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About the Author
Dr. Jian Xu received his PhD in Media and Communication in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Australia. He researches Chinese media and culture with a particular interest in the sociology, culture and politics of new media. He is currently teaching at the University of New South Wales.
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Media Events in Web 2.0 China
Interventions of Online Activism
By Jian Xu
Sussex Academic PressCopyright © 2016 Jian Xu
All rights reserved.
Alternative Media and Online Activism
Chapter 1 theorizes the Internet as an alternative media and presents online activism as political communication. This chapter first discusses alternative media, the platforms and technological settings of online activism, and provides a historical overview of the development of alternative media in China. The Internet has become the most important alternative media in China today, and online activism takes many forms. This chapter then discusses China's online activism by looking at its major themes, researches and characteristics. It further categorizes China's online activism into three major modes: culture jamming, citizen journalism and mediated mobilization.
Understanding alternative media
Alternative media — also known as "radical media" (Downing et al. 2001), "citizens' media" (Rodriguez 2011), "tactical media" (Garcia and Lovink 1997), "activist media" (Waltz 2005) or "autonomous media" (Langlois and Dubois 2005) — play an important role in "media production that challenges, at least implicitly, actual concentrations of media power, whatever form those concentrations may take in different locations" (Couldry and Curran 2003: 7). They "[open] up cracks in the mass-media monolith" (Waltz 2005 viii) and can act as "unofficial opposition to mainstream media" (Kidd 1999: 113).
Alternative media counteract the concentration of media power by challenging the dominant forms of media production, structure, content, distribution and reception (Fuchs 2011: 298). In terms of media production, alternative media provide affordable platforms for people to participate in symbolic production. The passive audiences of the past have become proactive consumers, or "prosumers" (Toffler 1980), and challenge dominant symbolic production, which is controlled by power, money and knowledge. In terms of media structure, alternative media are usually generated by grassroots organizations instead of hierarchical corporations. They are largely non-commercial and non-profit media, financed by donations, public funding or private resources, and thus operate relatively free from corporate and government influence (Fuchs 2010: 179). In terms of content, alternative media usually provide standpoints which oppose mainstream media. The voices of the minority and marginalized groups — which are likely to be excluded, oppressed or misrepresented in mainstream media — come to the fore in alternative media. In terms of distribution, information from alternative media can be accessed in an open way and at no cost to the consumer, and thus adopts revised notions concerning intellectual property, such as "anti-copyright" (Atton 1999). At the level of reception, alternative media privilege involved audiences over the merely informed (Lievrouw 1994). They encourage audiences to reflect critically upon the content of mainstream media and participate in social actions for social change.
Alternative media embrace a wide variety of forms, such as public speech, dance, graffiti, street theatre, as well as the predictable mass media (press, radio, film, television and the Internet) (Downing et al. 2001). The alternative and activist use of the alternative media has generated various media activism practices, challenging the hegemonic policies, priorities and perspectives of the dominant media culture. Development of the Internet and other new media technologies since the 1990s has represented a new era for alternative media (Downing et al. 2001). The Internet represents the newest, most widely discussed, and most significant manifestation of new media (Flew 2005). Its electronic networks link people and information through computers and other digital technologies, which allow for interpersonal communication and information retrieval (DiMaggio et al. 2001). The Internet has helped "facilitate the growth of massive, coordinated digital networks of engaged activities", and allows marginalized social groups to participate in political activities, and "counter those of the more powerful, not least as expressed in the dominant mass media" (Dahlgren 2009: 190). This technology has been applied in a wide range of projects, interventions and networks, which work against media, cultural and political domination.
Alternative media in China: from big-character poster to micro-blog
There has been a rich repertoire of alternative media in the People's Republic of China. The history of alternative media in China can be traced back to big-character posters [dazibao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] in the 1960s and 1970s. Big-character posters are wall-mounted posters written in large Chinese characters. They are cheap, sometimes anonymous, and easily seen and read in public spaces, making them an effective means of propaganda, critique, debate, and mobilization in political movements, such as the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and the Democracy Wall Movement (1978–79) (Downing et al. 2001; Sheng 1990).
