The Evolution of the Chinese Internet: Creative Visibility in the Digital Public

Shaohua Guo is an associate professor of Chinese at Carleton College. She received her PhD in Asian Cultures and Languages from the University of Texas at Austin, and her research interests include cultural studies of digital media, Chinese literature, film, and culture, and popular cultures in East Asia. Her latest book project, The Evolution of the Chinese Internet: Creative Visibility in the Digital Public, traces the emergence and maturation of one of the most creative digital cultures in the world through four major technological platforms: the bulletin board system, the blog, the microblog, and WeChat. Guo transcends typical binaries of freedom and control, to argue that Chinese internet culture displays a uniquely sophisticated interplay between multiple extremes, and that its vibrancy is dependent on these complex negotiations.

Cyberspace in China is restrictive, as the CCP regulates virtual national borders through “The Great Firewall of China”. However, it also constitutes a space for diverse voices and cultural innovation. This begs the question: how and why could an ingenious internet culture flourish in China, a repressive authoritarian regime that straddles the global capitalist economy and socialist legacies?

Guo emphasizes the importance of the “network of visibility”, a process of competition among internet corporations, state sectors, media outlets, cultural institutions, and individuals for content authority. This network shapes what is seen online, by whom, and in what way.

The Chinese blog platform, Boke, was launched in 2002. By 2007, about half of netizens were using the platform and by 2012 that rose to almost 80%. Boke rose to prominence through publicization in legacy media sources and launching an anti-pornography movement that won acclaim from state media. It offered a free space for personal expression, with techno-elites delivering high quality content to readers. One such techno-elite was Han Han, who became a popular cultural icon and citizen intellectual through blogging.

In 2012, WeChat public accounts were launched, and by 2014, all public account holders could host online stores within the app. This contributed to massive diversification of Chinese cyberspace, with everything from education, entertainment, fashion, comics, and relationship counseling available online.

As the Chinese internet has evolved, so have the strategies of state media sectors. In the late 1990s, the online voice of the state was relatively weak compared to commercial portals. However, in recent years, state media has adopted a new strategy: maintaining an authoritative voice, while cultivating an image more approachable to the younger generation. For example, to commemorate the anniversary of the PLA, the state released a popular app that takes users’ pictures and makes them look like a PLA officer.

Guo’s book showcases the enhanced corporate management of user-generated content, shows the shift from useful innocence to an era of commerce, and highlights transformative moments in the development of digital culture.

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