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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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8. Norms endgame and breakthrough 261


261 8. Norms endgame and breakthrough The wise adapt themselves to circumstances – as water moulds itself to the pitcher Old Chinese proverb1 The above proverb goes to the core of the research questions posed in the introduction on what drives the expansion of freer speech on the Internet and contributes to the unlocking of the locked-in public sphere in China. Proverbially it gives a clue to how the country’s Internet users and China’s pragmatic leaders deal with the mainly domestic challenges they all confront. They must incessantly adapt, negotiate, and re-mold according to technological and legal developments, socio-economic circumstances, events of mass appeal, and cultural and political norms in a state of flux. It is by the state’s increasingly complex relationship with civil society, not just through repression, but also through engage- ment and occasional concessions, that progress toward more democrat- ic politics and accountability takes place. The Chinese regime’s ability to rehabilitate its legitimacy from the ebb point of 1989 has puzzled many scholars. The authoritarian political system has proven “resi- lient” in upholding the political status quo, when general theories about modernization and authoritarian regimes, along with anecdotal and subjective impressions of the situation in China, might lead one to expect low legitimacy (Nathan 2003: 14). Yet a number of surveys have shown this not be the case. These scholarly investigations show high results of trust in central Party-state institutions despite the exist- ing undemocratic political system, widespread corruption, and limits on political liberties (Chan and Nesbitt-Larking 1995:...

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