New Media Entrepreneurs in China: Allies of the Party-State or Civil Society?

By Lagerkvist, Johan | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

New Media Entrepreneurs in China: Allies of the Party-State or Civil Society?


Lagerkvist, Johan, Journal of International Affairs


Today more than 500 million Chinese Internet users roam social networking websites. Of them, as many as 300 million are part of a rapidly growing microblogosphere. This article examines the predicament of companies providing social networking services inside China's Great Firewall--specifically, the way in which they handle conflicting demands from the party-state and emerging civil society. In light of the phenomenal growth of microblogging and the Chinese government's tighter control over netizens in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, the issue of social agency comes to the fore. This article asks if the Chinese entrepreneurial class--the so-called "red capitalists"--could become agents of democratic political change. Are Internet entrepreneurs allies of civil society or the government? Based on their current esprit de corps with the state, it is unlikely that they will directly assist social change in the foreseeable future. Yet willingly or not, by providing civil society with tools to challenge the regime, they are becoming key players in the process of creating a more inclusive and accountable politics in China.

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The tumultuous events of the Arab Spring--in which social media tools aided mass mobilization--underscored an emerging battleground between the state and the opposition in today's nondemocratic regimes. Against the backdrop of revolution in North Africa and the Middle East, the People's Republic of China also made global headlines. The feeble attempt to initiate similar protests met with intensified crackdowns by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on dissenting voices in society and the media. (1) Internet censorship in China is a pressing concern for observers of the country's politics, particularly in the run-up to the Eighteenth National CCP Congress in 2012, when President Hu Jintao seems all but certain to transfer the reins of power to Vice President Xi Jinping as both general secretary of the Communist Party and head of state.

This article examines the predicament of social media companies operating within China's heavily restricted Internet environment, behind the so-called Great Firewall. Specifically, the article explores how these companies balance conflicting demands from the party-state and emerging civil society. Google's provision of a "speak-to-tweet" voice connection for activists, after Egypt's former ruler Hosni Mubarak pulled the Internet "kill switch" in January 2011, demonstrated that Internet businesses can do more than indirectly promote free speech. They can also fuel social unrest in authoritarian countries in more direct ways. This role, however, is far from preordained because social media often assist authoritarian rulers in surveilling civil society and stifling dissent? Arguably, the forces that drive democratization today are businesses that provide social media platforms, along with tech-savvy young people, unemployment and a rising middle class.

The article analyzes one of these components: the Internet business sector which is turned, simultaneously, toward two poles of attraction. Is it an ally of the incipient civil society or the state? The sector exhibits both compliant and noncompliant traits. For the party-state, cooperation of social media companies is crucial for reining in public discourse, seen as a threat to social and political stability. At the same time, as facilitators of new tools of information-sharing, social media providers indirectly assist in inciting opposition to the authoritarian information order. This balancing act highlights the broader question of social agency: Could Chinese Internet entrepreneurs go beyond passively facilitating online opinion platforms and become agents of democratic political change?

THE STATE-CAPITALIST POWER ALLIANCE

The question about social agency stems from the widely held assumption of modernization theory--namely, that a society's increasing wealth strengthens the middle class and gives it influence to propel political change. …

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