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Rose Deller

March 4th, 2016

Book Review: China’s Contested Internet edited by Guobin Yang


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Rose Deller

March 4th, 2016

Book Review: China’s Contested Internet edited by Guobin Yang


Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

China’s Contested Internet, edited by Guobin Yang, examines the varied forms of online political activity that have emerged in China over the past ten years, attending to the period before and after the release of Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging platform. Although the timing of the volume prevents it from addressing the growing significance of new platform, WeChat, and the mixed methods approach lacks occasional rigour, Carwyn Morris welcomes this collection as an invaluable attempt to provide one of the first genealogies of conflict and contestation on the Chinese internet over the last decade.  

This book review has been translated into Mandarin by Shushan Li (Mandarin LN240, teacher Lijing Shi) as part of the LSE Reviews in Translation project, a collaboration between LSE Language Centre and LSE Review of Books. Please scroll down to read this translation or click here.

China’s Contested Internet. Guobin Yang (ed.). NIAS Press. 2015.

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China's Contested InternetThis edited volume, by Guobin Yang, includes ten chapters and an introduction that bring together research examining different forms of contestation related to the internet in China over the last ten or more years. The impact of Yang’s previous research, and that of Jack Qiu, is obvious in China’s Contested Internet, and the book fits nicely into the expanding field of research on ICTs in China. The volume, which contains qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods research on the Chinese internet and its impact offline, focuses on the ‘many ways of being political’ (13) in China and examines the mediation of politics online during a period where new media has mediatised many realms of political discussion and action. This results in, according to Jian Xu, ‘the patterns of political communication [being] innovated, reformed and transformed’ (268).

China’s Contested Internet is divided into two parts. The first half is a journey through the pre-Sina Weibo era of the internet in China, the majority of which is before 2009, when Sina Weibo (China’s most popular microblogging platform, similar to Twitter) was released. This section of the book includes chapters on internet literature, political participation, online activism, ethnic identity and, in the only post-2009 research, hacking spaces. The second half of this volume looks at the Weibo era of 2009 to 2013. In this section, the chapters examine memes, local government microblogs, digital divides, spectating online and collective action. In addition to these two main themes, there is a definite focus on the power of language and linguistics on the internet, how online communities can bring about offline change and, most interestingly for me, a turn towards researching the practices of a mediated and online life in China.

It is no coincidence that the first chapter of each section deals with language and literature. The internet revolves around the written word, and the tonality of the Chinese language, as well as the characters it uses, give ordinary citizens huge scope for innovative and ironic forms of protest even when censorship is rife. The first of these explorations of language is by Thomas Chen, offering a fascinating look at online and offline censorship and their unexpected results. Chen does this by exploring the history of Such Is This World@sars.come, an internet novel by Hu Fayun discussing censorship that was itself censored. Chen uses the concept of ‘alter-production’ to describe the non-binary methods of dealing with censorship in China. This term captures the heterogeneity of responses to censorship, including its unanticipated consequences. These include a new language of protest and politics as well as attention being drawn to the objects of suppression. In the case of Such Is This World@sars.come, the acts of censorship led to the covert spread of the uncensored version of the novel, widespread analysis of censorship in the physical version and an analysis of the author’s own self-censorship with regards to the Tiananmen Square protests.

Sina WeiboImage Credit: Weibo Party (bfishadow)

Following on from this, in the first chapter of the Weibo era section, Marcella Szablewicz looks at the way memes are used as ‘structures of feeling’ for disillusioned young netizens, promoting alternative identities that contest mainstream ideas of success. These ideals include being a tall, rich and handsome man (gao fu shuai) or a white-skinned, rich and beautiful woman (bai fu mei). In contrast, the meme led to people instead identifying as a loser/tool (diaosi), or poor, short and ugly (qiong ai chou). The formation of new identities is seen by Szablewicz as a politics of potential, making ways of life that run against the norm more acceptable. Szablewicz convincingly links the diaosi meme to a growing awareness and discussion of income inequality in China, and asks if the diaosi are becoming China’s ‘99 percent’. While reading this account of the diaosi, I began to wonder if it is possible to go further. Could the diaosi meme be a gateway to the normalisation of other identities, such as female identities that are at odds with China’s standard portrayal of the ideal female as a doting mother and housewife? This may include LGBT identities or a move away from describing unmarried women as ‘leftover women’ (sheng nv).

