- Historicizing Online Politics: Telegraphy, the Internet, and Political Participation in China
Zhou Yongming begins this masterful study of communications in China by complaining about the "monster complex" that has arisen as pundits have speculated that the Internet will be a monster that breaks through the authoritarian political system of the current regime. Warning against the temptation to make simplistic judgements and deterministic predictions about the political impact of complex communication technologies, he goes on to demonstrate just how research into the Internet can be taken to a new stage of sophistication. In the process he critiques the application of Western-centric social science categories to China, remaining skeptical of claims that a "cyber civil society" is in the making and preferring to talk about the evolution of a "public sphere." He also avoids predictions, asserting that his job is to describe what has already happened and what the situation is at present.
Zhou's master stroke, though, is to contextualize the advent of the Internet in a broader historical context by juxtaposing an account of its impact with an equally full account of the earlier impact of the telegraph. The first part of the book thus deals with the political impact of telegraphy in the late Qing dynasty and early Republic. It is based on solid historical research that produces some surprising comparisons with the impact of the Internet from the 1990s to the present.
For those who stress that the Internet is a qualitatively new social phenomenon, it is a salutary reminder to be told just how much of a political impact the telegraph had in the nineteenth century and how rapidly it spread throughout China once the right formula had been found to allow foreign firms to build it while maintaining Chinese ownership. Yet there are also some interesting contrasts between the two periods looked at by Zhou: while Qing officials originally resisted importation of the telegraph because they were more concerned about political control (quan) rather than reaping benefits (li), present Chinese policy makers have reversed this equation and put economic growth before control.
By combining historical and anthropological methods, Zhou produces a work that is both informative and highly readable. The text is full of fascinating examples of how the telegraph made public opinion possible in the late Qing by disseminating both sensational gossip and official documents through an emergent press. Looking at the Internet, he steers well clear of simplistic, journalistic interpretations by entering into the real life of cybercafes and mixing with webmasters. Especially interesting is the way in which he locates the emergence of nationalistic Web sites in a broader political and social context, explaining how key intellectuals and entrepreneurs are able to compromise with the authorities in order to loosen the [End Page 617] control of the censors and increase public space. The result is a pioneering work that gives new insights into the ways in which technology interfaces with society, as minor officials and cyberpolice turn a blind eye to the activities of Internet entrepreneurs whose activities promise to bring new life to the local economy.
This is an excellent work that should be read not only by anybody interested in the history of the impact of communication technologies in China but also by those interested in any of the salient issues of contemporary Chinese politics, from the rise of nationalism to the nature of bureaucratic politics and the emergence of a new public space.
Christopher R. Hughes is a reader in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His latest publication is Chinese Nationalism in the Global Era (Routledge, 2006). [End Page 618]