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Internet, Censorship and Political Participation in China

Internet, Censorship and Political Participation in China

Monday,  18 October 2010

Barnard Professor of Political Science Xiaobo Lü, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Professor and Founder of the China Digital Times Xiao Qiang, and Barnard Associate Professor of Sociology Guobin Yang convened to participate in a panel discussion moderated by Columbia Journalism School Professor Howard French. They gathered to discuss how the Internet manifests among China’s current 420 million Internet users, especially in terms of the interplay between the government and China’s citizens via online discourse. Despite government regulation, Lü argued that the Internet is a powerful tool for political change because it generates discussion about government policy among the growing number of Internet users, giving citizens the opportunity to express their opinions and pressurizing the government toward policy change.

Lü began the discussion by explaining how the Chinese government provides public goods while controlling coordination goods, such as human rights, free press, access to higher education, and the Internet.  Because of restrictions on the latter, China’s netizens, over one-quarter of those who are from rural areas, use the Internet primarily for entertainment, online news, instant messaging, and online games. But Lü then pointed out that in a non-democratic system, the power of the Internet is in fact enhanced. Ironically, 88 percent of Chinese netizens have written blogs to express opinions, while only 32 percent of users have done so within America’s free speech borders.

Xiao, who spends his time in Chinese cyberspace because he cannot return to China, believes that “censorship is a violence against humans.” He employed the metaphors of “playing field” and “battlefield” to describe China’s online environment. Users play on entertainment websites, but they are also pushing against the government by authoring blogs and cartooning. Xiao also feels that the Internet is becoming “more a door than a war. At least the door is opening, and once the door is open it is very hard to close. The Internet gives me hope for more political change.” Lü remarked that ultimately technology reigns outside of the reaches of government regulations because it is such a vast entity in itself. It is this that gives hope for political change down the road.

Yang agreed with Xiao’s idea that the Chinese government uses the Internet as a safety valve to test out citizen opinions. Yang believes the power of the Internet is growing, not because of loosening political control, but rather because of the persistence of shocking forms of political injustice. Migrant groups work together to protest through the Internet, activism is seeping into the Twitter realm, and Chinese rights consciousness is growing.

Lü, Xiao, and Yang see the Internet as a power shifting force. Lü noted a time when the government invited three netizen delegates to a local government council meeting— an occurrence that he felt was simply “amazing.” French pointed out that the government knows it needs to use the Internet as an economically indispensible tool to gauge citizen opinions.

At intermission, the audience turned its attention to United States Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman on live webcast from Beijing as part of the National Committee on United States-China Relations’ CHINA Town Hall. He contributed to the Internet discussion, stressing that “bloggers are the ones pushing the envelope,” and that China and the USA need passionate next generations to keep global communication open and flowing.

This 2010 CHINA Town Hall event was co-sponsored with the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, the Center for Chinese Legal Studies, the National Committee on United States-China Relations, and Columbia Journalism School.

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