If you read one book about the Chinese Internet this year (and, yes, there aren’t very many are there?), let it be Historicizing Online Politics: Telegraphy, the Internet, and Political Participation in China, by U. Wisconsin Madison’s anthropology professor Zhou Yongming (Stanford Press, 2006). The book is actually a good read–not always the case for an academic monograph–and juxtaposes the development and role of telegraphy in the late 1800s with the development and role of the Internet in the past two decades in China. Zhou concludes that Chinese nationalism, the relationship between China and the outside world, and domestic politics are the real drivers of inventive uses of both technologies–not the other way around.
I would not skip the first two-thirds of the book, which detail the history of the telegraph through delightful descriptions of local elites and their disagreements with the Qing rulers in the north, the suspicious view of the Qing government towards the new technology, and the use of the telegraph as a tool for an unprecedented, widespread, rapid dissemination of a genre of political speech known as the “circular telegram.”
But if you’re pressed for time or not interested in history or not interested in reading whole books, you can focus on the last third of the book, which provides a nuanced view of various forms of “political participation” on the Chinese Internet in the past two decades. Zhou provides superb analysis of how the Chinese government has welcomed the Internet while at the same time regulating it as heavily as it can, not least through self-censorship by online writers. What I especially love about the Internet work is that Zhou takes a nice, long look at the people and ideas behind a number of important early websites, blogs, and BBS forums dealing with politics, some of which are ongoing such as V-War Forum 铁血社区 and the People’s Daily’s Strengthening China Forum 强国论坛 and others of which have been shut down such as, Michael Anti or recently, Century China Salon. A few of the key ideas from the book’s conclusion:
…the Chinese state has had to open up some online space to newly emerged netizens, while employing online tools to confront those who might use it for political purposes that go against its interests. In the meantime, Chinese intellectuals, marginalized minjian writers, and niche Internet surfers like the military fan groups have all made efforts to expand political participation, in which they have succeeded to a certain degree, especially in their own websites and BBS forums. Yet so far, the Internet has not been as influential and effective in shaping the public sphere as the circular telegram was a century ago (p. 234).
…the position of Chinese nationalists online is not explained by theorizing that they have been misled by the Chinese state and consequently do not “get it right.” Rather, they are in fact well informed through the Internet and other media, but are responding in ways that are not congruent with the expected changes the information is supposed to exert upon its receivers, that is, by becoming pro-democratic opponents of the current regime (p. 239).
Zhou’s latest article appears in June 2006 issue of Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Twenty-First Century Review (二十一世纪, in Chinese), with two other articles under the heading of Freedom of the Press and Access to Information on the Internet. Zhou’s article is: “The Privatization of Regulation and the Reception Context of Internet Information,” which looks to be a more updated discussion of some of the changes since research for the book discussed above was done in the early 2000s.