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China’s Divided Netizens

Netizens have a huge impact on politics, discourse, and governance. How is the Chinese government working with or against their netizenry to create a unified population?

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On January 13, 2008, Southern Metropolis Daily in the southern city of Guangzhou, China carried a story titled “The Rise of Internet Citizens: Don’t Even Think about Duping Netizens.” Referring to the many online protests in 2007, the story noted that in the internet age, netizens could no longer be hoodwinked by anyone. They would use online forums and blogs to voice their concerns and fight for social justice. 

The word “netizens” in the title of the story, as was in public discourse at that time, carried a sense of solidarity. Wangmin, or netizenry, had taken on the meanings of a collective identity in Chinese society. No matter how different they might be in other ways, netizens shared one distinct trait. Champions of marginal social groups, they were vociferous on issues of social injustice. 

“Netizens” became a powerful collective identity through frequent netizen action – or what I refer to as online activism in my 2009 book The Power of the Internet in China. They have sought justice for victims of police brutality, exposed corrupt government officials, challenged the censorship practices of propaganda authorities, and put government authorities on the defense on policy matters. As recently as in the 1980s, students and intellectuals were considered as the conscience of the nation. Now it is netizens.

Wangmin, or netizenry, had taken on the meanings of a collective identity in Chinese society

Since 2013, however, the luster of “netizens” has dimmed. Southern Metropolis Daily can no longer hail China’s netizens as it did in 2008 with the same confidence. This is because netizens have splintered into many types and the sense of an online collectivity has weakened. On the liberal side are activist groups (such as feminists), public intellectuals, and big V’s, meaning verified users on Sina Weibo with huge numbers of followers. On the opposing side are Maoists, cyber-nationalists, official media accounts such as People’s Daily, and so forth. In addition, public relations firms and government-sponsored internet commentators intervene in online communication anonymously.

The result is not pluralism in China’s online sphere, but the suppression and weakening of critical and liberal voices. Online activism has declined in tandem with the expansion of “positive energy,” a code word for positive publicity about the regime or its leaders. On June 1, 2015, a cruise named “Oriental Star” on its way from Nanjing to Chongqing on the Yangzi River capsized in the waters of Hubei province. Only 12 of the 454 people on board survived. Such a tragic incident would have triggered mass online questioning and protest several years earlier. Yet no such online crisis happened. On the contrary, news stories from mainstream media and on Sina Weibo lavished praise on the heroic efforts of rescue, headlining how handsome-looking the rescue team members were. Little was mentioned of the causes of the disaster.

The efforts to govern online expression have not slowed down since 2013

New party policies are partly responsible for these changes. A campaign to crack down on internet rumors in the summer of 2013 undermined the influence of big V’s on Sina Weibo. The Chinese Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate issued a judicial interpretation, stipulating that people who post false information on the internet may face up to three years in prison if the posting is viewed more than 5,000 times or retweeted 500 times. This new rule was applied on September 20, 2013, when a teenager in a small town in the remote Gansu province was detained for posting a message on Sina Weibo allegedly calling for a street rally. That message had indeed been retweeted more than 500 times. 

 The efforts to govern online expression have not slowed down since 2013. In June 2016, the Cyberspace Administration of China, headed by Chinese president Xi Jinping, launched a crackdown on the online comment functions of major web sites, which are viewed as major channels of airing grievances and dissent. Editors of top web sites such as Tencent and Netease joined their voices with party leaders in support of the crackdown, pledging to monitor their user comments more closely. On September 19, 2016, Netease, whose online comment function had been one of its signature successes, announced the closure of all its online forums as of October 19, 2016, except for those on real estate and home.  

A notable feature of these government campaigns to contain cyberspace is to mobilize citizens against fellow citizens. For example, when volunteer internet commenters intervene in online discussion anonymously, their charge is to defend the regime against the criticisms of fellow netizens. Serving similar purposes are community committees set up for monitoring internet content and easily clickable buttons on web sites for netizens to report on misdemeanor.  

Among China’s divided netizens, cyber-nationalists can hardly see eye to eye with what they think of as pro-Western liberals and public intellectuals. On various occasions, they have lashed out at China’s nay-sayers. For example, on January 20, 2016, young cyber-nationalists nicknamed “Little Pinkos” launched an “expedition” to the Facebook page of Taiwan’s newly elected president Tsai Ing-wen, flooding it with angry emoji faces as well as nationalistic slogans.  

A divided internet does not have to be a controlled internet

One should neither underestimate nor overplay such populist and cyber-nationalist expressions. Unlike earlier generations, China’s post-90s cohort and millennials have experienced little material hardship. They are better informed about China and the world. Many have traveled overseas. Like their counterparts in Western societies, they rightly feel a strong sense of national pride, an emotion that is deeply tied to their personal identities. Saturated in a commercial culture of celebrity idols, online fantasy fiction, and gaming, they engage in cyber-nationalist adventures in much the same way as they would root for or against a reality TV idol. The nation could be just another idol.

Despite the ascent of cyber-nationalism and the decrease of cyber-protest, critical voices have not disappeared from Chinese cyberspace. Outrageous incidents still trigger conflict and dissension. On May 7, 2016, on his way to meet his relatives at the capital airport in Beijing, 29-year-old Lei Yang died after being detained by the police. With no clear explanation of the cause of Lei’s death forthcoming from police authorities, a public outcry broke out on Sina Weibo and among WeChat groups, leading to a pledged full investigation. 

If China’s internet is more divided than before, it is not just the result of a top-down strategy of divide and rule. The division reflects deep fractures in Chinese society. In the 1980s, post-Mao Chinese society was also divided, but people shared the aspirations for a prosperous life, and the economic reform forged ahead. China today lacks common aspirations. Under such circumstances, a divided and controlled internet could be a moment of crisis, with the danger of silencing alternative voices and sentiments. But a divided internet does not have to be a controlled internet, just as a divided society does not have to be a controlled society. It could be seized as an opportunity for netizens of different ideological persuasions to negotiate common visions for the future. China needs such common visions as much as the world.

Guobin Yang is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of 
The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online (2009), The Red Guard Generation and Political Activism in China (2016), and Dragon-Carving and the Literary Mind (2 vols, Beijing, 2003).