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It'll take a lot more than the internet to change China

By Eurasia Group analyst Damien Ma

The sheer numbers are overwhelming: There are about 300 million internet users, at least half a billion cell phones, and 70 to 80 million blogs in China. Yet the proliferation of information technology during the last decade has not ushered in a Twitter revolution or propelled China toward democratic change, and it probably won’t in the foreseeable future.

Those who point to the size of China’s army of “Netizens,” or cybercitizens, as evidence of a potential online anti-state movement will probably be disappointed. That’s because the numbers of internet users are misleading. Many are teen gamers, for instance. Of the millions of blogs, the vast majority are personal diaries or entertainment related. Of the tiny minority that post substantial content and commentary, virtually none is overtly political. Also, the government has deployed an impressive corps of internet censors that have imposed enough of a cost for the average internet user to circumvent the “Great Firewall” that they often don’t bother. Inculcating general political apathy, while simultaneously allowing more room for debate on a host of other issues, has been an effective method for the Communist Party to maintain control.

The internet, however, has changed the nature of public discourse and Chinese citizens’ relationship with the government. It promotes pluralism in public opinion, which has certainly affected state policies in China. During the recent “Green Dam” internet filtering fiasco, for instance, the state’s overreach in forcing an unpopular policy was met with fierce retaliation from unofficial Chinese media, the online community, and other private actors. As a result, officials last week formally abandoned their effort to impose the installation of filtering software on individual’s computers.   

Politically, the internet has been both a boon and a nuisance to Beijing. Bloggers and other unofficial online media have been empowered to act like citizen journalists, helping the central government expose local corruption. In response, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has stepped up its anticorruption efforts. On the flip side, information that reflects poorly on the central government travels freely on the web, and the viral nature of the internet makes it exceedingly challenging for censors to move at the same velocity. Recently, the central data bureau has been repeatedly embarrassed by leaks on the internet that showed discrepancies in its GDP data versus local data (the agency closely guards its information each quarter before the official release). In defense, the agency called on Netizens to stop spreading false information about figures. Yet many people refused to accept the agency’s spin, forcing it to admit the inadequacies in its data collection.       

Despite some public gains, the CCP is not ceding significant ground to the internet. It has installed what is arguably the most sophisticated censorship system in the world. Yet it continues to fear losing its monopoly on message control and has increasingly tried to curb internet use in other ways. The state hired more censors, arrested online activists, and blocked Twitter during the Xinjiang riots in recent months. Online coverage of a potential corruption case involving President Hu Jintao’s son is nowhere to be found. The Charter 08 movement (a treatise for political reform by intellectuals) and the internet’s role in Iran’s recent political tension have been troubling for a regime bent on minimizing unexpected dissent ahead of October’s 60th anniversary of the founding of modern China. The CCP wants to ensure unity and demonstrate that its legitimacy endures. If it must stifle dissent on the internet, it will, but there are limits to how far it can go.  

Short of completely dismantling the infrastructure that allows the internet to exist, Beijing does not have enough capacity to filter and block every piece of information. The state will likely continue to rely on a nimble and adaptive strategy that manages and manipulates the flow of information on the web, allowing public opinion in some cases while restricting information when it feels it must. But as recent developments have shown, the state often has trouble taming the expanded online space for public opinion. The technological revolution isn’t likely to beget a political revolution in China, but an evolution in political governance is occurring as a once omnipotent state grapples with the advancement of a more contentious society.