Internet With Chinese Characteristics

Here’s my translation of the transcript entitled "What Changes Will the Internet Bring to China?":-

"I've always said that the Internet has a very unique status in China, one that is beyond comparison with that in other countries. In other countries, a lot of news is dug up by the traditional media and is then disseminated on the Internet, where the news stories are discussed widely and elaborated in follow-ups. But in China, we see that a lot of the reporters do not have to go out and do on-the-scene interviews or investigative work – they just go on the Internet, as if that is where the scene is.

Why is this so? Because a lot of news emanate from the Internet. We can therefore say that the development of the Internet does smack of Chinese characteristics. For this reason, we should conduct some local studies to find out what the Chinese Internet is all about, what kind of changes it will bring to China and what impact it has on China.

Today I would like to recommend a good book to you. The book is titled '眾聲喧嘩' ('The Cacophony of Public Voices' and the subtitle is 'Personal Expression and Public Discourse in the Internet Era'. Hu Yong is a deputy professor in Beijing University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

In the book, Hu Yong expounds on what he calls 'Common Media'. What is 'Common Media'? It is in fact a kind of New Media. What are the characteristics of New Media then?

First, it has a hyperlink capacity. That is, when you read a piece of writing on the Internet, in an instant it can link you to another site. The linking can be multi-faceted and multi-layered. There can be an unlimited number of linkages, hence the name: hyperlink.

Second, it is multimedia. When you are on a website reading a news report text, you will find it is accompanied not only by photo(s), but also audio and visual clips.

Third, it has a powerful interactive capacity. If you are watching this program on television, you cannot launch an immediate verbal attack on me. But if you are watching it on the Internet, you can leave your comments on the site any time.

Hu Yong thinks that Common Media comes into being if all these three features are present.

Common Media is in fact the public’s perspectives of the media. In traditional media, it is a communication from one single point to other multiple points – one is the transmitting end while the others are the receiving end. But in Common Media, diversified and unlimited parties disseminate information in all directions – we are at the same time the recipients and disseminators of information, and we disseminate it to many different entities. That is why it is called Common Media.

The one issue that the book is particularly concerned with is that the traditional boundary between the public and private spheres is being obfuscated in this era of Common Media. This phenomenon is particularly conspicuous in China. In the last few years, we have often heard of cases of infringement on people’s privacy. Ever since the human flesh search engine has been invented, the private information about many people has been disclosed in public. In other cases, some people write something on their blogs and their writings turn into a focus of public attention.

Apart from that issue, another question that the book asks, which is of interest to most people, is whether the Internet can be considered a public sphere in China, and whether it can bring about seminal changes in various areas, including the political arena.

The book quotes German scholar and philosopher Jurgen Habermas’ interpretation of 'public sphere' and goes on to elaborate on it.

The public sphere is first and foremost a space within our social life, which is in principle open to all people. Inside this space, individuals congregate as a group to engage in rational discourse and reach a consensus on matters of mutual interest, and through such a process exercise democratic control over the State’s actions. Inside this space, we carry on exchanges in a liberal and equal manner and we follow a rule of reasoning. This way, we can influence the progress of our nation’s development.

But this is subject to one pre-condition, which is, assuming the Internet is such a public sphere, that the participants are representative of the public. Nowadays we often refer to netizens’ opinion. But can netizens represent the citizens? According to some research studies cited in the book, the answer is very clear – netizens’ discussion cannot be considered as a gauge of public opinion. Why?

We can often find that most readers of Internet forum posts are silent and only a handful of readers actively respond. This minority of activists cannot represent those who remain silent. According to surveys, these activists are mostly young males or some relatively well-educated minority who are particularly interested in politics.

Another problem is that on the Internet, some netizens use violent or aggressive language, or even very extremist and macho expressions. Moreover, anonymity on the Internet lessens the risk of liability for using abusive language.

So Internet discourse is still incapable of bringing about a high quality public sphere. But in conclusion, Hu Yong points out that since we don’t have elections nor any comprehensive public discourse method, the Internet still shoulders an important responsibility. Therefore, we should still maintain an optimistic attitude and hope towards the future prospect of the Internet."