these things are all part of China's internet landscape, and silly as some of them may seem, are elements in the internet culture.

Internet is China's entertainment superhighway
Over the last decade, the internet has really pushed aside most other media to become the real crucible of contemporary Chinese popular culture. It's now the place where new music is popularized. It's where new language is born, even where many of the writers who matter are cutting their teeth.

It was once commonplace for people to talk about the Chinese internet as "more entertainment superhighway than information superhighway." I've used the phrase dozens of times, and to an extent this does remain true.

From not long after its introduction into China in the late 1990s, it offered one of the best values in entertainment, after all. Internet access in China is very affordable, and even if you don't have a PC and an internet connection at home, in China you're never far from an internet cafe, where you can use a PC for 30 or 40 cents an hour.

The internet, moreover, has always offered content that's frankly a whole lot more compelling than the fare you get with state-run media. The online games, the shows and the movies you can stream or download, the social engagement possible with friends and even with strangers -- it's practically irresistible, and it's no wonder that for young Chinese people, the internet is such a critical part of life.

But thinking of the internet in China in terms primarily of entertainment, of greasy kid's stuff, draws our attention away from its more serious side, that is, its role as the de facto "public sphere," where surprisingly critical viewpoints are increasingly being heard.

The internet in China takes on a lot more political and social significance because, prior to the boom in internet use over the last decade, China simply never had anything approximating a public sphere. There was, in other words, no lasting place, whether physical or virtual, ad hoc or institutional, where Chinese citizens could go to air their views, exchange ideas in public, to sound off and be heard.

There's an English word that many people use nowadays in place of "internet user." That's the word "netizen." It's not the most elegant of neologisms, I'll grant, and I understand why it's reviled by many language purists.

But the Chinese word for it, wangmin, translates perfectly as "netizen," and I think there's a good reason why the word is in such wide use in China. It really captures the implicit sense of "citizenship," with all its political implications, in the word as used both in Chinese and in English. The sense, among many Chinese internet users, of belonging to a kind of polity, a political community, has become one more salient feature of China's internet culture.

Foreigners focus on censorship
Popular media outside of China have tended to focus, in coverage of the Chinese internet, on the issue of censorship.

Again, I want to emphasize that I don't think that this interest in censorship is either surprising, or necessarily misplaced: As the frontline practitioners of important freedoms, reporters and their editors are naturally concerned with curbs on those freedoms. This emphasis in reporting has reinforced an impression that China's internet culture has languished under the heavy hand of a censorious regime, and this preconception really blinkers us to some of the complexities of the Chinese Web.

It's gotten to the point where the "Great Firewall of China" has become a kind of "Iron Curtain 2.0," the symbolic dividing line between a free West and an autocratic East, as one academic looking at Chinese internet censorship, Lokman Tsui, has observed. In the minds of many westerners, China and its notorious internet controls are so closely associated that they're practically inseparable.

The Chinese internet is censored, and that fact shouldn't be dismissed lightly or ignored. Numerous popular internet services remain blocked in China: as of this moment, that includes Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, and many, many blogs. The Great Firewall makes necessary bothersome and often very slow routing around, through proxies and VPNs, and with domestic Chinese websites required to maintain vigilance against pornographic and politically sensitive content.

Fear of social instability
Whether we agree with them or not, Chinese authorities have their reasons for wanting to control content on the internet; they boil down to the belief that unfettered access to information leads to social instability.

The idea that freeing up expression would result in anarchic chaos probably strikes most of us as preposterous, but it's an argument that makes implicit sense to many Chinese elites, who believe that China's fundamental level of sophistication remains very low, and that "the masses" are easily whipped up into a frenzy by rumor.

It's an article of basic faith with not only the Chinese Communist Party but with most Chinese that social stability is a basic prerequisite for economic development. Living with censorship, then, is the people's end of a tacit social contract.

Chinese netizens are, however, increasingly aware of the power they wield, and more and more, they balk at being muzzled. Witness the outrage online when earlier this year Beijing pushed to have mandatory internet filtering software bundled with every new PC sold in the PRC—the so-called "Green Dam."

Don't think for a minute that Beijing backed down because of pressure from the American politicians and business leaders who voiced their objections. No, it was the outcry online that got that half-baked initiative shelved—at least for the time being.

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