Hui Zhang reports on a talk by Luo Gang
On Tuesday, February 27, Luo Gang, a renowned scholar of cultural studies and literary theory at Eastern China Normal University, gave a talk at UCLA’s Center for Chinese Studies on the Internet as a possible venue for promoting democracy in China.
Professor Luo started with a brief historical review of the emergence of a new cultural space in the post-Tiananmen Square Incident era. The 1990s witnessed the birth and growth of a range of new cultural forces, such as CCTV’s Oriental Horizon program, so-called second channel book editing and publishing, and so on. These cultural forces on the one hand have been driven by strong market incentives, but on the other hand they have displayed a subversive posture by declining to succumb to the government’s control. The rampant growth of the market sector in the cultural domain forced the government to negotiate the redistribution of the authority of cultural production. To survive and thrive within the highly restricted space, these new cultural enterprises have developed a set of flexible tactics that have successfully loosened the rigid dichotomized structure between the government and the market place and permeated both official and unofficial modes of cultural production.
It was within this social context that the Internet began to grow in popularity. Professor Luo stressed that the Internet should be seen as more than a new technology or a new economy: it is first and foremost a new medium, and as such it has brought about a revolutionary change in people’s modes of perceiving and interacting with the world, in the accumulation and distribution of knowledge, and in communicating among members of society. Thus, the study of the new information technology and electronic media needs to address the issues arising from their material, social, and aesthetic dimensions.
Luo divided the development of Internet usage in China into two phases. In 1996, when the Internet had just begun to be known to the public, the government -- underestimating the political energy the Internet could generate -- imposed few restrictions on it. On the contrary, in order to capture more public attention and interest, the government provided a vast amount of free web space to individual users. There was a burgeoning of BBS (bulletin board systems), usually small-scale online discussion forums. Especially popular among these forums were those devoted to current affairs. Because of the government’s ideological monopoly in the other forms of mass media, Internet forums have become a major venue for the public to exchange information and voice their opinions on political issues.
Starting from the year 2000, the government’s monitoring and control of the Internet have become much more rigid with the launching of a series of new laws and regulations. Several notable trends here include the posting censorship system, whereby Internet users are not allowed to post spontaneously on forums. All postings have to be reviewed by the web masters before they can reach a public readership.
Key-word filtering acting as a censorship measure is another case that illustrates how information technology can assist totalitarianism. Politically sensitive words or terms are blocked out in search engine findings, and thus people are unable to obtain the information they want. Luo particularly mentioned the case of Google’s making compromises with the Chinese government in this regard so as to get access to a vast profit-generating market, compromises that violate the fundamental principle of equal information sharing that underpins the Internet’s promise for democracy.
A common strategy of many web users for breaking through restrictions is to find proxy servers in foreign countries that can connect with sites banned in China. To fight this, the government has disseminated many fake proxy servers with surveillance features that can collect private information of the users who attempt to log onto forbidden websites.
Another highly controversial control, which was initiated in 2002 and was fully implemented starting in 2005, is the real-name system, which requires web users to register their actual name and obtain an officially assigned ID number before they can post on the Internet. The authorities claim that this policy is intended to curb the rampant practice of using fake names and disguised identity to spread groundless or false information, but it has provoked severe criticism among online communities for possibly prohibiting users from expressing their personal opinions on politically sensitive issues.
The increasingly rigid control over the Internet culminated in the launching of a new law -- Regulations on Internet News Information and Service Management -- in 2005. These regulations defined the term “news information” in a broad and highly ambiguous way. The regulations not only limit the authority to distribute news information to a very limited number of websites, but they also define the posting of commentaries on the Internet as a form of news distribution. This has placed many websites at risk for allowing users to post comments on current affairs without restriction and therefore will oblige web managers to estimate the risks involved in allowing daring comments to appear on the Internet. In July 2006, Century China -- a highly influential website among intellectual circles in China -- was forced to shut down by the Beijing City Bureau of Information Administration for violating these regulations. This incident generated widespread Internet discussion of the boundaries of governmental intervention and the public sphere.
