Written by Daniel Lynch.

Over the past few years I have followed Chinese writings on the impact of the Internet on PRC society.  I’m not so much interested in discovering a definitive answer, but I am trying to understand the range of debate on this critical but impossibly complex question. Understanding the range of debate would itself illuminate an important dimension of Chinese society.

To summarize:  The range of Chinese views can be divided into three categories—although within each category there are important nuances and insightful sub-debates important to keep in mind. The first category would be the “transformationalists.” With analogues in other societies, Chinese transformationalists insist the Internet is changing China in fundamental, irreversible ways, mostly of a positive nature. This, of course, is because transformationalists believe the Internet empowers individuals to think for themselves as they move to initiate and circulate “high-value-added” communication messages of their own invention. The Internet also facilitates the formation and functioning of civil society groups or proto-groups. Through these and related avenues, the Internet increases political participation and the sense of political efficacy among ever-widening circles of Chinese citizens.

So far, all sounds familiar to assessments of the Internet’s impact in other countries. The big difference in China is twofold. First, most writers insist that moving quickly from post-totalitarianism to the Internet age magnifies the Internet’s impact in the PRC relative to the US—even though the Internet is only a few years older there than in China. Second, although Chinese celebrants are optimistic, there is a palpable, nagging sense of uncertainty in their predictions, an uneasiness which can make it difficult to know whether the transformationalist is proclaiming emancipation because she genuinely believes in it or believes instead that it can only come about if proclaimed with insistent conviction. And then in addition, even if emancipation does come, what would happen next?  China would be in entirely uncharted territory.

The second category we can dispense with fairly quickly. Commentators in this group assert that the Internet, no matter how diverse its component parts, will inevitably be co-opted by the CCP and used to strengthen Party-state control. This does not necessarily mean the Internet will reinforce the status quo. The status quo could be deeply problematic (consider corruption, for example), whereas the Internet might well be used by the CCP to improve upon the current situation, for instance to solve problems more effectively, make government run more efficiently and respond to people’s needs and demands more creatively.  In this view, nothing fundamental ever changes unless the CCP wants it to change, and if the CCP wants things to change fundamentally they will. The Internet can ultimately serve only as a tool for whatever the CCP desires, otherwise, the CCP would not have allowed the complex of technologies associated with the Internet to disseminate through society in the first place.

The third category is the most interesting because it does not have any analogues in other societies—at least not to my knowledge. While commentators in most societies will argue that the Internet sometimes causes harm and increases social tensions, a surprisingly large number of PRC commentators takes this a step further and insists—often in a deeply alarmed tone of voice—that the Internet may be in the process of ripping China apart at the seams. The reason is that these analysts view China as a society uniquely predisposed to collapsing into Hobbesian chaos, and they cite (albeit obliquely) the horrors of the Cultural Revolution as evidence—even though the Cultural Revolution concluded some 40 years ago. What is interesting about this line of commentary is how truly terrified some writers seem to feel about the prospect of the Internet taking deeper root and spreading to ever broader sectors of society. Whereas in other societies most Internet users seem to have long grown accustomed to trolls, hate-mongers, flame-wars, and all the other annoyances associated with spending time online, in China, a surprisingly large number of responsible analysts seem genuinely and deeply worried about what such phenomena portend. Moreover, judging from their professional titles, half or more of these commentators could not have personally experienced the most searing phases of the Cultural Revolution because they are not old enough. They must be basing their fears on the stories they heard as children, from parents, grandparents, or other relatives.

What I suspect—and here I am entering the realm of pure speculation—is that social tensions in China today appear much more severe to people living in the PRC than they do to most of us on the outside. Chinese observers most alarmed by these tensions draw upon their memories (whether direct or as influenced by the older generation) of the Cultural Revolution and sense similarities to the mid-1960s, when urban China would have been white-hot with tensions surrounding the death, disease, and battle for limited resources that followed the Great Leap Forward, as well as the brutal controls imposed by thuggish CCP cadres on society. Of course the situation is not nearly as bad for most people today as it was then, and yet it may be close enough in the minds of some, to arouse a surprisingly high degree of fear.

Let us hope that those worried that the Internet is a force that can only divide and rip apart rather than unite and bring together can come to see the technology’s positive potential. Let us hope that those who fear can come to see how the Internet could also be used to organize people in joint, community-minded efforts to solve rather than exacerbate socioeconomic problems, and to realize a new unity of purpose founded on a healthy patriotism and a spirit of cooperation.

Daniel Lynch is an associate professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. His new book is China’s Futures: PRC Elites Debate Economics, Politics, and Foreign Policy.  Image Credit: CC by Cory M. Grenier/Flickr