Editor’s Note: Following our inaugural essay competition in 2016 with King’s College London’s Lau China Institute, we held a second essay competition in 2017 on the topic: “Cyber China.” Dozens of fascinating contributions poured in from young people around the world, addressing subjects from China’s cyber nationalism to the emerging online dialect in the Chinese blogosphere. We published the winning essay by Chiu Wan Liu in April this year. Our judging panel awarded the first runner-up prize to Kyi Yeung Goh’s submission on China’s cyber-public space, a comprehensively researched essay on the growing state regulation of cyberspace and the emerging forms of critical discourse by Chinese netizens. Our congratulations to you, Kyi Yeung!
By: Kyi Yeung Goh
13 July 2016
Having just landed at Beijing Capital International Airport on an early morning flight, I proceeded to board my express train bound for the city center where I was to head for school at Peking University. Just a day earlier, the International Court of Justice had ruled in favor of the Philippines in its judgement that stated that there were no historical rights for China’s nine-dash line claims in the South China Sea. This pure conjecture was shortly confirmed by the news reports on the in-train television screens and the flurry of related posts on Weibo. What was interesting to me was not the news as such but China’s reaction to it. My largely unscientific scan of Chinese social media quickly illustrated the wide variation in emotions and opinions of the posts, many of which deviated far from official state rhetoric. Indeed, a Diplomat article published a few days later after the ruling mirrored my surprise when it drew attention to a rather sinister-sounding post that asked if the Philippines had wanted to become a Chinese province (Linh, 2016). Evidently, it was one thing to read about theories of international relations but another to witness it in action.
As an International Relations and History student, I have always been interested in examining the role that history and memory plays in influencing a state’s foreign policy but what this episode did was to prod me to consider the evolving dynamics of state-society relations in Chinese cyberspace as well. Indeed, what my reading in this field has revealed to me since then is that there is much to be gained from looking at how the Chinese cyber-public sphere has influenced policy-making in China and more crucially, how this relationship may evolve in the longer-term.
Here, the essay will seek to examine the influence of the cyber-public on Chinese policy with a particular emphasis on the role played by the cyber-nationalist constituency in foreign policy decision-making. It will first begin by addressing the academic debates regarding the utility of the cyber-public as a concept. Next, it will provide a brief history of state-society relations in Chinese cyber-public space. Thereafter, the essay will highlight the problems that the emergence of an independent cyber-nationalist constituency has presented to the Chinese state. Lastly, it will analyse state reaction to this issue and conjecture how these actions might affect the future trajectory of state-society relations in cyberspace.
Habermas and the Chinese cyber-public sphere
Scholars have continued to utilize Jurgen Habermas’s concept of the “public space” to approach the study of state-society relations in Chinese cyberspace. This despite it referring more to an ideal type of communicative environment than to a metric in which one can use to determine the levels of critical public discourse. Indeed, if one were to strictly apply “public space” for use in the contemporary context, it would limit itself to describing communicative environments suitable for rational and critical discussions in a democratic society. Yet, if divorced from the historical contingencies in which it was conceptualized, the concept can prove particularly useful in capturing the vibrancy of interactions within Chinese cyberspace. If the fundamental principle of “public space” is for communication to be emancipatory and free from exploitation of its effect then at no other point in history has humankind closer approached this ideal-type than at the present moment with the advent of the Internet Age (Wu, 2005).
Unsurprisingly, some have chastised the application of such a concept to a state like China where enforcement of censorship laws is particularly stringent. Nonetheless, tight political control does not mean that association that comes with the concept of the public space becomes an impossible enterprise for social groups. Even if state regulation makes collective action more difficult, it does not completely eliminate its possibility (Zheng and Wu 2005). In China’s case, it appears that the Internet Age has actually empowered collective action by encouraging social interaction and identity politics in an emergent cyber-public sphere. Here, cooperation theorists identify two collective action mechanisms that have been operationalized with differing levels of success. The first involves a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the state that invites crackdown as was the case with the 2011 Jasmine Revolution (Franceschini and Negro, 2014). The other involves what Hirschman terms as a ‘voice’ mechanism where a group expresses grievances to various institutions resulting in a need to search for possible solutions to dissatisfaction. The latter, also the subject of this essay’s study, has been made far more salient as a factor in domestic politics thanks to the arrival of the Internet.
The exercise of this ‘voice’, a force amplified by the Internet age, is what undergirds scholarly claims that liken the cyber-public space to a river/lake (jianghu 江湖) that serves as an alternative wellspring of knowledge given that contradictions are allowed to manifest and more importantly, exist.
