The debate on whether the Internet fosters civil society in China has been on for 15 years, since China joined the Internet. An article released by the Xinhua news agency, apparently to mark these 15 years, says that it does, and that this is good. What is striking is how closely the language of the article (praising “individuality” and “subjectivity” as well as “civil society”) resembles that of social sciences/cultural studies analysis of how the ideal, modern citizen of China is now imagined in China’s public discourse. In other words, it’s pretty explicit.
The article says that China now has 338 million Internet users, more than any other country in the world. It quotes the chairman of the board (理事长) of the China Internet Association as saying that the Internet has “aided the development of Chinese people’s individual identity and identity as citizens” (个人意识和公民意识). The article then quotes a 26-year-old female “netizen” from Chongqing as saying that the Internet has taught her “independent reflection, looking up different opinions and forming my own judgement).
The article describes Tianya as “China’s largest people’s-life forum” (民生论坛), a term that is both positive and official-sounding, as it is part of the orthodox language of politics that goes back to Sun Yat-sen. The 25-year-old editor of Tianya’s most popular forum, 杂谈, who goes by the nickname Xiao Dang (小党 Little Party), is quoted as saying that Tianya has strengthened people’s sense of social responsibility. He added: “For us, expression is seen as a right and a duty” (表达被视为一种权利和责任). Xiao Dang opposes “irresponsible” comments on the Net, however.
A senior analyst at the China Internet Information Centre, Chen Jiangong, is quoted as saying that “the rise of a sense of subjectivity 主体意识 is favourable for the establishment of civil society,” while a former vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who signed the agreement on China’s joining the Internet praises it for helping “the individuality of Chinese people mature”.