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July 1st, 2009 at 10:04 am

“Green Dam” as a Case of Online Activism in China

The Power of the Internet in ChinaThe following is a post by Guobin Yang, author of The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online.

According to a directive first issued by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology on May 19, 2009, July 1 was to be the first day that computers in China would be required to be sold with a pre-installed filtering software called Green Dam-Youth Escort. However, the announcement of the policy drew such opposition both at home and abroad that in a welcome move, the Ministry announced yesterday its decision to hold off this policy indefinitely. This decision appears to be a positive response to the popular opposition that Chinese netizens have expressed.

The incident demonstrates yet again the power of the Internet in China. Both Chinese bloggers and Western media have hailed this new brand of online activism. I myself have commented on this display of Web power here. With the “Green Dam” controversy quieting down for now, it is helpful to step back and reflect a bit on some more enduring issues about Internet control and online activism in China.

The Green Dam policy indicates that there is still a surprising degree of bluntness in the exercise of state control over the Internet. In recent years, the Chinese government has demonstrated new levels of sophistication in affairs of Internet governance. One sign is the adoption since 2004 of a soft-management approach, which emphasizes self-discipline, civic responsibility, and the use of legal rather than administrative power to contain harmful contents. Part of the reason why the Green Dam policy met with such strong resistance is that it represented an unbearably heavy-handed approach to Internet control.

The case further reveals an ambivalent and complex relationship between government and Internet businesses. It shows that private businesses can be recruited for the control of the Internet. Indeed, many Chinese netizens see the Green Dam more as a sweet business deal for the software company than an effective control measure. This kind of outsourcing and privatization of control had long caused concern, and the Green Dam controversy brought the issue back into the public limelight, raised concerns about future state-market collusion.

The Green Dam case, however, is much more revealing about online activism than about Internet control. It shows that control almost always encounters opposition, and such opposition—a new form of online activism—can be powerful enough to seriously undermine control efforts.

The case illustrates several general features about online activism in China. The first is the symbolic and discursive form of protest. Due to the nature of Internet interaction, symbolic expressions of protest dominate online activism in China. In this case, the means of protest was singularly symbolic and discursive—verbal protests in blogs and online forums, the submission of petition letters, the online circulation of sarcastic cartoons and videos, and in some cases, media criticisms. There were no known street demonstrations. And yet such Internet-based protest turned out to be quite effective.

The reason lies in the spontaneity and scale of participation—the second feature of Chinese online activism. Online protests in China often happen spontaneously and involve the participation of many users. Spontaneous and large-scale participation represents people’s power. This is not to say there is no organization involved. In a basic sense, online communities and blog sites are pre-existing organizational forms, which are then turned into spaces of mobilization and protestation when influential figures and outspoken activists begin to voice their opinions.

Third, the Green Dam case shows that online activism in China, while often concerned with concrete issues (such as a filtering software), has deeper roots. On the one hand, it reflects a generalized dissatisfaction with government policies and government behavior. Such dissatisfaction is in itself rooted in general grievances about the many disheartening conditions of Chinese society.

On the other hand, critical responses to the Green Dam policy signals a surging new trend in Chinese politics—citizens’ growing demand for transparency and public participation in the decision-making process. The level of public uproar in this case reflects the abruptness of the announcement of the policy. Citizens demand public participation in many other areas of policy-making. Whether effective or not, China already has an ordinance on governmental information disclosure. It is not surprising then that netizens have disparaged the lack of public participation in the making of the Green Dam policy.

For once at least, their voices seem to have been heard as the Chinese government decided not to hold onto its original policy so dogmatically.

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