China is an authoritarian state exercising strict control and censorship. At the same time, the country is quickly adapting to the digital age, and today has the world’s highest number of internet users and the largest mobile market in absolute numbers. This puzzle sparked the interest of a group of researchers and led them to initiate the Digital China project.
The project – which started in 2013 – aims to explore the ways in which the internet has impacted on Chinese society: what is the internet used for, how are Chinese citizens adapting to a networked society controlled by the state, and what are the global implications?
In order to explore these issues, the project has focused, amongst other things, on charting the development of social media use – studying both the possibilities of voicing critical thought and opinion and on more mundane uses. Today 53.1 % of the population, around 731 million people, have access to the internet, and the figures are rapidly growing.
In 2013, the newly elected president and general secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, closed down a number of public accounts on the social platform Sina Weibo (similar to Twitter) that had been used by political activists and human rights bloggers – many of whom were prosecuted and accused of spreading rumours. This led them and many other Chinese people to start using a more private platform called WeChat, similar to and in many ways better with more functions than Facebook.
“We found that the majority of Chinese do not use social media for political activism – especially not after the crackdown by Xi Jinping. Instead we could see that social media was used mainly for private purposes, like entertainment, purchases and connecting with friends”, says Marina Svensson, Director of the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, who is the project manager.
“We found that the majority of Chinese do not use social media for political activism.”
Another observation was that the Chinese use the internet for almost all of their interactions – private, social and work-related, and that this behaviour is largely driven by internationally renowned Chinese tech companies that push e-commerce and technological solutions. Most purchases are made online; doctors, restaurants, taxis and cinema tickets are booked via the internet, and virtual conversations are held with friends and relatives. The internet has permeated society to such an extent, the research group notes, that it is becoming almost impossible among certain communities to navigate relationships or daily life without a WeChat account.
They also found that, in some cases, the internet has changed ways of practising traditional Chinese customs. It is now common to send money via WeChat to relatives for the Chinese New Year, and cemeteries offer grave-sweeping on April 4th that is then live-streamed on WeChat for people who cannot do it themselves.
“The situation in China seems to suggest that a society can have an innovative, developed and advanced technological sector while at the same time exercising strict censoring laws”, says Marina Svensson.
According to her, this way of using the internet is at odds with how many people in the West feel the internet should be used – as a space for public debate and political activism. She highlights that people often tend to politicise the internet, when in fact it is not an inherently democratic medium.
Yet, the use of the internet as a free, democratic space might also be on the wane in the West, she notes, especially after the revelations of whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden which showed that the National Security Agency was collecting information about American citizens, and the recent involvement of Russia in the U.S. elections. Many online companies regularly collect data about their users which is then used by other companies for advertising purposes.
“A free, unfettered internet seems to be more elusive here at home too. It seems as if the internet is becoming increasingly driven by market forces and political interests, just like in China”, she says.
She also notes that there is a very real possibility that other countries might start to demand sovereignty over the internet in their own nation states, as opposed to leading the way in a push for a free, uncensored and borderless internet.
“Other countries look at China and they see a state that is a major international player in the tech field, with companies such as Huawei, Lenovo and Alibaba producing mobile phones, computers and other technical products and pushing for e-commerce – while having full control over the information flow amongst its citizens.”
This could encourage other governments to take similar action and also demand control over the internet, she notes. Russia and China are today both advocating a segmentation of the internet into sovereign domains that enable individual states to exercise more control over both content and infrastructure.
Yet, even though China can be seen to be at the technological forefront, she highlights that there are downsides to the intense development – almost 50 % of the population still has no access to the internet, and those who are not connected are often poor, and live in undeveloped, rural areas. Chinese citizens do not have equal access to health care, career and work opportunities, green environment and infrastructure.
Marina Svensson thinks that it is the handling of these issues that will eventually determine whether the Chinese will ever rise up and rebel against the state’s strict censoring laws. If the society keeps on developing unevenly, environmental issues are not addressed, and/or the economy stagnates, and information about these issues is controlled, people might eventually feel pushed into politics, she notes. “If this happens, people might demand a more open and free internet in order to use it to get and share information, and organise public action and support for political change. But it is the issues which create the political environment for activism – not the medium itself.”
Text: Noomi Egan
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