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Reviewed by:
  • Technological Empowerment: The Internet, State, and Society in China, and: The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online
  • Christopher R. Hughes (bio)
Yongnian Zheng. Technological Empowerment: The Internet, State, and Society in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2008. xx, 246 pp. Hardcover $50.00, isbn 978-0-8047-5737-9.
Guobin Yang. The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. xv, 302 pp. Hardcover $29.50, isbn 978-0-231-14420-9.

The Internet has been a presence in China long enough for it to generate a subfield of the study of Chinese politics that goes well beyond the overly simplistic predictions that often characterized the first wave or work on the topic. These two books together give a good picture of just how much progress has been made, as well as some of the challenges that are emerging in what is still a relatively new area for the social sciences.

Both books are rooted in earlier approaches to the subject insofar as they give overviews of the established knowledge on the topic, including updated statistics concerning the spread of accessibility, the unevenness of the digital divide, and the [End Page 585] measures used by the state to maintain control. They go further in their use of case studies to explore how the Internet is actually used by a number of actors to give insights into its impact on political change that was not possible for the first wave of literature. Perhaps the most interesting idea to emerge from reading these two works together, however, is the question of whether the impact of the Internet in China can be understood by applying established theories from the social sciences, or whether it represents a form of organization that is so qualitatively different that some radical departures are necessary.

The more established approach is chosen by Zheng, who sets out to make the Internet part of the literature on state-society relations. He does this by disaggregating both state and society so that it is possible to examine how various actors engage in processes of mutual transformation as social actors push at the interstices of power while the state reacts with countermeasures of control. His most interesting insights are in his chapter on the growth of civic engagement and public distrust and his chapter on collective action, which use fascinating studies to show how the Internet has been used to mobilize public opinion around issues ranging from the arrest of online dissidents to the organization of the Falun Gong movement. Zheng builds on this evidence to conclude that collective actions based on the Internet are promoting a greater degree of political openness, transparency, and accountability.

Yang's book takes the more radical approach because he does not treat the Internet as a force that shapes society from the outside. Instead, he sees it as constituting a new social space in which innovative forms of cultural acts can be performed. He casts his theoretical net wide, drawing on cultural studies and social movement literature to capture "a broad spectrum of converging and contending forces, technological, social, and economic, as well as political" (Yang, p. 1). Although he also uses case studies to show how the Internet is used for political mobilization, he is equally concerned with demonstrating how the "Chinese people have created a world of carnival, community and contention in and through cyberspace and how in this process they have transformed personhood, society and politics" (Yang, p. 1). Thus, the real transformation wrought by the Internet operates at a deeper level than the state-society paradigm and involves cultural and social revolutions. Space is, therefore, created for the emergence of an unofficial democracy, in which the state is being forced to move from repressive power to disciplinary power and from hard control to soft control. Focusing on the arduous process of this reorientation of values and identities has the merit of avoiding both extreme optimism based on technological determinism and the undue pessimism that arises from visible setbacks in the democratic project.

The strength of such an approach lies in the attention it gives to interpreting the significance of...