From 1978 to 1989, non-governmental periodicals [minjian kanwu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] — run by poets, liberal college students, social activists and public intellectuals — replaced big-character posters and became the main alternative media in China — Today [Jintian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], China Human Rights [Zhongguo renquan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], Beijing Spring [Beijing zhiqun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], May Fourth Forum [Wusi luntan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], to name a few. There were at least 55 non-governmental periodicals published in Beijing and approximately 127 published elsewhere in the nation from 1978 to 1989 (Gu 2008; Ran 2007; Wen 2009). These radical periodicals criticized current social problems, proposed critical understandings of the Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao's rule, and supported the government's liberal and democratic reforms. However, the wave of non-governmental periodicals drastically declined after the crack-down on the 1989 student movement, as the CCP closed nearly all of them down and tightened censorship and regulations (Wen 2009). Due to the CCP's strict control of public opinion and heavy-handed suppression of citizen activism after 1989, alternative media practices almost ceased to exist in China from 1989 to 1994.
Since 1994, however, the emergence and development of the Internet has opened up a new era for China's alternative media and media activism. On April 20, 1994, the National Computing and Networking Facility of China (NCFC) opened a 64kbps international dedicated circuit to Internet through Sprint Co. of the United States. Ever since, China had been officially recognized as a country with full functional Internet accessibility. The rapid development of the Internet has caused China's digital revolution and has had a profound impact on Chinese society. According to Yongnian Zheng, the primary purpose for the Chinese government to develop Internet technology is to promote China's "nation-state building". The Internet is perceived not only as "a symbol of the modernity of the Chinese state", but more importantly, as "one of the core pillars of sustainable economic growth" (Zheng 2008: 18). However, since 1994, the Internet has not only accelerated China's modernization and globalization, and created a burgeoning ICTs industry, but has also served as an alternative media, facilitating civic engagement, political liberalization and democratization.
As discussed in the Introduction, Chinese media were tightly controlled by the Party in the pre-reform era and were dominated by power-money hegemony in the reform era. The voices of the populace regarding policy critiques, rights defence, political reforms and other democratic issues have long been repressed. Increasing social inequality and injustice, along with China's rapid economic growth, require a media channel beyond mainstream media to represent the views of vulnerable individuals and disadvantaged groups. The Internet has quickly become the most popular and important alternative media in China due to its interconnectivity, interactivity, ubiquity, easy access and low cost, although it is still controlled, regulated and censored by Chinese authorities (Dai 2000; MacKinnon 2010; Tsui 2003; Zhang 2006). Various online platforms have been created, such as electronic mailing lists, BBS, instant messaging software, blogs, audio-visual sites and micro-blogs, which have helped people express, connect, and interact. BBS sites and micro-blogs, the most popular online platforms in China, have played a particularly important role in facilitating online discussion, establishing grass-roots networks, forming online public sentiment and organizing collective actions, which have effectively enabled people to articulate alternative agendas and impose pressure on the government to improve governance.
Online activism in China: themes and modes
Online activism is also termed "Netactivism" (Schwartz 1996), "Cyberactivism" (McCaughey and Ayers 2003), or "Web activism" (Dartnell 2006). According to Yang, it refers to "contentious activities associated with the use of the Internet and other new communication technologies" (2009a: 3). It enables people to "extend their social networks and interpersonal contacts, produce and share their own 'DIY' information, and resist, 'talk back' to, or otherwise critique and intervene in prevailing social, cultural, economic, and political conditions" (Lievrouw 2011: 19).
China's online activism appeared very soon after the nation officially came online in 1994. It is built on previous forms of popular contention in Chinese society, such as the peasant revolutions, Cultural Revolution and more recent student movements (Yang 2009a). Applying the Internet to traditional rituals of protests has created innovative tactics and new forms of social activism, thus generating various online activism practices with Chinese characteristics.
Themes of China's online activism
Guobin Yang (2009b) categorizes China's online activism into four themes: nationalism, cultural identities, controversial social issues and political actions. Nationalism was the earliest theme of online activism in Chinese society. In September 1996, university students in Beijing used untitled BBS at Peking University (bbs.pku.edu.cn) to organize anti-Japanese demonstrations to defend China's territorial sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands (Chen 1996). In the following years, nationalism also became the most central theme of China's online activism. BBS sites became major platforms for organizing both online and offline nationalistic protests. Defining cases included the protest against violence committed against ethnic Chinese in Indonesia in 1998; the protest against the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999; and the US-China spy plane collision in 2001. As the earliest practice and one of the most important types of online activism in China, online nationalism has evoked a great deal of attention from academics in China and overseas. Scholars have examined responses to Sino-foreign events to discuss how China's nationalistic discourses have transformed in the Internet era, and how online nationalism has influenced China's foreign relations, diplomatic policies and the formation of Chinese civil society (Chase and Mulvenon 2002; Qiu 2006; Shen and Breslin 2010; Wu 2007).
