The Chinese Internet - Sea Changes in 2008

Here is my translation of the essay:-

"Regarding the impact of the internet on China’s everyday life, there are three major transformations in Year 2008 that are worth noting.

First, the problem of information verifiability is becoming more and more pronounced. It is often difficult to find the subject of an incident or a third party to verify information that is disseminated on the internet. Even where verification is possible, the effect of such verification depends on the underlying significance of the incident in question, the obfuscating element of the verifying procedure, and on how the information recipients interpret the verification. The internet platform has become a prize up for grabs by various interest groups. In China, the hijacking of the media and fabrication of public opinion by commercial interest groups has become so common that the perpetrators don’t even try to camouflage their act and the information recipients just turn a blind eye to it. Those with political power are also more and more dexterous with deliberately distributing information that is favorable to themselves. The fact that in recent years local authorities have been aggressively building their own armies of internet commentators is one solid proof.

It can be said that the 'innocent age' of the Chinese internet is now nothing more than a distant memory. The folksy 'home garden' has turned into a predatory 'jungle'. The commercial interest groups, the political interest groups and even grass-root netizens are all fighters in this jungle. The internet undercurrent fighting that took place after the incident of 'six Harbin policemen beating a civilian to death' is one glaring example. I totally agree with famous blogger Hecaitou’s comments: 'We have entered an age where paid comments and paid truths co-exist. The difficulty in discerning true and false information has been elevated to an unprecedented level.' The internet was once considered capable of straightening out distortions in the real world and of allowing people to unravel the truth. But the fact is: the internet is becoming a public opinion tool that is subjected to control and manipulation by various interest groups having their own agendas.

Second, as different information sources disseminate conflicting stories, society as a whole becomes more prone to deep anguish and fear. This helps explain why so many incidents in 2008 carry the shade of rumor. Rumor is nothing more than our own echo, reflecting a society’s desire, fear, and obsession. Jean-Noel Kapferer once said, 'The anxiety or despair that is omnipresent has never quite left society. If it has been suppressed, or released, or given legal recognition, that is only a way of expressing it. It would first appear in gossips, and then if conditions permit, would become a rumor…… The repetitive occurrence of rumors is a sign saying that the city, community and nation are in constant chaos.'

Under these circumstances, establishing a system for expressing public opinions, one that allows competition among various interest groups, would not only be conducive to better governance, but would also promote healthy and beneficial social progress. If a society does not permit or has never even considered the provision of an 'outlet', particularly when there is a disastrous lack of information filter and safety valve, then people’s anxieties and unstable psyche would be a great threat to the stability of the whole Chinese society. From this perspective, the repetitive appearance of rumors throughout China’s societal development does have a positive side. It implies that the State has, due to all kinds of reasons, somewhat relaxed the habitual control, prohibition or guidance, thus allowing things that used to lurk beneath the surface to be let out in the open. Through coming face to face with rumors, we can intuitively feel the pulse of a healthy, throbbing society.

Third, in a society that is highly dependent on the media and the internet, a new 'integrated culture' has emerged in the communications industry. Information that is created within such a culture has become an 'information bomb'. Information emanating from the internet can influence the production of contents in other types of media; new media technology and the commercial valuation that supports it are both focused on speed, thus greatly cutting back the time in which to verify the information produced; there is an exponential growth in the number of users who enter the new media network; the 'infotainment culture', the 'marketing of politics' and the public’s thirst for gossips all help to create all kinds of 'new media incidents'. One can probably conclude, even without the help of an end-user survey, that the impact of such kind of 'information bomb' is shocking. In China, when certain web portals give extensive coverage to a certain piece of news, when certain well-known BBS forums build up 'high towers' of comments, when hearsays originating from the internet become contents of the traditional media, when certain political or business hot shots are forced to spend time and energy to remedy their tarnished reputation, when scandalous stories lead to the dismissal of certain senior officials, we should have some idea how much importance the public attach to such 'information bomb'.

For this very reason, studies about the internet age communications must transcend the old mindset related to information as understood in the traditional inter-personal and public media communications field. The studies should center on the new problems created by the 'information bomb', and the study results should be used to explore the new relationship between politics and society. This is necessary because the new sea changes that we face now compared with the old are much more complicated, much more fraught with danger, and much more electrifying."