Negotiations between Chinese Netizens and Bureaucrats over the Internet

On November 16th, CSCC welcomed Rongbin Han, Assistant Professor of International Affairs at the University of Georgia, to Penn. Students, postdocs, professors, and researchers rushed to fill aisles, snag chairs, and find floor spots to hear about “Contested Cyberspace in Contemporary China.”

Professor Han explored the topic of Chinese internet censorship in a unique way. He began by explaining how the rise of online expression challenges authoritarian rule. China connected to the intern in 1987. Today, it has the largest internet population in the world. Chinese citizens surf the web to not only buy personal items but also to voice personal opinions. 

China, however, has not lived up to the hope of many people regarding internet expression. Policy makers and academics anticipated that as China liberalized, it would create a more democratic internet. Sadly, this has not been the case. Professor Han laid out four themes for why and how the internet has coexisted with authoritarian rule. 

First, the internet has allowed for a sense of citizen empowerment. Chinese people can create memes of buns (baozi, 包子) to criticize Xi Jinping and Trump. In a society of tight censorship, these jocular memes provide a political outlet for Chinese citizens. 

Second, the Chinese Communist Party exercises intense state control by playing a game of “cat and mouse censorship.” The Party has created the most sophisticated censorship system in the world. Professor Han cited “face-slapping” (dalian打脸) as a particularly harsh, but effective, means of controlling free expression. “Face-slapping”, is a way for people to directly and ruthlessly challenge someone else’s point based on holes in an argument or inaccuracies in a statement. This practice has often been invoked against those who advocate for liberal democracy in China. In this sense, “face-slapping” appropriately fits the symbol of face (mianzi, 面子), as it allows the Chinese Communist Party to save face and defend its stance. 

Third, the Chinese Communist Party has adapted to discourse competition. The Party uses propaganda to challenge netizens. Specifically, the Party has co-opted comics (such as the “Year Hare Affair”) and has created videos (such as the “Voluntary Fifty-Cent Army”) to neutralize Party critics. These stories fill the internet with pro-Party discourse. 

Fourth, pluralization in China exists without liberalization. Professor Han claimed that allowing an internet sphere of both Party promoters and critics does not necessarily allow for more liberalization or democracy. He advocated for loosening control of the Chinese internet, not only to create a more democratic society for citizens, but also to create breathing space for the Party.

I enjoyed Professor Han’s talk because he deconstructed the topical issue of internet censorship in China. By employing this analytical framework, he conveyed the complex negotiations between netizens and bureaucrats over the kind of access to and content on the internet. 

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