Written by Giorgio Strafella and Daria Berg.

The effects of blogging and Internet use on Chinese politics and society have been a hotly debated topic in contemporary Chinese studies. Blogging first became popular in China in 2003 when the notorious online intimate diary of a young woman called Muzi Mei (b. 1978) created a scandal among China’s netizens. After more than a decade we can start to assess the implications of these practices for the longue durée of intellectual life and cultural creativity in the country.

Chinese Internet users have grown from 1.2 million in 1998 to 668 million people in June 2015, while blogs have mushroomed from circa 500 thousand in 2002 to over 474 million (CNNIC 2015). Before the popularisation of the Internet in the late 1990s and of blogging in the early 2000s, Party-state control over printed and broadcast media ensured that only the views of a selected few could spread nationwide. To understand the magnitude of the change one must also keep in mind the tremendous expansion of literacy and higher education in China during the Twentieth century. Despite censorship and self-censorship, the Internet today provides almost half of the Chinese population with a user-friendly and affordable platform to exchange views, circulate information and even ally over common concerns.

The popularisation of online communication has revolutionised perceptions and practices of China’s intellectual life and undermined the privilege of those ‘selected few’ — political leaders, established authors, public intellectuals, and journalists. To begin with, one no longer needs to argue, as Benjamin Schwartz did in a seminal essay of 1971, that the ‘the mentalities of the masses’ represent a component of a China’s intellectual life as much as ‘the ideas of reflective intellectuals’, because these very concepts have been shattered and redefined. Leaving aside the political implications of the above-mentioned figures, the expansion of Internet access and blogging translates in China into an unprecedentedly wide participation in nationwide conversations about society, culture, technology and leisure. Blogs have emerged as the most prominent venue for such conversations.

This is not to say that blogging establishes a democratic utopia. As Jodi Dean (2010) points out, the blog can embody values such as access, inclusion, discussion and participation, but also produces distortions and inequality. Such distortions and inequalities stem from the offline socio-economic and political system, as the examples of bestselling youth novelist Han Han (b. 1982) and media professional Zhou Xiaoping (b. 1981) reveal. We shall examine them in more detail below. State surveillance and the monitoring of public opinion have also become easier and more widespread as a result of these technological revolutions (e.g. Sullivan 2013).

As mentioned above, it was Muzi Mei who boosted the adoption and consumption of blogging around 2003 with her sex blog. A columnist from Guangzhou, she used the Internet to take the concept of privacy literature further than print literature had done. Her blog was part of a larger trend in which a new generation of young urban writers — the so-called ‘brand-new human race’ (xinxin renlei) — were adding their voices to the discourse of consumption. Like many other bloggers who came after her, Muzi Mei used the blog as a narrative posing as autobiography. She allured readers with the illusion of consuming the details of her private life almost in real time, unadulterated by an editor’s or a publisher’s interventions.

Muzi Mei has continued to ride the tide of the times in China’s online world and the new social media. In recent years Muzi Mei has successfully adapted to the great popularity of micro-blogging on Weibo that only most recently has shown some tendencies to decrease, perhaps due to censorship issues. With her current micro-blogging she has moved from her own private life to the privacy of her fans, as she provides them with advice for sentimental issues ranging from ‘third party problems’ to family relations, as well as a chronicle-like narrative of her own life.

Since the early 2000s Chinese netizens have often used the Web, and blogging in particular, to raise public attention over issues underreported in the official media and to promote collective action. Zhao Lianhai (b. 1972) for example set up a website to attract attention over the 2008 tainted milk scandal. Lian Yue (b. 1970), a popular blogger and author of China’s first Twitter novel, used his blog in March 2007 to persuade Xiamen citizens to oppose plans for a new paraxylene (PX) factory. During the ensuing street demonstrations celebrity blogger and citizen journalist Zola (Zhou Shuguang, b. 1981) uploaded photos of the protests on his blog. The authorities eventually bowed to public pressure and relocated the planned factory to Fujian.

According the first and last in-depth survey conducted by the China Internet Network Information Centre on blogging, 55 percent of bloggers in 2009 were women, about 70 percent of them were aged between 18 and 30, and more than half of them were students (CNNIC 2009). Sixty-four percent of them declared that they used blogging ‘to record personal experiences and emotions’ and over 36 percent ‘to express their opinions’.

The above-mentioned demographics help explain the popularity of the blog run by young heartthrob Han Han. Since 2005 the blog of this best-selling literary author, race car driver and high school dropout has received over 600 million views. Han Han’s blog also started as a chronicle of his everyday life, divulging information about his races, his dog and the films he watched. However, from 2007-2008 until 2013 he turned it into a prominent platform for social and political critique, attracting the attention of a large national audience as well as the Western media.

