A few years ago, I blogged a SXSW presentation by Ben Walker on 'net censorship in China. Ben's main thrust was to debunk several mistaken ideas that western media held (and probably still hold) about the Chinese are using the internet. Journalist-blogger Michael Anti does the same for blogging in China, in particular. Anti presented his observations recently at Harvard, where fortunately (and unsurprisingly!), Ethan Zuckerman was in the audience; he's written Anti's talk up in his usual engaging and highly detailed manner on his own blog, My heart's in Accra.
As Ethan writes,
[Anti]’s now a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, and is studying the question of how blogs and mainstream media have interacted in different countries....[H]e offers two reasons why blogs have social impacts:
- Because you’re having an election, which means that public opinion matters, and blogs become a political mobilization tool
- Because NGOs embrace them and use them to lobby for social change.
Neither of these cases applies in China, he tells us, as there are no elections and no functional NGOs.
According to Anti, while it might have made sense to follow Chinese blogs in 2004 and 2005 for edgy and under- or non-reported news, now all that material is being posted in chat rooms, because independent blogs have been censored, leaving the blog scene largely in the hands of the established media -- the opposite of how blogs tend to be positioned in the West. Per Ethan's account,
“We’re making social change using web 1.0, not using web 2.0.”
Web 2.0 is associated with democratization and decentralization in the US and Europe. These tools make it possible for people to have a voice, and for online voices to become powerful in an offline space. “But this can only happen in democratic countries,” he argues. In China, the problem with these tools is that they’re centralized, living on a single server. Block wordpress.com and you block millions of voices; blog twitter.com and you block the entire service. They’re easy to control via firewalls and government centralized control.
But email and chatrooms aren’t as centralized. There are chatrooms on thousands of servers, and it’s hard for the government to block every chatroom overseas. It’s easy to blog webmail, but people who use POP mail are difficult to block and prevent from talking about sensitive topics. Oddly enough, GMail remains unblocked in China - Anti believes it’s because so many government officials and businessmen use it, and it would be difficult to block it without negative implications for powerful people.
“We don’t need new media theory to explain blogs in China: blogs are old media,” Anti argues. “We had no media before 1996 - we had propoganda.” In propoganda, the party speaks to you - it’s exclusively one-way communication. The internet introduces the idea of bi-directoinal media, and creates media as we understand it for the first time in China in 1996.
“Time Magazine says ‘You are the media’. It’s the opposite in China.”