20 June 2008

Chinese Whispers


Zheng argues that while China is making no meaningful progress toward democratization, the Internet is nonetheless causing "political liberalization." The Internet in China, he believes, is enabling greater public deliberation about policy (within limits to be sure) as well as forcing the leadership to be more responsive to public opinion - or at least that segment of public opinion that is able to appear on the part of the Internet that you can access in China, which despite its limitations still gives Chinese citizens a conduit of expression that was not available before. Zheng points to several cases where public reaction to and discussion of information posted online led to policy changes: outrage over Sun Zhigang's death in detention led to abolition of the "Custody and Repatriation" system; outrage over the detention of outspoken rural business tycoon Sun Dawu created pressure on provincial governments and the central government to change policy practices that discriminate against the private sector. During the SARS outbreak, information, concerns (and wild rumors) posted on the Internet and sent through mobile SMS eventually broke down government attempts at tight information control. He also points to wildly unsuccessful cases: use of the Internet by the outlawed FLG and the opposition China Democracy Party to criticize the regime and call for an end to one-party rule by the CCP. What's the difference?

Zheng says that the difference between success and failure comes down to an online movement's strategy and objectives. The most spectacularly unsuccessful online movements (and the ones leading to the most brutal crackdowns both online and off) tend to advocate what he calls the "exit" option - i.e. that the Chinese people should exit one-party CCP rule, or that a particular group or territory might have the right to do so. The Chinese bureaucracy and leadership contains reformists and conservatives. However "when the regime is threatened by challengers, the soft-liners and hard-liners are likely to stand on the same side and fight the challengers." Successful online movements in China tend to use what he calls the "voice" option, or what other political scientists call the "cooperation option." The key to a successful effort to change government policy in China is to find a way to give reformist leaders and bureaucrats at all levels of government the ammunition they need to win out in arguments and power-struggles with their hard-line conservative colleagues. Reformists can point to what's being said in the chatrooms and blogs and in the edgier newspapers and argue that without change, there will be more unrest and public unhappiness - thus change is required to save the regime. Zheng writes: "the voice does not aim to undermine or overthrow the state. Instead, through a voice mechanism, the state can receive feedback from social groups to respond to state decline and improve its legitimacy."

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