After an analysis of the development of digital technology from a social and cultural perspective, Luo turned to an analysis of the case of Sun Zhigang. The significance of this incident was that popular pressure led to a change in legislation, something that was completely unprecedented in the history of the PRC. The Internet played an central role in the denouement of this incident.
Sun, a graduate of the art design program at Wuhan Academy of Science and Technology, worked at Guangzhou Qida Apparel Company. On March 17, 2003, Sun was detained by the police for failing to present an adequate ID. Three days later, Sun was beaten to death while in police custody. The Nanfang Du Shi Bao (Southern Metropolitan News) first published a story about the case, which ignited a tremendous reaction in society. Many well-known scholars of law and political science as well as professional lawyers participated in the debates. On June 20, 2003, Premier Wen Jiabao signed an edict abolishing the 1982 Measures for the Custody and Repatriation of Vagrants and Beggars in Cities.
The outcome of the Sun Zhigang incident is often regarded as a momentous advancement in the formation of Chinese civil society. Here the Internet played a crucial role. Almost all of the relevant information, in-depth reports, and commentaries on the incident were published and circulated on the Internet. Some of the most influential web forums developed special web spaces to engage the public in discussions that touched upon the issues of social justice, inequality, legislation, human rights, and constitutionalism. The political meaning of this incident lies in that it was a public protest movement that grew out of Internet communities, and had a substantial impact on society. It demonstrated the growing maturity of public awareness of issues centering on civic rights and responsibilities.
The Sun Zhigang incident, Luo pointed out, also calls attention to the nature of the web user community: that community reflects a structural inequality inherent in information technology. The Internet inequity issue, in fact, has often been obscured by the democratic potential created by the Internet’s participatory, interactive mode of communication. Luo raised the question: Would the Sun Zhigang case have turn into a political issue if Sun were not a young professional who had received a higher education, but an ordinary rural resident like numerous others who have been detained, abused, and forcibly repatriated to their home villages? A fact not to be ignored here is that the outpouring of protest on the Internet was initiated by Sun Zhigang’s friends and former classmates and in no time won sweeping support over the Internet from other web users of similar age and educational background, namely, the young, techno-savvy urban middle class. While people celebrated this incident for amplifying an oppositional political voice, they more often than not neglected the fact that there is a disproportion between the strength of the political voice it uttered and the small percentage of the population it represents. The case of Sun Zhigang is undoubtedly a landmark incident demonstrating the potential of information technology in advancing democracy in China, but people should always bear in mind the hidden power structure and inequity involved in the accessibility to and uses of information technology.
Another power issue associated with the Internet is the tendency of increasing centralization of academic websites. Luo highlighted the case of the birth and decline of a small but nevertheless dynamic website called Fragments of Ideas. It emerged in 1999 as one of the few pioneering forums devoted to discussions of cultural and intellectual topics. The site soon became well known and developed into an online intellectual community consisting mainly of non-professional thinkers outside of academic institutions. The website played a prominent role in leading in-depth discussions on liberalism in China. However, the rise of other Internet forums with divergent intellectual and political orientations, and especially the emergence of forums back by formal academic institutions, posed a challenge to the existence of small but vigorous websites like Fragments of Ideas. The website shut itself down in October 2000. Smaller intellectual websites are almost destined to perish or be merged into larger ones. While the centralization and institutionalization of discussion forums leads to more efficient management -- and in any case seems inevitable -- the disappearance of smaller Internet communities nevertheless marks the loss of a more flexible and intimate mode of participation. Moreover, the fact that many of the larger-scale discussion forums are attached to portal sites that are either essentially commercial sites or have government backing, has called into question the real independence and freedom of the discussions on those sites. Luo described this trend as the eliticization of the Internet. While the Internet has facilitated attempts to stabilize the authority of traditional political and cultural elites, it has also established the foundation for the rise of new elites. At the same time, it has been utilized to forge new modes of alliance among the government, the market, and mainstream media.