Han Han’s blog comments on the weaknesses of the authorities, the political system and the Chinese people by balancing criticism with irony. In the style of Wang Shuo’s rebels, Han Han avoids taking the moral high ground while showing a concern with social stability. He claims to interpret Chinese mainstream mentality while posing as the voice of common sense and rationality. His literary ‘everyman’ persona also displays a disdain for high culture and intellectuals. Nevertheless, Han Han’s blogging shares common elements with post-Tiananmen intellectual discourse, in particular cultural nationalism and anti-radicalism. While Han Han’s celebrity status is rooted in his image of rebellion and authenticity, in the final analysis his political stance emerges as very moderate and friendly to the Party-state.

Merging the images of rebel, opinion leader and cultural entrepreneur, Han Han represents a new type of celebrity because he embodies a combination of four factors characterising a new trend in China at the turn of the twenty-first century: First, the presence of a vibrant cultural market, essential for the commercial dimension of his celebrity and a result of the market-oriented reforms introduced in the cultural sphere during the 1990s. Second, the advent and popularisation of blogging and social media in China since the early 2000s. Third, a higher popular trust in non-official news sources rather than official ones, allowing blogs that report or comment on current events to benefit from the credibility deficit of the official news media. Fourth, the expansion of state-enforced boundaries between tolerated speech and sensitive topics in the early 2000s, especially in the cybersphere.

The case of Zhou Xiaoping, a blogger far less popular than Han Han, offers another example of how the Chinese cyberspace has become a key socio-political barometer. Although he was already a minor Web personality, Zhou Xiaoping achieved nationwide fame in 2014 when Xi Jinping praised him as a blogger who spreads ‘positive energy’ and, as a result, official media embraced him by re-publishing some of his essays. One could see this as the Internet-era continuation of a practice of Mao and Deng’s times, when Party leaders identified the writings of certain little-known or anonymous authors with the “correct” position on a given political issues to express their stance indirectly or claim popular support during a factional struggle. His blog has now 11.6 million visits.

Zhou Xiaoping’s blogs express his love for China and the Party — although his critics would argue that he loves the latter more than the first. His passionately nationalistic and pro-CCP writing are mostly ‘reactive’, i.e. he often expresses his opinions as counter-attacks against those in China and abroad (i.e. the West, the US) who ‘hate’ China. Zhou Xiaoping’s ‘China’ is a country under threat from inside and outside, culturally and existentially, a great nation misunderstood and belittled by its own people. Incidentally, for Zhou the West — the US in primis and Europe secondarily — constitutes the only Other with whom one can compare China. How could one compare the Fatherland to India, for instance, which Zhou describes as ‘an illiterate country’?

One could dismiss the faulty logic and jingoistic views of Zhou Xiaoping’s essays as products of paranoid nationalism. His views, although extreme, are not far from the official narrative of history and current events, nor are they at odds with the insistence on ‘patriotic education’ adopted by the CCP after 1989. Zhou’s voice, however, cannot possibly be confused with the voice of traditional Party mouthpieces. His mode of reasoning, based on ‘common sense’ and diversions, is closer to the style of informal conversation than the one of People’s Daily editorials or intellectual writings. He addresses his imaginary opponents (‘you’) just like one would address a stranger during a discussion at the public house (‘ke wo de pengyou a…’). His positions, often linked to his own experience, are framed as the heartfelt reflections of an individual that has reached them after a personal journey of learning. Zhou is also eager to remind the reader of his humble origins as a middle school graduate from a city in central China. As a result Zhou’s voice appears as the ‘honest’ voice of China’s man in the street and from this it derives persuasiveness and credibility — not unlike Han Han’s blogging persona.

In conclusion, our research on blogging in China suggests the rise of a genre characterised by a peculiar blend of the quotidian and personal on the one hand, and the political and public on the other. By embracing Zhou and his blog, the Party has embraced the innovative and influential genre that has emerged from this new practice, as well as a new type of celebrity.

Giorgio Strafella is Research Fellow in Chinese Culture and Society at the University of St. Gallen, and a PhD graduate of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, The University of Nottingham. Daria Berg is Chair Professor (Ordinaria) of Chinese Culture and Society at the University of St.Gallen, and the author of Women and the Literary World in Early Modern China, 1580–1700 (Routledge, 2013). Image credit: CC by Cuddly Little Owl/Flickr.

For a more extensive discussion of Chinese bloggers see:
– Giorgio Strafella and Daria Berg (2015) Rise of an Online Celebrity: A Critical Analysis of Han Han’s Blog. China Information 29(3), forthcoming.
– Giorgio Strafella and Daria Berg (2015) ‘Twitter Bodhisattva’: Ai Weiwei’s Media Politics. Asian Studies Review 39(1), 138-57.

References:
China Internet Network Information Centre (2009) 2008-2009 Zhongguo boke shichang ji boke xingwei yanjiu baogao. July.
China Internet Network Information Centre (2015) Di 36 ci Zhongguo hulian wangluo fazhan zhuangkuang tongji baogao. July.
Dean, Jodi (2010) Blog theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Schwartz, Benjamin I. (1971) A brief defense of political and intellectual history… with particular reference to non-Western cultures. Daedalus 100(1): 98-112.
Sullivan, Jonathan (2013) China’s Weibo: Is faster different? New Media & Society 16(1): 24-37.