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After the Internet, Before Democracy

Competing Norms in Chinese Media and Society

Johan Lagerkvist

China has lived with the Internet for nearly two decades. Will increased Internet use, with new possibilities to share information and discuss news and politics, lead to democracy, or will it to the contrary sustain a nationalist supported authoritarianism that may eventually contest the global information order?
This book takes stock of the ongoing tug of war between state power and civil society on and off the Internet, a phenomenon that is fast becoming the centerpiece in the Chinese Communist Party’s struggle to stay in power indefinitely. It interrogates the dynamics of this enduring contestation, before democracy, by following how Chinese society travels from getting access to the Internet to our time having the world’s largest Internet population. Pursuing the rationale of Internet regulation, the rise of the Chinese blogosphere and citizen journalism, Internet irony, online propaganda, the relation between state and popular nationalism, and finally the role of social media to bring about China’s democratization, this book offers a fresh and provocative perspective on the arguable role of media technologies in the process of democratization, by applying social norm theory to illuminate the competition between the Party-state norm and the youth/subaltern norm in Chinese media and society.


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Introduction 11


11 Introduction Whether we can cope with the Internet is a matter that af- fects the development of socialist culture, the security of in- formation, and the stability of the state.1 President Hu Jintao The Internet is God’s present to China. It provided the best tool for the Chinese people in their project to cast off slavery and strive for freedom.2 Veteran dissident Liu Xiaobo There has never been a more exciting time to study the mass media and the Internet in China. It offers the world a keyhole, an excellent vantage point from which to view the tensions, contradictions and hope regarding the future trajectory of Chinese politics and social life. It has been argued that the Chinese communication system is a “key battleground for China’s future” (Zhao Yuezhi 2008: 341). And, in this ongoing drama, the Internet is fast becoming the centerpiece in the Chinese Party-state’s enduring struggle to stay in power indefinite- ly.3 This became increasingly clear during 2009 and 2010. The year 2009 was a very sensitive one, with many anniversaries to remember – or forget – such as the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s 1 “Hu Jintao asks Chinese officials to better cope with Internet,” Xinhua, January 24, 2007,, last accessed August 15, 2010. 2 See Interview with Ai Weiwei, “Truth to power,” Index on Censorship, No. 2, 2008,, last accessed August 15, 2010. 3 Throughout this book, governmental, bureaucratic and Party agencies at all levels of...

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