Notes from the June 14 ICA 2013 Preconference “China and the New Internet World”

Today I and some of my colleagues from Lund’s Digital China Project have attended the ICA 2013 Preconference “China and the New Internet World” in Oxford, UK, addressing several questions around the impact of the Internet on China, and of China on the Internet. As pointed out in the introductory panel, not only the number of Chinese Internet users is the largest in the world, but also that of Internet architects and designers. What does that mean for the Internet as a whole? What is the geopolitical dimension of the Internet? What are the cultural norms of the Internet? What are the non-material, ideational consequences of new technologies (not anticipated by Chinese leaders at the beginning of the reform era)?

Speakers also pointed out that some concepts were erroneous or misleading, such as that of digital divides. There are no digital divides, one commentator maintained; there are simply divides. The digital world is not disconnected from the real world; digital and real world are deeply entangled.

Some brief information and reflections on some of the presentations that I attended:

In a paper on e-monitoring and public administration in China, Jesper Schlæger from Sichuan University gave an overview of anti-corruption systems at work in China. China’s central government, the Bureau of Supervision, public employees and screen-level bureaucracies cooperate in order to monitor, control and possibly eradicate corruption. This happens under the banner of ‘good governance’ (or ‘governing in the sunlight’), and involves a sophisticated system of e-monitoring that pulls data from different pools of information within the administration up to the municipal level. A variety of information (such as the use of land as observed from satellites, border migration, family registration, bank accounts etc.) feeds into this e-monitoring system, so that possibly corrupt or disruptive behavior can be detected (or even predicted).

As became clear in the discussion, this system of e-monitoring works quite differently in different provinces in China. A puzzling characteristic is that the central government cannot access the provincial e-monitoring systems – a centrally organized, comprehensive e-monitoring system does not exist, despite the technical possibility to run such a system. While the provincial-level e-monitoring systems seem to reduce lower-level corruption, higher-level officials are much less exposed to these monitoring processes.

Another paper by Bai Ruoyun concerned Internet-powered scandals in China, taking, among other things, a look at the power of visual representations on the Internet. Pictures, much more than texts, seem to convey a more authentic and true representation of reality. The quest for truth – e.g. in uncovering corruption – very often ends in the hunt for compromising photos, a repeated example being the display of (expensive, luxury) wrist watches among Chinese officials. (See also the more recent news on China’s First Lady using an iPhone.) Ironically, this has at times resulted in the complete removal of wrist watches on official/screened occasions, and also raises the question whether public discourse is not trivialized or irrationalized by diverting attention from cases of big injustices to those of petty corruption. (See also my previous blog about fighting surrogate battles on the Internet.)

Two other presentations on censorship and trust in online information revealed patterns of controlling and deleting information from Chinese news portals and social media. One paper by Sonya Yan Song et al. looked at the scale of news deletion patterns at the portals of Sina North America, Sina Beijing, and NetEase (based in China). There are some topics that are particularly subject to deletion, such as events that involve many deaths (accidents, disasters), issues of land use, pollution, food safety, problematic foreign companies (such as Foxconn etc.). Also, domestic news were more likely to be deleted than international ones, as well as more news are deleted around Beijing than in other areas within China. In general, about two to three pieces of news get deleted daily on these news portals, while research on social media speaks of around 16% of blogs being regularly deleted. The latter, higher share is probably due to the fact that social media contains more spam and is populated by users who are not as concerned about self-censorship as are journalists who publish on news portals.

(Self-)Censorship was also the topic of another paper which identified different mechanisms of ‘smart’ censorship, such as security check groups (relatively secret working groups, whose members have an extensive knowledge of what constitutes accepted online behavior), a user verification system (checking name, personal identity, e-mail etc.), a negotiation system (about the appropriateness of barring micro-bloggers for a certain time span), and a silencing system (that is, the self-imposed censorship as implemented by the micro-blog company).

Sanctions on online behavior, the speaker said, were not always predictable. Although certain kinds of punishment were definitely not just looking at the contents of the posted message but also taking into account the rank and influence of the respective user, censorship could take different forms with different outcomes. “In China”, speaker and audience agreed, “everything is uncertain.”

About Barbara Schulte

Barbara Schulte is Associate Professor at the Institute of Sociology, Lund University
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