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[ 179 ] book review roundtable • the power of the internet in china The Limited Power of the Internet in China David Bachman With The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online, Guobin Yang has written an important, provocative academic work on the Internet and contention in China. The book thus joins a growing literature on the Internet in China, and represents perhaps the best study to date on this dynamic medium. Yang sees the Internet as a fundamental focus of contention in China, with this contention reshaping Chinese society and politics. From online groups of activists, he argues, identities are constituted, communities created, and moral concerns articulated. The Internet and its use by activists is creating a cultural and social revolution in China, and leading to what Yang calls unofficial democracy. Ultimately, he sees democratic governance in China. Yang is, not surprisingly, strongly vested in the positions all too briefly summarized above. And though no one has documented the case as fully as he has, Yang’s view is shared by well-informed observers.1 He is a partisan of the Internet as a profound source of change (and a reflection of changes in China) and optimistic about the role that Internet contention will play in promoting further change. But such optimism may not be warranted and more critical perspectives need to be considered. YanghasatendencytodismissorminimizecriticalviewsabouttheInternet in China. Thus, he does not see “flaming” as a particularly significant issue; he also discounts worries that the Internet will be captured by commercialization and that Chinese Internet users are mostly using the Internet for games and “infotainment.” He may be correct, but there are other perspectives on these and other issues, which I will sketch out below. One can wonder, for example, about whether a community is forming or whether multiple different communities are forming on the Internet in China (and in Chinese society more generally). Studies based on Western populations in social and cognitive psychology and related disciplines strongly argue that people seek out information that confirms their preexisting sets of beliefs. Data (information) that seems to run counter to their beliefs 1 For example, see Richard Baum, “Political Implications of China’s Information Revolution: The Media, the Minders, and the Message,” in China’s Changing Political Landscape, ed. Cheng Li (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2008), 161–84. david bachman is Professor in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. He can be reached at . [ 180 ] asia policy is reinterpreted in ways that force it to fit the reader’s overall structure of thought. Similarly, people look for sources of information that fit more closely with their world-views, and seek out people who generally think along the same lines. Thus, even though Chinese netizens have access to much greater levels of information than ten or fifteen years ago, it is not clear that this access to information is quite as momentous as many think, because individual mental maps are resistant to change. Moreover, with Internet access, Chinese are confronted with a classic signals-to-noise problem. Given the vast array of sites, information, and options available online, what does the ordinary Chinese Internet user choose to look at, and for how long before she or he makes another choice? An issue that might complicate Yang’s views (and those of all other writers on the Internet in China) is how use of the Internet changes over individual lifespans. The most sophisticated Chinese Internet users have now been online for close to fifteen years. Yang discusses the joy many Chinese felt when they first went online and became connected. But do these users still feel that way? After fifteen years, has the Internet become a normal part of life, even if one that individuals may have less time for because of age, relationships, parenthood, job demands, and so on? Does it still have the potential to alter and shape consciousness in the way Yang saw it doing in earlier years? With ever greater numbers of options in terms of consumption and leisure, is the Internet as provocative as it was ten years ago? Of course, only a third of the Chinese population is online, so...


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pp. 179-182
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