Wednesday, March 05, 2008


Democracy and the Internet

Charles Leadbeater (his book cover, We Think, on left)has been variously touted a thoughtful social analyst plus one time guru to Tony Blair, so his analysis of how the web is changing the way we live is worth paying some attention. In his recent (linked above)piece in the Indie, he describes the explosion of web use in China as now constituting 'part of the fabric of Chinese society'. The new invention of Timothy Chen, 'Shanda' has tens of millions of game players constituting 60% of web usage. The government loves game playing but is suspicious of the subversive potential of websites all of which have to be officially registered.

The sheer size, spread and inventiveness of the Chinese internet could create a new civic space with enormous potential. The protesters in Tiananmen Square could be boxed in by tanks. That is harder to achieve on the web. In December 2005, for example, news filtered out through the internet that Chinese police had killed villagers in Guangdong province protesting against a wind farm that threatened their livelihoods. To suppress news of the protests, the authorities shut down cybercafés in neighbouring areas, cut off internet access to residents, impeded queries for the town's name on search engines and erased blog mentions of the incident. Despite all that, a human-rights group investigated the incident and posted its report online.

In other words, the web makes it much more difficult for autocrats to be autocratic and survive for long. Mind you, in response to that I'd mention the case of the Burmese rebels who did much to tell the world about their brutal government via the web but still see no signs of them packing their bags or being deposed. Leadbeater sees the web as an instrument of democracy par excellence and argues for its protection:

The net is slowly changing US politics: the internet is home territory for Barack Obama. But its biggest impact on democracy will be in China. That is why it so vital for us in the West to preserve the internet as an open global commons for the exchange of information and ideas and to resist it being controlled either by corporations or governments.

Amen to that.

Indeed; in my optimistic way I'm enthusiastic about all means of communication (perhaps it's partly because I was once an engineer in the telecommunications industry). For example the impact of TV in moving South Africa forward shouldn't be under-estimated although it often is. The apartheid government wouldn’t allow a TV service to be established even years after it had become commonplace in most advanced economies. Once it did arrive (and even under the tight control of owners and censors) it played its part in opening people's eyes to the wider world. So will it be with the Internet. But everything takes time.

There's a wonderful passage near the start of one of the episodes of Michael Wood's terrific TV series "The Story of India" in which he waxes lyrical about the importance of trade and communication between all shades and types of mankind as keys to peace and prosperity.

Amen to those as well...
Greetings from China.

Your post raises some interesting issues regarding the Net in China.

The exponential, truly phenomenal growth of the Internet in China since the mid-1990s has attracted much attention internationally, especially from blogs such as your own (much read in China, by the way).

After rather slow and lukewarm beginnings, China has embraced the Internet with a vengeance. Commercial Internet services became available in China in 1996; from an estimated 630 thousand users in 1997, by the end of 2006 the online population had grown to 137 million, with 90.7 million enjoying broadband connections. Today, China boasts the second-largest Internet population in the world, second only to the US. One in ten Internet users worldwide is Chinese. Of course, measured on per-capita basis the numbers are less impressive: with 9.9% Internet penetration, China scores far below most of the developed World, and even below some of its neighbours such as South Korea or Taiwan. The low penetration, nevertheless, also suggests potential for further growth.

Apart from reading news and searching for information on the web, the two forms of online activity disproportionately popular in China are BBS (electronic bulletin boards and online forums) and blogs – but you know this! - Available surveys suggest that about half of Chinese Internet users are active in various online forums, and about one third on blogs. Both empower users to publish their views online in a simple way without much technical expertise. BBS provide more anonymity, while blogs offer more profile for individual writers, who typically go by elaborate pen-names, yet whose identity is more often than not quite well-known. The first blogging services were introduced in China in 2002, but for a few more years remained in the shadow of BBS. The steep growth of blogging in China after 2005 is widely attributed to the 2005 crackdown on the most outspoken forums, which drove many users to blogs.

Could the Internet, and BBS and blogs in particular, play the role that samizdat performed in other communist societies? The answer to such a question, or even the inclination to ask it, probably depends on your understanding of the role and impact of samizdat to begin with. There does not seem to be a straightforward answer to such an inquiry. However, there appear to be at least two distinct areas in which to make meaningful comparison between the two methods of self-publishing: first, samizdat and online publishing as forms of self-expression, and second, as catalysts for the development of an alternative public sphere. Blogs such as ‘Skipper’ and ‘Guy Fawkes’ do, I believe, fulfil a similar function already in the West.

Even after such narrowing down, any comparisons will necessarily be speculative. Due to the vagaries of history, we can only hypothesize what would have become of samizdat in the age of networked computers. The first laptop and even desktop computers were indeed employed in the late samizdat production in central and eastern Europe, but only for graphic design and printing and not for distribution. Their utilization, in any case, was too minimal and last minute to draw any conclusions. The Internet revolution arrived too late for European samizdat to merge with it.

In fact, the very idea of the Internet would have seemed antithetical to samizdat, in the sense that the availability of such a powerful tool for information sharing and cross-border dissemination would have been unthinkable in the kind of closed societies in which samizdat publishing flourished. In other words, the communist regimes in eastern Europe would never have allowed the Internet in their fiefdoms; were they to have done so, they would have had to transform themselves into entirely different systems. And that is exactly what has happened in China in the last decade or so – the networked China of today is as different from the old Soviet bloc as it is from its former Maoist self. It has undergone a thorough transformation which renders most comparisons with traditional communist societies largely meaningless. Likewise, the Internet has superseded any traditional forms of samizdat just as the current Chinese system has supplanted conventional communism.
Many thanks for your very full and interestring comment. It's a bit surprising so many western blogs are read in China but I can see how a thirst for more knowledge of the world might accompany your huge economic surge. I always thought a liberalisation of democracy would also accompany this but the government seems intent on keeping its iron grip on discussion and alternative viewpoints. Maybe blogs will help circumvent such restrictions but it may take a long time.
Mr Skipper - do you see blogs as a development of samizdat?
Well, yes, I do see them in that way; it's a means for ordinary people to express themselves and to inform the world of any miscarriages of justice. I hope the internet grows and grows in China.
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