2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Session 134: Contextualizing Chinese Cyberspace: The Politics of the Internet through the Triangular Prism

Organizer: Youngming Zhou, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Chair and Discussant: Edward Friedman, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Keywords: internet, politics, China

This panel is designed to examine the internet in China from a broad context that encompasses historical and comparative perspectives. The panel members include scholars, observers and activists of Chinese cyberspace. While the development of the internet in China has spawned an ever increasing number of academic studies, upon closer inspection, it is clear that the focus of attention has been the Chinese government’s efforts to control the internet by blocking the free flow of information and suppressing political dissent online. But this panel will investigate whether the common academic approach to Chinese internet studies may be too narrow and problematic, because of its implicit assumption of the internet’s intrinsic democratizing function. One panelist points out the discrepancy between Western journalistic and scholastic descriptions of cyber "oppressions" of the Chinese government, and the actual feeling of Chinese internet users. The second panelist predicts that with the rapid development of technology, slow but steady liberalization on the Chinese side may bring further convergence in Chinese and Japanese styles of internet use. The third panelist tries to broaden the current discussion of the internet by taking a historical detour, providing a historical analysis of the role played by the circular telegraph in late Qing politics and demonstrating that technology could be used by different parties to achieve different goals. Combining theoretical enquires and concrete case studies, this panel hopes to shed some light on a broader and more contextualized discussion of the internet in China in the future.

Comparative Development of the Internet in China and Japan

Eric Harwit, University of Hawaii, Manoa

Though China and Japan are East Asian neighbors, the use of data networks differs in many important areas. This paper will examine the ways the two countries’ "netizens" have been shaped by political, economic, and cultural factors, and how the resultant user styles may evolve in the coming years.

The essay begins with a discussion of the factors shaping Internet growth in China. While official limits have put free web political discourse out of bounds, a lively arena exists for discussion of cultural, social, economic, and non-sensitive political issues that affect many aspects of Chinese life. The essay will explore these issues, as well as ways new technologies such as third generation (3G) mobile phone systems will affect future network use.

The paper then turns to Japan. The widespread use of mobile phones has been a key element in the past five years for channeling data network communication and content to fit the small screens of users accustomed to accessing the data network during long commuting hours. While Japanese user profiles thereby provide a contrast to China, the advent of 3G phone systems could lead to some convergence in the Chinese and Japanese modes of data network use, and the paper’s conclusion examines the trends the newest technology could bring to both nations. Slow but steady liberalization on the Chinese side may bring further convergence in Chinese and Japanese styles of Internet use.

Circular Telegraph and Online Politics in Late Qing China

Youngming Zhou, University of Wisconsin, Madison

This paper tries to examine the impact that the internet has had on Chinese politics by putting it in the context of the early development of information technology, namely the telegraph in the late 19th century. It focuses on its impact on Chinese politics from two angles: how Chinese society employed the telegraph to participate in politics and how the Qing court tried to regulate and control it. This paper intends to reveal considerable continuities and discontinuities between the history of telegraphy and the internet. It is not difficult to notice that both the Qing court and the current Chinese state have been keen to try to regulate and control telegraphy and the internet, with an emphasis on preventing the technology from becoming a threat to the government.

Employing a case study on circular telegraphs, this paper shows that with the appearance of modern newspapers, circular telegraphs made urgent political news and opinions publicly known to a large audience for the first time in Chinese history. Its capacity to speedily transfer information makes it more difficult for the government to control the dissemination of political information. With the rise of Chinese nationalism, and the dramatic transformation of Chinese society, the individual Chinese was able to employ this technology to expand political participation. By looking back at the online politics a century ago, this paper hopes to shed some light on the better understanding of the internet politics of contemporary China.

Can the Internet Improve Human Rights in China?

Bobson Wong

Many Western-based journalists and human rights organizations give the impression that Chinese Internet users are being stifled by increasing government censorship. According to this thinking, as the screws of official oppression tighten, Chinese users resort to various anti-censorship tools to access the banned material that they desperately want but cannot get in China.

But inside China, users tell a different story. A closer look at who uses the Internet in China reveals that most Chinese users do not feel that they are being "oppressed" by a government "crackdown." They are young students who are more concerned about chatting with their friends and playing games online than with advocating the overthrow of the Communist government. Not surprisingly, then, most users express little outrage when activists are arrested in China for using the Internet for "subversive" purposes.

This does not mean that Chinese Internet users are docile or apathetic. In fact, several recent events suggest that Internet users are becoming more concerned about broader social issues and want to use the Internet to address them. These events have many implications for activists and others who want to improve human rights in China.