Xiguang Li, Qin Xuan, and Randolph Kluver
Much discussion of the rise of the Internet within the People's Republic of China focuses on the political consequences of the technology on China's Communist Party. A significant number of authors argue that the Internet is a "technology of freedom," which will lead to an increased democratization in authoritarian nations. Others argue, however, that new media technologies embody a potential to drastically inhibit democratic processes, because of the increased potential for surveillance, the commercialization of the Net, or even by facilitating anti-democratic sentiments, among other reasons. Researchers have posited various mechanisms of democratization, but one item of consensus that seems to be emerging is that the Internet, because it allows for a greater variety of information from global sources, increases the ability of Chinese to bypass the traditional mechanisms of news selection on the part of authorities, thus increasing their ability to think politically outside the parameters endorsed by the state.
Regardless of its ability to generate widespread political activism or not, the Internet has certainly opened the door to a flow of information that is historically unprecedented to the Chinese people. Online chatrooms, which are often referred to as dianzi dazibao (electronic big-character posters), are providing an open space for Chinese to exchange information freely and anonymously (Huang, 1999). 1 As a popular online activity of Chinese Net users (China Internet Network Information Center, 2001), chatrooms thus pose a significant threat to the government-controlled media by revising and reconstructing the agenda set by the Chinese official press. Agenda-setting theory holds that the mass media play a determinative role in establishing what is considered important, by leading newscasts with that story or printing it on page one, for example. When news gatekeepers no longer consider an item to be of importance, they allow it to slip off the public agenda (McCombs and Shaw, 1972). For decades, the Chinese mass media have served effectively in agenda setting for the People's Republic of China. But as globalization multiplies the number of news outlets, audiences gain the power to select new outlets, and thereby alter their media exposure.