Open Spaces and Closed Doors
FOCUS ASIA 25-26 November 2013
China today has about 560 million Internet users and more than 300 million people are active on blogs or social-networking sites. Already now, Internet enabled devices permeate almost any aspect of urban life and one day they might do so in rural areas as well. At the same time, however, Internet use is closely monitored and freedom of expression remains severely restricted. Increasing interconnectedness, therefore, has become a two-edged sword as it opens new ways for cooperation and access to information and at the same time generates strong incentives for various stakeholders to intrude on privacy. The Internet in China has caught much attention worldwide not least because it is believed to be a driver for political change. Public and political perceptions, however, are often shaped within the dialectic of suppression (censorship) and resistance (online protests). Yet, lived virtual reality often is not explicitly but rather latently political. Mundane practices and purposes of Internet use still have a strong impact on changing state-society relations because they alter both how society negotiates competing interests and what is regarded as negotiable.
The case of China demonstrates that the spirit of decentralized and non-hierarchical governance of the Internet in its early days is not irreversible. And it is therefore not only the Internet that changes China but China changes also the Internet. From this perspective it becomes obvious that embracing networked communication is not necessarily a privilege of democracies or an inevitable path towards it. Understanding the transformational power of the Internet in China, therefore, requires a closer look at the enabling and constraining factors that shape virtual spaces for information sharing, critical discussions, government innovations, social interaction, and business opportunities as well as their impact on and representation of real world social relations; in other words the technological and institutional constitution of an newly emerging digital society.