Professor Luo’s talk presented a comprehensive and balanced view of the democratic potential of the Internet. While acknowledging the ability of information technology to enhance social empowerment, Luo at the same time questioned a purely utopian, technophilia view of the Internet. Behind the vast globalized network that has expanded in an unbridled way and has become increasingly embedded in every aspect of social life, there is still an immense digital divide symptomatic of the inherent inequality of the mode of production in the world today. The discerning vision of Luo’s talk is best illustrated in his analysis of the Sun Zhigang case in which he revealed that within an oppositional, emancipatory democratic movement itself, there could still be a hierarchical power structure that awaits to be uncovered. Thus the Internet should not be conceived of as a level platform for equal information sharing and exchange; rather it should be seen as a multi-layered complex structure where a wide range of technology and devices can be utilized for contestations, surveillance, control, and manipulation.
In an analysis of the formation of a public sphere and thereby a civil society with the aid of information technology, we should note that in Habermas’ theoretical construct, the public sphere is constituted by face-to-face discussions and debates. It is essentially the speech mode of communication that he regards as crucial for the realization of deliberative democracy. To him, the vitality of speech communication lies in that it is less polluted by the influence of the mass media. While information technology has cultivated new domains of discussions and widened the possibilities for participation, it also has complicated the way knowledge and communication are mediated. Luo’s talk approached the discussion of technology and democracy mainly from a sociological perspective. There are, however, other visions that can be articulated regarding the attributes of technology and their political implications. Marshall McLuhan has illustrated that the media form and the messages it convey are essentially inseparable, therefore, the coding and decoding process of certain messages is determined to some extent by the media form itself. Paul Virilio theorized the reorganization of spatiality and temporality through new technology. Jean Baudrillard shed light on the intricate relationship between reality and hyper reality. The theoretical work of all these thinkers has raised questions about the manner of cultural existence in the postmodern age, which is characterized by new ways of imagining and perceiving the world, the fluidity of identities, and the fragmentations of subjectivities. These situations could be significantly different from those of the modern era on which Habermas built his theoretical model. If we are to link information technology with democracy, and try to transplant the concept of public sphere from real social space into virtual cyberspace, we need to engage in a more nuanced discussion of the nature of technology as media and culture.
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Hui Zhang is a doctoral candidate in the School of Education and Information Studies. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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 1993 China Central Television launch a new show -- Oriental Horizon -- during non-prime time morning hours. The show changed many people's habit of not watching TV during the day, setting a record for daytime viewing. Even reruns were spectacularly successful: they had the second highest rating, second only to prime-time news. In fact, Oriental Horizon has been described as a "silent revolution in daytime TV programming."
Oriental Horizon originally consisted of four segments or columns: Celebrity Talks, MTV, Life, and Focus Time. Celebrity Talks features prominent Chinese; MTV introduces new pop songs; Life tells of stories of common people; Focus Time discusses hot topics. Oriental Horizon quickly became a powerful force shaping public opinion.
The mini-documentaries of the daily life of ordinary people in the Life segment evoked a strong resonance from among viewers. Featured characters in this show have included a street cleaner, a migrant worker, a student who takes care of his physically disabled mother, a teahouse attendant, and an independent artist. Focus Time has the reputation of being a creative TV editorial show that quickly reacts to news in the making.
 Since the 1980s, a two-tiered publication industry has emerged in China: on one level are the state-run publishing houses and the monopoly Xinhua Book Stores distribution network, while on the other is a grey network of private, unlicensed publishers and distributors. The latter are much more reader-oriented and often publish works that are on the margin of what officialdom considers politically and socially acceptable.
Published: Friday, April 06, 2007
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