Academic journal article China Perspectives

Towards a More Proactive Method

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Towards a More Proactive Method

Article excerpt

Introduction

The last two decades have seen the exponential growth of the Chinese Internet and accordingly an explosion of studies on the Chinese Internet. It is universally agreed that the rapid growth of the Internet has brought profound changes to the Chinese political and social landscape. Within that general framework, there has been intense debate about whether and how greater access to information facilitated by the versatile and dispersed nature of the Internet encourages political expression and democracy in China. On one pole, scholars optimistically argue that by multiplying the amount of available information and providing individuals with the means to disseminate their opinions, the Internet has become a democratising force that will undermine the Party's authoritarian rule. (1) They argue that those new features - enabled by the technological advantages of the Internet - are particularly significant for China, where citizens previously had little opportunity for unconstrained public expression or access to free and uncensored information. (2)

In contrast to this optimistic view, others tend to dwell on the way that the state represses and controls the Internet. These clusters of scholarship argue that while the explosion of ICT-enabled political communication poses huge challenges to the state's monopoly on information, the state has responded to the challenge through draconian control over the flow of information. Standing in this pole, existing scholarship provides ample explanations of how the state has responded to the new challenges through various controlling measures, such as setting a variety of legal instruments, establishing dozens of new government agencies in charge of regulating different aspects of the Internet, and introducing technology to censor information supposedly detrimental to the interests of the state and social security. (3)

Whether pessimistic or optimistic, scholars studying the Chinese Internet have demonstrated the dual impact of the phenomenal growth of the Chinese Internet: on the one hand, there is increasing diffusion of thought and openness of information; and on the other hand, there is an expansion of the CCP's governing mechanism over online information.

Abundant scholarship shows that the CCP's direct control over online information is pervasive and sophisticated. It has introduced various levels of technical control, comprised of multiple layers of legal regulations and involving numerous state agencies and thousands of public and private personnel. (4) Institutionally, it is estimated that at least 12 government agencies - functioning in a variety of ways - are involved in censoring the Internet, among which the most important one is the State Internet Information Office (SIIO). Established in 2011, the office is notably in charge of launching online political campaigns and supervising online content management. (5) The chief of the SIIO, Lu Wei, deserves scholarly attention. Since taking over the SIIO in 2013, he has demonstrated a canny awareness of the Internet and social media and has also proactively tightened control over online public opinion. (6)

Technologically, China has established one of the largest and most sophisticated Internet monitoring systems in the world to censor and manipulate unfavourable information on the Internet. Framing it as "networked authoritarianism," some scholars explain the parallel between the scale of information on the Internet on the one hand and information censorship on the other. While a wide range of information about social problems or injustices appears on websites, the sole ruling Party remains in control over information to such a degree that no information can challenge state power. In the same vein, while people sometimes feel a much greater sense of freedom to express their opinion, Internet users who voice overly critical opinions that the rulers see as threats are systematically jailed. (7)

The logic underlying the explicit and direct control over online information is to ensure that the information that circulates online will not challenge Party authority. …

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