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The Internet in China: Iron Curtain 2.0, or Political Liberalization 1.0?

A recent Chinese Internet Research Conference in Hong Kong has inspired much discussion about the myths surrounding the Internet in China. In his paper titled The Great Firewall as Iron Curtain 2.0, Lokman Tsui argues that U.S. communications policy towards China is still primarily based on the traditional broadcasting model of the Cold War, and the belief that freedom of information in regimes like China will eventually erode communist rule. However, Tsui warns that “our use of the Great Firewall metaphor leads to blind spots that obscure and limit our understanding of Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China.”

In traditional broadcasting systems, freedom of information and censorship are a zero-sum game: an increase in one leads to an automatic decrease in the other. But in the Internet realm, according to many empirical studies about the Internet in China, both access (the rise of the Internet population, blogging, instant messaging, and social networking sites) and control (See the OpenNet Initiative’s report) appear to both be on the rise. Although WikiPedia, Bloggers, and Typepad are blocked in China, Chinese Internet users can still have blogs, and wiki service hosts are also available, including Blogbus, Sina Blog, and However, as former Berkman fellow and co-founder of Global Voices Rebecca MacKinnon has noted, “the system that filters or blocks external websites from internal view is only one part of a complex set of mechanisms of China’s Internet control.”  The social behavior of users online is as important, if not more so, than access to information when determining the level of online free speech in China.

According to one Chinese blogger

We live in a strange society in which de-politicization and pan-politicization co-exist… The fates of certain democratic fighters have a cautionary effect on the people, who become politically indifferent. But when political incidents keep occurring inside and outside China to the point where cover-up is impossible, the repressed political demands and discontent are released and the people become politically passionate.

Unfortunately, China’s Internet surveillance and internal censorship regimes discourage and limit citizens’ online political expression. For example, many bulletin board systems do not allow individuals to discuss political issues, and many measures (such as real name registration policy) create a Foucault’s panoptic surveillance environment where participation in sensitive political discussion is highly risky. My empirical study of Chinese Internet users’ online political participation revealed that the perception of government surveillance is an important predictor of individuals’ online political expression, both in local and foreign online forums.

Although China’s online political space is limited, chaotic, and sometimes even nasty, internet scholar Zheng Yongnian believes it is enabling greater political liberalization and forcing the leadership to be more responsive to public opinion. For evidence of this one could look to Chinese President Hu Jintao  online chat with netizens via the People’s Daily online forum. He argued that “the web is an important channel for us to understand the concerns of the public and assemble the wisdom of the public.”  According to Hu’s webcast, online public opinion is considered by the government as a cooperative tool to improve the Party and the bureaucracy’s progress. In other words, China limits public online expression and the development of the Internet to the Party’s interests—not exactly a great harbinger for democracy.

However, Zheng says that most unsuccessful online movements in China tend to advocate the “exit” option (i.e. the Chinese people should exit one-party communist rule), while successful online movements tend to use what he calls the “voice” option, where the Internet provides the state with feedback from social groups to improve its legitimacy (see Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog on this topic).  Jiang Min has dubbed the public deliberation in Chinese cyberspace as “authoritarian deliberation.” Compared with the deliberation in democratic countries, authoritarian deliberation is akin to political liberalization 1.0. Min says that due to one-party rule, the goal of the deliberative process is to improve policies and create more accountable government, as opposed to Zheng’s “exit” option. Indeed, this is part of the process of political learning, where people can learn anew how to contemplate politics and make their own judgment and choice—a critical democratic process.

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2 Responses to “The Internet in China: Iron Curtain 2.0, or Political Liberalization 1.0?”

  1. Michael Netzley, CommunicateAsia, corporate communication, Asia, Web 2.0 Says:

    […] point was reinforced today as I read the latest post from Harvard’s Berkman Center and its Internet & Democracy Project.  Here is the passage […]

  2. lokman tsui » Blog Archive » keeping up with lokman Says:

    […] Last month, I also presented a paper titled “The Great Firewall as Iron Curtain 2.0″ at the sixth Chinese Internet Research conference held at Hong Kong University. It got quite some attention and was blogged by the Wall Street Journal, by Rebecca MacKinnon, Chez Say, and the Internet & Democracy project at the Berkman Center. […]