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, China's online activism has increased in frequency, scale, diversity, and influence, with the proliferation of online platforms and the penetration of the Internet into everyday life. Cultural, social and political forms of activism have taken priority over nationalistic discourses online.
Cultural activism involves online expressions of identities, values and lifestyles which challenge the traditional ethics, morality, values and aesthetics in Chinese society (Yang 2009b). In late 2003, Muzimei, a newspaper editor and columnist in Guangzhou, gained fame by putting the details of her sexual life on her personal blog. She quickly became one of the earliest Internet celebrities and the most famous sex blogger in China; her blog attracted heated discussion in print media, BBS, blogs and online chat rooms across China. The controversy surrounding the "Muzimei phenomenon" [Muzimei xianxiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] was widely reported by the New York Times, Washington Post and other international media (Sydney Morning Herald 2003), making Muzimei a popular culture event. The Muzimei phenomenon demonstrated that ordinary Chinese citizens could achieve fame not through mainstream media, but via individualistic, opportunistic and narcissistic self-promotion in the online world of user-generated blogs and forums (Roberts 2010). The Internet has provided the grassroots with an ideal platform to represent themselves, and to show personalities and form identities which are not constrained by traditional social and cultural values.
In addition, the Internet is used to challenge and deconstruct established cultural products and images (blockbusters, TV programs and revolutionary heroes). Some proactive Internet users use web-based digital technologies, such as Photoshop and Flash, to remix established cultural products and images in order to make spoofs, generating popular e'gao culture. As Chapter 2 discusses, this playful but satirical web-based subculture cultivates ordinary citizens' subjectivities and critical thinking, challenging the CCP's long-term cultural hegemony (Gong and Yang 2010; Meng 2009; Voci 2010).
Online activism about controversial societal issues covers a wide range of critiques concerning official corruption, environmental pollution, social injustice and human rights violations, generating many Internet incidents with national impact (Yang 2009b). The year 2003 marked the rise of the "Internet incident" [wangluo shijian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] in China. Public sentiment generated online forced the government to release information on the SARS epidemic and abolish administrative procedure surrounding custody and repatriation through the case of Sun Zhigang. Chinese online opinion demonstrated its great supervisory power for the first time in history. Thus, 2003 is popularly dubbed "the year of online public opinion" [wangluo yulun nian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]. Since 2003, a year has seldom passed without Internet incidents. In these incidents, grass-roots netizens effectively set agendas for the mainstream media's subsequent reporting and the government's further investigation to solve controversial social issues. Having examined numerous episodes, scholars argue that the Internet has empowered marginalized individuals and groups to establish networks, generate online public opinion and have a voice, which has in turn contributed to the development of China's civil society, while also promoting the interplay between the state and society (Cao 2010; Jiang 2012, Qiu & Chan 2011; Yang 2009c).
Online activism about political actions refers to radical and oppositional popular protests facilitated by the Internet. It usually addresses sensitive topics such as human rights, political reforms, the 1989 Tiananmen protests, and the issues of Tibet and Taiwan. This type of online activism is often labelled as "extra-legal" by the Ministry of Public Security, since it directly challenges the legitimacy of the CCP's governance. Therefore, it is highly risky and susceptible to crackdowns. The 2011 Chinese Jasmine revolution is one such example. The anonymous call for a Jasmine revolution was made online, first on Boxun.com, which is run by overseas dissidents, and Twitter, which is blocked in China. It appealed for ordinary citizens to take regular Sunday strolls in thirteen major cities across China to express their dissatisfaction at China's insufficient political reform. The call was then posted in China's cyberspaces by savvy Internet users who know how to get around the Great Firewall, and was spread on China's social media sites. In the "revolution", the Internet was used to propagandize, organize and mobilize pro-democracy protest. However, due to its challenging of the CCP's one-party rule, the protest was quickly shut down by authorities and ended in failure. About thirty-five leading Chinese activists were arrested or detained (Pierson 2011; Ramzy 2011a).
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Table of Contents
Series Editor's Preface vi
List of Tables, Figures and Illustrations viii
1 Alternative Media and Online Activism 19
2 Media Celebration: Shanzhai Media Culture as Media Intervention 34
3 Media Disaster: Citizen Journalism as Alternative Crisis Communication 54
4 Media Scandal: Online Weiguan as Networked Collective Action 77
5 Internet Interventionsim and Deliberative Politics in China's Web 2.0 Era 106