Posted by: Third Tone Devil | 9 November 2007

Historicizing Online Politics: Zhou Yongming’s book

I just received Zhou Yongming’s Historicizing Online Politics: Telegraphy, the Internet, and Political Participation in China (Stanford University Press, 2006). Zhou appears to be an anthropologist, but his boom is divided into two parts, examining state control and nonstate mobilization after the introduction of the telegraph to China in the late Qing Dynasty and after the introduction of the Internet in the 1990s.

Apart from this ingenious parallel, Zhou’s book seems groundbreaking in that the Internet part is based partly on ethnography. Although in the past there have been studies of Internet use in China (notably Karsten Giese’s) that included extensive observation, those were not ethnographic in the sense that we did not get an idea of, say, Internet cafe owners’ or users’ offline strategies. Because Zhou did talk to cybercafe managers, he is able to point out how haphazard the enforcement of cybercafe registration regulations (which require four separate registration procedures) actually is; one cafe in Peking he describes (p. 140) reopened a week after the closure by placing some gifts in strategic official places. Indeed, Zhou argues that the actual laxity of rules enforcement on the ground suggests that local governments (as in other areas of policy) prioritize revenues over “national security. In contrast, content regulations such as the one that says only national and provincial-level news organizations are allowed to post news on their sites have a much greater impact.

The Strengthening-China Forum (Qiangguo Luntan) of People’s Daily Online has been written about much in the context of Internet nationalism, but Zhou actually visited, interviewed and observed its managers and webmasters in action. This allowed him to conclude that the establishment of the site was, for its founders, more commercially than politically motivated. The “chief architect” of the site, Jiang Yaping, told him that PD had wanted for a long time to create a successful online forum, but was waiting for a topic that could arouse enough interest. The 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade provided the opportunity. “I want to thank the Americans for doing us such a huge favor!” – Jiang told Zhou (p. 149). In other words, Jiang may have been interested in commercial success, but he saw nationalism as a safe bet to achieve it.

Zhou also describes the methods of control, which changed a number of times. At first, posts were monitored (and deleted of necessary) subsequently; later, the posts were read by moderators before appearing on the site. Zhou observed what posts were deleted: those, for example, that used the names of Chinese political leaders or Li Hongzhi, leader of the Falungong, as aliases, were immediately removed regardless of content.

Zhou then moves on to what he calls “intellectual websites” and offers a few interesting case studies. He categorizes them into those oriented towards “liberal,” “new Left,” “Confucian” and “nationalist” intellectuals, stressing the diversity of the intellectual landscape and the ambiguous nature of mutual accommodation between the intellectuals and the controlling state. Zhou does not, however,  address the disparity of state treatment of nationalistic and liberal sites. The founder of one “liberal” site, Liberalism Review (unfortunately,Zhou does not provide Chinese name, URL or date)  was summoned to the Public Security Bureau and interrogated about contacts with overseas dissident organizations. After assuring the PSB that there were none, he was let go and the site remained (p. 265, note 33). By contrast, a group of nationalist intellectuals, including an author of China Can Say No, was subjected to no harassment after they founded the site Formalization of Ideas (annoyingly, again no Chinese title or URL), although they argued against China’s joining the WTO just as the government was finalising the talks on joining. Members of the group went on to occupy important positions: Li Xiguang became Dean of the School of Journalism at Tsinghua and Fang Ning the Director of the Institute of Political Science of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The promotion of their anti-WTO book was initially suppressed, but eventually the book sold 100,000 copies. 

Zhou, as an anthropologist, criticizes the view that attributes the rise of Chinese nationalism to external factors — either manipulation by the Chinese governnment or reactions to the West — alone and points out that Chinese nationalists think their own thoughts, and we need to take their agency seriously. He is right, but this does not answer the question why nationalism appears to be so much more widespread on the Chinese Internet than, say, liberal universalism. Although Zhou stresses the diversity of opinions on the websites and attempts to portray his protagonists as equally conscious of the constraints they operate in, his book actually demonstrates the very unequal power dynamics and state treatment that applies to liberal and nationalist websites. Zhou is not interested in focusing on this institutional context, perhaps because others have attempted to do so. Nonetheless, his book is weakened by the lack of exploration into the offline motivations and wider webs of (for example, academic) power that website operators and posters are enmeshed in. 

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