The remainder of the Weibo era section has a more traditional political theme. In general, it deals with the impact of microblogs on political institutions and on the political engagement of Chinese citizens. The analysis presented in this section has a tightness that is not quite there in the first half of the book, a section that covers a much wider variety of topics over a longer period, including backpacking communities and television talent contests. I enjoyed reading the chapters by Xu and Sally Xiaojin Chen, and Marina Svensson’s chapter looking at which voices are heard on Weibo adds to a growing literature on how the internet may not be the loudspeaker that many of the least heard voices need. It also includes compelling evidence that the internet in China is merely reproducing offline power online.

But, while I agree with Svensson’s conclusions, basing the analysis of migrant workers on a sample of only 15 Weibo accounts that belong to them seems too limited, especially as there are thought to be over 250 million migrant workers in China. Also, the rather arbitrary decision to make having more than 1,000 followers a point of analysis was confusing: is 1,000 followers the average number of a Weibo account? Perhaps it is time to move away from the use of arbitrary figures, such as 1,000 followers, and start thinking about better ways to analyse how a voice is heard on social media. I myself am a tech-savvy 29-year-old with over ten years of experience using Chinese-language social media and chat programs, and I only have 1,048 followers on Weibo. Furthermore, only 16% of the accounts that follow me have over 1,000 followers, making my followers, many of whom are also tech-savvy millennials, underperform compared to the migrant workers in this study, 40% of whom have over 1,000 followers. With these points I am not trying to suggest that migrant workers have a greater voice on Weibo than moderately wealthy millennials; instead, I am trying to show how easily statistics can be misrepresented or misinterpreted, and how important it is to be responsible with their use. So, while I applaud the desire of many researchers to use mixed methods studies, these research methods, whether qualitative or quantitative, still need to be rigorous.

Perhaps the greatest problem in researching ICTs and the internet is also part of its beauty, and that is the rapid pace of change. Technologies and the practices of ICT users often evolve faster than the research on them is published. This leaves us with an elephant in the room, and that is WeChat (Weixin), the platform that has begun to dominate the internet in China over the last three years, and the platform that currently has 650 million monthly average users. Fortunately, the decision to take a longer historical view on contestation on the Chinese internet means that an absence of chapters focusing on WeChat does little to detract from the impact of this volume and its importance as a comparative tool for contemporary social science research.

In conclusion, part of this volume’s value is that, as an edited collection, it gives the reader a detailed look at a variety of topics and time periods, and the chapters also deal with events and trends on the Chinese internet over a period of more than ten years. The range of themes covered by the various authors gives the reader a historical perspective on the Chinese internet that is sorely needed to understand current trends. In a sense, it could be argued that this volume goes some way to being one of the first attempts at a genealogy of conflict and contestation on the Chinese internet. And, while the absence of WeChat is noticeable, reports of the death of Sina Weibo may have been greatly exaggerated, with Weibo still an important realm for political discussion, contestation and more.

Carwyn Morris is an ESRC-funded PhD student on the programme Human Geography and Urban Studies in the Department of Geography and Environment at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on mobile phones, migration, mediated intimacy and the reproduction of place and home in urban China. He can be followed on Twitter: @carwyn.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics

书评:《中国互联网兵家必争之地》 Guobin Yang. NIAS Press. 2015.

Review translated by Shushan Li (Mandarin LN240, teacher Lijing Shi).

由杨国斌编辑的这本书包括十个章节和一个前言,概括了中国近十多年来对不同形式的互联网竞争的研究。杨之前的研究和Jack邱的研究对《中国互联网兵家必争之地》 有显而易见的影响,这本书与正在扩展中国信息科技研究非常吻合。这本书包括了对中国互联网的定性,定量和混合方法的研究及其在线下的影响,重点介绍了中国的“多种政治形式” (13),并研究了新媒体在介入许多领域的政治讨论和行动期间的在线政治调解。正如Xu Jian所说,这导致了“政治沟通模式的创新,改革和变化” (268)。

《中国互联网兵家必争之地》分为两部分。第一部分描述2009年前新浪微博时代(中国最受欢迎的微博平台,类似于Twitter)的中国互联网时代。书的这一部分包括了以下章节:互联网文学,政治参与,在线行动主义,民族身份和2009年以后对黑客空间的研究。该书的第二部分讨论2009年至2013年的微博时代。这部分的章节分别分析了模因,地方政府微博,数字鸿沟,观察在线和集体行动。除了以上两个主题之外,还有一个明确的焦点集中在互联网上的语言和发言者的力量;这些网上团体如何引发线下的变化;而我最感兴趣的研究是关于由网络促成的和网上生活的实践 。

