China: not so different after all?

The internet is changing society. Will it do the same to politics? The case of China suggests it will not.

In 2004, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political scientist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote an op-ed column in the New York Times under the headline Death by a Thousand Blogs. “The collision between the internet and Chinese authorities is one of the grand wrestling matches of history”, Kristof wrote. “The Chinese leadership itself is digging the Communist Party’s grave, by giving the Chinese people broadband”.

Kristof is hardly the first person to credit the internet with the power to transform political life, nor will he be the last. The idea that freedom of expression will lead to political freedom is an immensely attractive one, and it has exercised considerable influence ever since its canonical statement, in German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment” (1784).

The argument, however, is fundamentally flawed. It is as naive, in its way, as the assertion that capitalism inevitably brings democracy in its wake. That may have been the case in Taiwan and South Korea, but they developed under the umbrella of US patronage and ideology. China will prove the exception to all these rules.

Kristof was right to pinpoint the importance of the internet in contemporary China. Internet use has grown prodigiously there since the mid-1990s, giving today’s China the second-largest online population in the world (behind the United States): a staggering 137 million, and growing. And the Chinese aren’t just using the internet to look at porn (unlike those dirty Saudis). Blogging is one of the most popular forms of online activity. So are bulletin boards, and forums. Online debate is flourishing in China.


Yet despite all this web activity, real political reform is a distant prospect. The Chinese Communist Party remains in the rudest of health, seemingly unaware that notable political scientists are predicting its demise. Instead of bringing about a political transformation, the arrival of the internet in China has actually served to reaffirm the power of the existing regime.

The weakness of the Chinese blogosphere is not, as so many people presume, simply the result of censorship. Censorship is, of course, an issue in China: prevents searches for words like “democracy” and “Tienanmen”; access to news websites like the BBC is prohibited. But censorship is not absolute. There are dedicated services designed to help Chinese internet users navigate their way past the Great Firewall: proxy servers, secure connections, and so on. The problem? Chinese just aren’t using them.

In a recent article for Eurozine, Martin Hala makes the apathy of the Chinese online population all too plain. “According to available surveys”, he writes, “the overwhelming majority (70%) has never used a proxy server. Only 2.5% report frequent use of them”.

These statistics need to be taken with a pinch of salt, of course. But the conclusion they suggest is supported by a vast weight of anecdotal evidence. Hala shows that, instead of resenting their relative lack of freedom, Chinese bloggers resent attacks on their situation by patronising Westerners.The most reviled attack of all? A piece by an American political scientist called Nicholas D. Kristof…

The Chinese system was adaptable enough to absorb free-market capitalism. So we should not be surprised to hear that it has not been brought down by the blogosphere. This is partly because of its ability to repress with impunity. But it is primarily because of the way the Chinese authorities have taken on the dubious virtues of capitalism.

Chinese people are happy with the limited freedoms they have, because these freedoms include the most fundamental freedom of all: the freedom to buy things. Capitalism in an economics of private desire. So, like most people in capitalist countries, the Chinese care more about bad music than bad politics.

Writing in the New Statesman, Lindsey Hilsum, China Correspondent for Channel 4 News, quotes 26-year-old Li Bohui, an office worker in Beijing. Like many Chinese, Li is less interested in Hu Jintao, leader of the Communist Party, than she is in Li Yuchun, winner of the second series of Super Girl, China’s first Pop Idol contest.

Asked about politics, Li shrugged. “I don’t care,” she said. “It doesn’t have any impact on my life – all that seems so far away. I’m more interested in Li Yuchun because when I see her face I forget my frustrations and troubles.”

Sound familiar? Maybe China isn’t so different after all.



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