The exercise of this ‘voice’, a force amplified by the Internet age, is what undergirds scholarly claims that liken the cyber-public space to a river/lake (jianghu 江湖) that serves as an alternative wellspring of knowledge given that contradictions are allowed to manifest and more importantly, exist (Lin, 2014). Here, the disenchanted public is allowed to engage and interact with the state in an iterative process where grievances are more likely to be addressed given that it explicitly avoids undermining the integrity of the State and party control. Yet, the success of such actions is by no means constant and has varied markedly since the first e-mail was sent from China to Germany in 1987.
A history of state-society interaction in China’s cyber-public sphere
Unlike in the Soviet Union, China’s leaders accepted the inevitability of the communications revolution and had, in fact, deemed it crucial for the development and rise of China (Rosen, 2010). However, even if the identification of its utility by the leadership has been constant, the manner in which state-society relations have been handled has been far more adaptive. Indeed, the lack of consistency in approach towards cyber-political issues have led some scholars to draw a potential causal relation between the emergence of a cyber-public sphere to the eventual political democratization of China (Chase and Mulvenon, 2002). As Lei Ya-Wen points out in her article exploring the political consequences of the Internet in China, some 60% of the netizenry surveyed by her have been deemed to be politicized as a result of active engagement in cyberspace. For some, it follows that there would be potential for collective action that results in some degree of political reform in the longer-term (Lei, 2011). Here, the Sun Zhigang incident in 2003 serves as a good reminder of how public sentiment expressed through the cyberspace can disturb policy decisions at the highest levels of government (Liu, 2011).
Yet, the ability to exercise this ‘voice’ option may not translate to much at all. Indeed, some have explicitly caution against the characterization of Chinese cyber-public space as a sort of cyber-utopia. They argue that the aforementioned rendering neglects the fact that since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China has begun to take active measures to ‘correct’ perspectives over current affairs (Franceschini and Negro, 2014). While they agree that censorship does not translate into the absence of a cyber-public sphere, they illustrate how opinion manipulation is omnipresent in Chinese cyberspace. This, they point out, can take the form of influencing online opinion through commentators-for-hire (King et al., 2013), news-spinning (Chan, 2007) and judicial intimidations (Franceschini and Negro, 2014).
Even then, manipulation and news spin is only effective in stifling contrarian viewpoints up until a certain point. Arguably, tipping points have been reached in instances where the cognitive dissonance between state-provided and Internet crowd-sourced information becomes too great to ignore. The 2011 Wenzhou high-speed railway crash provides ample evidence of the limitations that the state faces in its efforts to influence cyber-public opinion. Initially, the Ministry of Railway had attributed the crash to poor weather and insisted that rescue missions were carried out prior to wreckage clearing activities. However, skeptical netizens were able to counter the official account of events at every step of the way by utilizing the cyberspace as an open-source, community-based fact-checking portal (Yang, 2015). What this did was to lay the foundations for a nationwide critique of the Ministry as well as the appearance of more critical indictments alluding to the ineptness of the central government in handling everyday affairs.
Therefore, it is no surprise that the Chinese leadership continues to pay very close attention to sentiments expressed by the cyber-public. To this end, various state and sub-state organisations actively monitor online sentiment with the aim of producing statistics to rank the sensitivity of happenings across the country. This information is then collated by analysts, relayed directly to Politburo members and standing members and factored in to decision-making (Tsai, 2016). Here, analysts are encouraged to ‘have the accuracy of a weather forecaster in predicting public opinions’ (xiang yubao tianqi yiyang de yubao yuqing 像预报天气一样的预报舆情) (Liu, 2015).
Consequently, the Chinese state has largely been able to effectively manage its relations with the cyber-public on domestic issues. Indeed, it has been able to turn the Internet into a governance tool by using it to effectively measure the views of the Chinese public about specific policies and experience with the government across time and space (King et. al, 2013). In issues relating to foreign affairs, however, the picture is far less clear.
Grey areas in the cyber-public sphere: patriotism and nationalism
Rules relating to the handling of nationalist sentiments appear to be least obvious. This is linked, in part, to the changing performance metrics of political legitimacy in the eyes of the public over the last half-century. Until Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 Open Door Policy (gaige kaifang zhengce 改革开放政策), political legitimacy derived more from the degree of adherence to state ideology or behavior prescribed by Maoist precepts. Since then, the social contract has evolved to consist of a material (for instance, economic growth) and spiritual component (for instance, promoting nationalism in the attempt to make up for the Century of Humiliation) (Rosen, 2010). In recent years, however, it appears that the latter has gained greater weight as headline GDP figures decline. Indeed, scholars have noted how cyber-nationalism has been able to exercise significant influence on the State to take a stronger stance towards issues regarding Japan and Taiwan (Weiss, 2014). An analysis of cyber-nationalist sentiments during the 2012 Senkaku-Diaoyu crisis illustrates how a hardening of rhetoric could have been brought about by the magnitude of criticism levied on the Chinese government whose response was deemed inadequate in meeting a perceived incursion of national sovereignty (Gries, Steiger and Wang, 2015).