每个部分的第一章必然会涉及语言和文学。 互联网离不开书面词汇,而中文的音调和汉字给普通公民提供了以创新和讽刺的形式来抗议的巨大空间, 哪怕审查无处不在。托马斯·陈是第一个探索这些语言的人,他对网上和线下的审查及其意想不到的结果的看法引人入胜。他使用“改变-生产” 这个概念来描述在中国处理审查制度的非二元方法。这个术语捕捉了对审查制度的反应的异质性,包括其意想不到的后果。

Image Credit: Weibo Party (bfishadow)

包括抗议和政治的新语言,以及对镇压对象的关注。接下来,在微博时代部分的第一章,Marcella Szablewicz着眼于 分析“模因”(meme)是如被幻想破灭的年轻网友用作 “感觉的结构”, 从而推动与主流成功想法相悖的另类身份认同。这些理想包括“高富帅” 或 “ 白富美” 。相比之下,模因导致人们自认是 “屌丝”,或 “ 穷矮丑 ”。新身份的形成被Szablewicz看作是一种潜在的政见,使得违反社会标准的生活方式更容易被接受。当我在阅读 “屌丝” 的叙述时,我想能否再向前一步。“屌丝”的模因能否成为其他身份认同正常化的一个途径,比如,与贤妻良母式理想女性不同的其他女性。 可能还可以包括LGBT(同性恋者双性恋者和变性者), 或不再把未婚妇女视为“剩女” 。

关于微博时代的其余章节有一个更传统的政治主题。一般来说涉及微博对中国的政治机构和 公民的政治参与的影响。这个部分的分析比前半部分中更严密。 这个部分涉及来较长时期內的更多主题,包括背包社群和电视选秀节目。我喜欢阅读徐, 陈和 Svensson合写的章节 。他们分析微博上的哪些声音被听到,使日益增多的关于互联网可能并不能传播弱者的声音的文献又多了一篇 。 也为“中国的互联网只是线下权力在网上的复制” 提供了令人信服的证据。

我虽然同意Svensson的结论,但是中国有超过2.5亿的农民工,基于15个微博账户来分析农民工的数据是有局限性的。此外,随意将超过1000个粉丝定为分析点令人困惑:每个微博账户平均有1000个粉丝吗?也许现在应该避免随意使用数字,比如1000个粉丝;而应该开始思考更好地分析社交媒体上的声音是怎样被听到的方法。我自己精通技术,已经使用中文社交媒体和聊天程序十多年了,也只有1048个微博粉丝。我的粉丝中只有16%的账户有超过1000个的粉丝;他们多是深谙科技的千禧一代,却比该研究中的农民工的粉丝还要少。 该研究中40%的农民工有1000多粉丝。列举这些细节不想暗示农民工在微博上比中等富裕的千禧一代有更大的声音; 相反,我试图说明统计数据如何容易被误解或歪曲,以及负责地使用它们是多么重要。因此我赞扬许多研究人员使用混合方法研究的意愿,但这些研究方法,无论是定性还是定量,都需要严谨细致。

也许在研究信息通讯技术 (ICT)和互联网是最大的问题,也是它美好的一部分 — 其快速的变化。技术和ICT用户操作方面的进展往往比发表研究更快。这给我们带来一个重要而又被忽略的问题 --微信。近三年来微信成为主导中国互联网的一个平台,目前平均每月有6.5多亿名用户。幸运的是,对中国互联网的争论采取更长的历史观点意味着缺乏关注微信的章节并不会减少这本书的影响及其作为当代社会科学研究的比较工具的重要性。

总之,本书的部分价值在于作为一个编辑合集,它让读者详细了解各种主题和时间段。 一些章节还涉及中国互联网上十多年间的事件和趋势。各位作者所涵盖的主题范围为读者提供了一个审视中国互联网的历史视角,这是深入理解当前趋势所需要的。在一定程度上,该书为首次尝试以“家谱”的形式来记录中国互联网上的冲突和争论。虽然明显缺失微信;但有关新浪微博消亡的报道可能言过其实,微博依然是一个政治讨论,抗议及其他的重要平台 。


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Rose Deller

Posted In: Art, Lit and Film | Asia | Contributions from LSE Staff and Students | Law and Human Rights | Media Studies | Reviews in Translation | Science and Tech

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This work by LSE Review of Books is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales.