China’s Surging Netizen Culture and Government’s Response

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steve clemons qian xiaoquian 2.jpg
(Washington Note publisher Steve Clemons with State Council Information Office Vice Minister Qian Xiaoquian)
As of the end of 2008, China claimed 298 million “netizens” — or regular users of the internet.
At that same benchmark in time, China had 162 million blog sites and 117 million mobile internet users.
By the end of June 2009, Chinese authorities predict a 20% growth jump in all these figures.
Like all American journalists or public policy hands who visit China, I have been interested in what sites one could not get on to. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are the perennial blocked sites (though Chinese authorities permitted access to most these sites during the Olympic Games). However, to be quite honest, many of the sites — particularly news and information sites that I could not access a year ago when i was in Beijing — are available.
I have been checking news and policy websites in the UK, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, Canada, Poland, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, and others to see significant blocks — but the only newspaper I have not been able to get that I wanted to get was the Philadelphia Inquirer — which a young person here showed me how to reach through a back channel site.
In fact, this young person walking through internet access issues with me said that Chinese young people can essentially access anything that the government might try and does block. This person who works in international affairs says that the ability of the Chinese government to significantly control access to web-based content is quickly eroding.
And as a result of very interesting and candid discussions with the Vice Minister of the State Council Information Office, Qian Xiaoqian, I believe that many Chinese government officials know that the practice of blocking this site or that is undergoing significant change or reform. According to Vice Minister Qian, Chinese authorities restrict access to sites based on four principal criteria: the incitement of hatred between ethnic groups, racial discrimination, pornography, and violence. He said that since China’s reform process started 30 years ago, the State and China’s citizens have moved into a mode of significant tolerance of criticism and dissent but that the government still objected and would intervene to “oppose fabrication of stories.”
I’m sure that many will continue to argue for some time that the Chinese government plays an oppressive force when it comes to internet management and monitoring.
But I disagree.
There is simply just too much internet use. Terminals are everywhere. The newspapers are actually full of stories about people critiquing government officials, standards, building and infrastructure quality. It’s fascinating — not perfect. I do get the sense that political entrepreneurship is mostly a non-starter here, but even on that front, I have found several key cases where even that form of self-censorship is changing for the better.
As the State Council Information Office official told me, all of this could not be happening if the Chinese government didn’t view the expansion and deployment of the internet “positively.”
In my exchange with the Vice Minister, I mentioned that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar‘s office had sent me an email that morning about an exchange that Senator Lugar had had with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The email from Lugar was not “text” but rather a hyperlink to Richard Lugar’s YouTube site, which archives a lot of video recorded exchanges between Senator Lugar with the world’s leading foreign policy personalities.
I conveyed to Vice Minister Qian that YouTube was not available and was one of the blocked sites — most likely because of concerns over “fabrication” of things which the Chinese government deems to be untrue or of serious national security consequence.
Vice Minister Qian was not defensive — and made no claims that he would get YouTube unblocked (he didn’t realize it was blocked) but said that by my description of the site and of Lugar’s use of the YouTube medium, it may be something that Qian should look into using for his office’s own work in public diplomacy. Pretty surprising and refreshing answer.
Some may see the practice of filtering sites to be disturbing and to be ‘the story’ that needs to be told.
But I have to say that even with my skeptic’s eye, the trends in China are very positive when it comes to public inquiry over the net and when it comes to the forward-leaning, more enlightened stance of many government officials who are incrementally liberalizing access. That I think is the real story.
It will be interesting to see if access to YouTube is restored before my next visit to China.
In Wuxi today seeing a solar panel maker and to Shenzhen tomorrow.
— Steve Clemons

Comments

14 comments on “China’s Surging Netizen Culture and Government’s Response

  1. Bart says:

    Love those matching mauve armchairs! Condi will be jealous.

    Reply

  2. Steve Clemons says:

    A note to Andy in Shenzhen who translates The Washington Note in China…
    Send me a note at steve@thewashingtonnote.com so I can contact you in Shenzhen. best, steve clemons

    Reply

  3. Paul Norheim says:

    Dear Mr. Clemons,
    I am happy to report that your skepticism is in accordance with
    my view as well. I am completely skeptical of harmony, and I am
    convinced that every reader and commenter joyfully share this
    skepticism one hundred percent with our great host.
    Pardon me for possible misspellings. My lighter (made by the
    highly successful brand “Triple Happiness”, manufactured for
    export to East-Africa) just exploded in my face, and I am
    absolutely sure that I just lost my left eye.
    A most unfortunate event, speaking from a strictly personal
    point of view. This will of course reduce my ability to proofread
    my blogging activity and correct misspellings in the coming
    days and weeks. Happily it will not affect the regular activities
    of my co-commenters at The Washington Note!
    My left eye was first class. It is most unfortunate that I did not
    loose my second class (due to a bonfire accident during New
    Year celebrations) right eye instead. Or even better: one of my
    ears. Both of my ears are first class, so tell me: who really need
    two ears, if the remaining ear is first class?

    Reply

  4. questions says:

    Considering how much time I’ve been wasting on YouTube setting up playlists lately instead of posting on TWN, my guess is that it would be politically smart of any centralizing government to keep people on YouTube!
    Change starts from below. People use the internet and eventually the government allows the behavior that’s been around for years. If there’s something we really want, we tend to get it.

    Reply

  5. Steve Clemons says:

    Greetings all — Paul and Dan, just wanted you to know that I am personally tickled by your comments. Still laughing. You guys have too much fun on this blog. Josh — not sure. I don’t think so. I’ve been on the net a lot here — in fancy hotels, and low level hotels, in offices, in starbucks, and in general wifi signals I’ve found on the street — all pretty much the same.
    And on top of that, internet terminals are everywhere — and government officials — yep, government officials — have even been chatting with me here and there about the senior level debates around the june 4 events 20 years ago. There is an impressive shift going on here – and I just dont think enough Americans are seeing it.
    But I’m still skeptical of harmony…Paul.
    steve

    Reply

  6. Josh Meah says:

    steve, are you sure you weren’t just uniquely more able to access the internet than others (ip address preferred, knowledge of basic backchannels, knowing the chinese govt, their knowledge of your media presence, etc.)? i know people in china that only a month or two back needed to be read newspapers over the phone from elsewhere to get some of the more important international stories — and then the phone would get cut off for an hour. this was necessary because major portions of major news organizations (e.g. nyt type stuff) were just straight cut out from view online.
    just a thought.

    Reply

  7. Paul Norheim says:

    Yes Don, I agree completely with what you said. You made my
    day with your comment! And everybody here share your opinion
    that YouTube is a very nice, entertaining and useful invention,
    that hopefully will continue to inspire people living in the Western
    hemisphere and fill their hearts with joy and happiness into a
    very bright future.

    Reply

  8. Don Bacon says:

    josh,
    I believe nobody ever says “bu,” rather it is a negative modifier, is it not? As in bu yao, don’t have? Shih bu shih?

    Reply

  9. Don Bacon says:

    Paul, I think you’ve got it. That’s exactly what I was intending to convey. And can we we further agree that neither of us will expect an early restoration of YouTube in China, yes?

    Reply

  10. josh says:

    Mr. Bacon,
    There is a word “bu” which essentially means no, but it depends on the context. Sometimes it can be substituted for “mei you” when the question involves the past tense or a question of “have” or “have not.” However, there is no real word for “YES” so I think your theory about language being a reflection of this cultural phenomenon of agreeing is a little whack.

    Reply

  11. Paul Norheim says:

    Everything you say at TWN, Don Bacon, is always 100% correct.
    Your comments make every reader very happy, and are
    indispensable contributions towards harmony and peace in the
    21th century.

    Reply

  12. Don Bacon says:

    Of course, Steve, I’m sure you realize that it is a Chinese custom always to agree. It’s a good custom, but it can be misleading if not understood. Disagreement is bad manners, and there is no word in the Chinese language for “no.”
    China hands please correct me if I’m wrong (don’t just agree).

    Reply

  13. Dan Kervick says:

    Who manage,s your itineraries, booking and scheduling Steve? He or she deserves a high-level cocktail circuit invite 🙂

    Reply

  14. Matt says:

    I really have a hard time grasping what your job actually is sometimes, but whatever it is, it’s really freakin’ awesome.

    Reply

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