Internet and Civil Society in China

by on Monday, 24 October 2011 7364 hits Comments
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Is there a “civil society 公民社会”in China? For more than two decades, Chinese intellectuals have been hotly debating the topic. Some of them stress that the basic differences in political system and traditions between China and the west make the use of such term inadequate, Other try to discern a “Chinese model”, according to which the participation of civic organizations to the consultative mechanisms established by the state ultimately fosters their independence. For these scholars, an “independent” civil society will ultimately be a fruit of the cooptation by the state of certain associations (chambers of commerce, charities, interest groups…), which feel gradually empowered by the tasks that the state entrusts to them.

However, ordinary citizens do not seem content anymore to see their participation limited to the domains and the mechanisms that the state unilaterally allow them to enter into. The meteoric rise of the use and power of Internet can largely be explained by the popular will to trespass the gradual mechanisms of social and political participation that the ruling class tries to enforce.  Online activism is not only about the content it carries: it stresses first and foremost the right of the public to debate any problem it finds relevant, and to do so at any time.

Different forces try to promote or constrain online activism – the state, the market and civic groupings work in fierce competition. Smaller organizations, less visible and which do not need to invest much in personnel and equipment may actually benefit the most of the flexibility of the online tools, fostering grassroots communities that are able to grow and to adapt very rapidly.

The Chinese Internet is not “democracy.” But it is an experimental platform where Chinese citizens aspire to build a model of debate and participation different from the limited version that the government tries to defend and promote. In the years to come, Internet will continue to be the focal point around which the evolution of China’s political, civic and cultural system will be debated and determined. In China, Internet may be already more than a “virtual civil society”: it has become civil society itself.

Read B.V.'s previous article on a similar subject:
Is the Internet the Bedrock of Civil Society in China?

(Drawing by Claire Shen)

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34
Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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