Mobile, Online and Angry: The Rise of China's Middle-Class Civil Society?

By Weber, Ian | Critical Arts, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Mobile, Online and Angry: The Rise of China's Middle-Class Civil Society?


Weber, Ian, Critical Arts


Abstract

This article examines the role and power of online media in representing an emerging culture of social activism and protests in both urban and rural China. It focuses on the discursive practices of China's citizenry in utilising the global dimensions of online media within a Iocalised and situated context, to reflect upon, construct and transform social practices with Chinese characteristics. This article utilises a cross-case method to compare and contrast online and mobile social activism in Shanghai, Xiamen, Tibet and Xinjiang. It examines these dynamics against the backdrop of an emerging Chinese middle class, which has been supported by the Chinese government's economic reform as a way to build a more consumer-oriented, affluent and stable Chinese society. This analysis is framed within the extensive theoretical underpinnings of social theory and civil society, specifically the work of Pierre Bourdieu on capital accumulation and social differentiation. The article concludes that while the Chinese middle class may not be politically docile and can achieve social change, it does so based on self-interest while being mindful and wary of how its actions are perceived by authorities, thus managing protests carefully so the middle class can continue to reap the economic rewards of state capitalism. Consequently, any move towards democratic structures facilitated through online and mobile communication will be slow and carefully managed in a way that benefits the government and the current power structure, especially when focusing on politically and socially sensitive issues such as sovereignty.

Keywords: China, Internet, mobile technologies, protests, social activism

Introduction

Understanding the struggle between the rule of law and individual citizen rights provides a fascinating window on contemporary Chinese society in transition. Without national organisations and charismatic public leaders, China's rights activism has emerged among ordinary Chinese citizens whose lives have been drastically changed under China's strategy of controlled commodification, which allows for greater economic freedoms but not political and social freedoms (Weber & Lu 2007). While the Party pursues legal and economic reform at the national level to reinforce its authoritarian rule, the implementation of laws and the protection of individual citizen rights at the local level face formidable obstacles. The main priority for local authorities is the accumulation of revenue and resources to meet fiscal goals, often at the expense of citizen rights. Consequently, local government officials collude with employers, investors and land developers, in violation of citizens' basic and lawful rights (Callick 2009). In addition, a decentralised judiciary, supported by local government funding of court appointments, is often under pressure to follow the dictates of local officials (Lee 2008).

Filling the gaps between laws promulgated by the Party and 'lawlessness at the local level' is the precarious crucible of rights activism forged by the Chinese citizenry. In recent years, citizen discontent and social unrest have been fueled by social injustices, wealth disparity between urban and rural populations, and power gaps. When faced with injustices, weiquan or 'the protection of lawful rights' is invoked in relation to specific rights--labour, property and land rights--enriched in the ever-expanding raft of Chinese laws (ibid.). Responding to fluid political and social spaces, Chinese workers, home and property owners have replaced petitions to government bureaucracies with civil actions energised, organised and publicised through mobile and online communication (Pan 2008; Unger 2008; Weber 2008).

This article examines the role and power of online and mobile media in representing an emerging culture of protests and social activism in China. It examines the discursive practices of China's citizenry in utilising the global dimensions of online media within a localised and specific context to reflect, construct and transform social practices with Chinese characteristics. …

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