Internet = democracy in China. Not really according to Chatham House

Category: NGOs & Government
Published on Sep 14, 2010

Conventional wisdom suggests that as China grows richer it will also become more liberal, following essentially the same path of development as today’s advanced democracies. The Internet is supposed to accelerate this process by equipping pro-democracy activists with the tools to find information, inform others and self-organize like never before. Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t always stack up.

On the contrary, China’s phenomenal growth has arguably emboldened its communist leaders. Over time they have grown increasingly steadfast in their determination that China will never embrace Western freedoms or its tradition of competitive elections. And while it was once common for foreign leaders to chastise China for its human rights record, such criticisms are barely audible today. High rates of economic growth and rapid integration into the global trading system have effectively pushed issues of democratic governance to the back burner.

Now a new Chatham House report finds that while the Internet is indeed making China more pluralistic, there is no evidence to suggest that the balance of online discussion is concerned with Western-style democratization. In fact, while the Internet provides a platform for democratic chatter, it also gives voice to young Chinese nationalists whose see democracy as but one more attempt by the outside world to hamper China’s internal progress.

Here’s a summary of the key findings:

  • Within the proviso that one party rule should be maintained, Chinese politics is becoming more pluralistic. The internet is playing a key role in facilitating this increased articulation of interests.
  • There is no strong evidence to date that this is leading towards Western-style democratisation. Instead, popular online discussions are dominated by broadly-defined nationalist concerns.
  • Internet nationalism tends to be largely event driven and responsive (though with some signs of a move towards agenda setting). The main sources of internet nationalism relate to external interference in issues of Chinese sovereignty and/or perceived external criticisms of the Chinese state or its people.
  • The USA and Japan provide the main focus of attention. Relations with the USA are often a key determinant of how other countries/regions are perceived in online communities.
  • There is evidence that internet nationalism has a real, albeit limited, impact on policy making and international relations. The spread of Chinese internet nationalism is reaching beyond China and increasingly relating to other public opinions or political processes.
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