The issue with such patriotic/nationalistic rhetoric is that it is often difficult for officials to discredit without questioning the legitimacy of those concerns and by extension, cast doubt on the nationalist credentials of the state itself. More often than not, these vociferous cyber-nationalist constituencies are able to successfully outflank the state because it taps on the same collective historical memory utilized by the Chinese government in its nation-building project.
It does appear that there are growing concerns from the state that such sentiments, whilst occasionally helpful in diplomatic bargaining strategies, can prove highly disruptive to social stability and party legitimacy if left unchecked by the state (Weiss, 2014). Given the increasing prominence of China in global affairs and unpredictability characterizing patterns of international relations, it is likely that these sentiments will flare up with greater frequency and intensity. For a leadership that priorities social stability and predictability particularly when it comes to international affairs, unregulated nationalism independent of the state’s control should be a cause for serious concern. Jessica Weiss aptly summarizes this unease by quoting a senior Chinese diplomat who confided, “I’m worried. Public opinion is more and more influential. There are many irrational voices” (Weiss, 2014).
Indeed, even if Chinese nationalism is on the decline as Alastair Johnston argues it to be, cyber-nationalist sentiments that taps on the right pressure points can easily evolve into highly viral material that finds resonance with the larger cyber-community (Johnston, 2017). Arguably, many of the incidents cited by China watchers writing about the influence of cyber-nationalism on foreign policy involved a reactive Chinese state playing catch-up with popular online rhetoric that was able to spread faster than it could dispense an official stance (Rawnsley, 2015)
Towards the nationalization of cyber-nationalism?
State response to this issue, particularly between 2016 and 2017, has manifested itself through the rapid development of institutions, legal and regulatory mechanisms aimed at strengthening its ability to govern the cyber-public sphere. Compared to the overwhelming focus by international media on the negative implications these measures have on civilian rights, the impact of these rules on the ability of the state to control the cyber-nationalist narrative has been less discussed.
First, such moves would endow the state with greater powers to define what constitutes nationalism in various contexts, control narratives of events as well as enforce the borders it has drawn for what constitutes actions that are in line with its definition of legitimate patriotism and nationalism. This has been an outcome aided by the creation of the CyberSecurity Association of China (CSAC) in 2016 that has allowed for the connection of all major stakeholders that are involved with cyber activities. This ties government, private sector players and researchers together in an institutional arrangement directly supervised by the state. Through this, the CSAC is able to supervise public opinion through information control and propaganda with the aim of ensuring social stability (Sacks and O’Brien, 2016). Indeed, the importance of all these state responses was underlined by President Xi Jinping in his speech at the 19th Party Conference in October 2017. When discussing the CCP’s approach to ideological work, he stressed the need to “maintain the right tone in public communication, give priority to improving means of communication and to creating new ones, and strengthen the penetration, guidance, influence, and credibility of the media”. In addition, officials were encouraged to be enterprising, work creatively in light of actual conditions, and adeptly apply information technology, including the internet, in [their] work.”
At the same time, the ability to sense-make vast amounts of online data also allows the state to exert greater control over nationalistic sentiments.
At the same time, the ability to sense-make vast amounts of online data also allows the state to exert greater control over nationalistic sentiments. What is most crucial is that this information will enable policymakers to communicate in a manner that takes into account the taste and linguistic habits of the audience in any reception context (Yang, 2014). This means that the state may be able to maneuver around and preempt cybernationalist sentiments that are unhelpful to its strategic goals by undermining such discourse from the get-go. This is best captured by a quote from the Vice Minister of Propaganda who stressed in 2013 that good communication “requires us [the state] to look at whether or not audiences are willing to listen and be able to understand, whether or not they can form positive interaction with us, and engender even more resonance” (Yang, 2014).
Conclusion: Wither the cyber (public) space?
Where does this burgeoning state control over the cyberspace leave us? Some point to the inability of such methods to succeed in a cyber-public realm as eclectic and vast as China’s whilst others argue that it sounds the death knell for genuine public discourse in Chinese cyberspace. What is made clear by the essay, however, is that cyber-public discourse and state measures aimed at regulation are constantly engaged in a process of mutual constitution. As the state seeks to regulate, netizens will find alternative doublespeak to engage in critical discourse; when this is discovered, the state will then seek to address through new policy tools (Yang, 2014). Consequently, it is likely that dissent (here narrowly defined as opinions that deviate from the official state line) will continue to exist and even thrive in the years ahead.
Kyi Yeung Goh is a final-year undergraduate student reading International Relations and History at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He previously interned at various Ministries in Singapore as well as a political risk consultancy dealing with China-ASEAN relations. Currently, he serves as the Deputy Editor of the Current Affairs section of the LSE’s student-run newspaper, The Beaver.
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