Erenlai - Focus: Internet as Body
Focus: Internet as Body

Focus: Internet as Body

週五, 28 十月 2011

Internet as Body

The Internet has been lauded and criticized from all sectors of society in recent years, especially in light of the role of social networking and the internet in the Jasmine Revolution and the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement but also in in areas as diverse as anthropology, the music industry and documentary film-making . Recently, in an interview with Renlai, Taiwanese director Wang Molin gave his two cents on the discussion as below:

Young people see an open society, they'll very easily suppose themselves to live in an open society, a freer, more democratic society. What concerns them are issues surrounding their own individual bodily desires, it is the bodily desires that stimulate them. Youth subcultures have become increasingly centered around the individual, this is the inevitable path of capitalism. Individualism should in theory lead to a more rich and multifaceted world, but people of the younger generation seem to think that computers constitute the world, they try to cram the world into a black box, and their bodies start to shrivel, leaving them with less physical energy. In this kind of era, it is impossible to get the youth to identify with society through protest a they lack a "body" or a physicality.

This might lead one to question then the value of medium like the internet, as it takes from us the physicality of our actions, and we enter the semi-real world of Baudrillard's simulation. So this month eRenlai re-examines this notion of 'reality' with a broad range of articles, some of which reinforce this impression, with the internet isolating them from society, giving them the compulsion to spend more than 8 hours a day on online games, and debilitating their social skills, for others it opens up the world, giving a voice to the disenfranchised within society and opening up new opportunities for love; others still suggest that online activity actually reinforces social norms, and as such should not be endowed with such a mystic reputation, that it is in fact the dynamic nature of human society itself and its institutions that are just harnessing a new medium of representation.

No matter where you stand on the issue, the internet has definitely changed the way we live our lives, whether we grew up before the advent of the internet proper, or if we were born digital natives and have grown up as the internet evolved and developed, and as the space requirements of maintaining the technology expanded exponentially.

Illustration by  Peri Shroom

週一, 31 十月 2011

Microblogs with Macro Reach: Spirituality Online In China

Sina Weibo is big in China right now. Essentially a microblogging service, it has elements of Facebook and Twitter, both of which (along with YouTube) are banned on the Mainland. With over 400 million users1, Sina Weibo is definitely a hit, and is likely to remain so as long as it does not become a vehicle for dissent and upset or threaten the government. Like all social media, Sina Weibo is overflowing with minutiae. Triumphs and tragedies, love and loathing, it is there for all to see. I enjoyed reading one of my Chinese namesakes wax lyrical about his newly rounded eyes (via eyelid cosmetic surgery). Body modification aside, the communication possibilities that Sina Weibo has generated are proving attractive to many in China, including those in the religious and spiritual spheres.

As I have written before, religion is a constantly evolving and fascinating phenomenon2, even in China where regulations continue to be more restrictive than in other countries in the region3. Here I will profile some of the various characters taking advantage of the enormous opportunity to promote their personalities, organisations and messages through Sina Weibo.

Taiwan’s Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山) is a large Buddhist organisation that uses its Sina Weibo account4 to share quotations of spiritual inspiration and considered reflection - “What is self?” and “Success is a beautiful result, failure is a beautiful experience” are two recent thought provoking and decidedly non-menacing examples.

Xing Yun (星云) is a monk who fled China decades ago and has built a massive international Buddhist organisation based at Foguangshan (佛光山) in southern Taiwan. On Sina Weibo he has garnered an impressive 327,593 followers5. Like Dharma Drum Mountain, Xing Yun reaches out to his followers with a stream of short and poignant pieces of Buddhist wisdom. For many years Xing Yun and the late founder of Dharma Drum Mountain, Sheng-yen (聖嚴), would have dreamed about having such direct access to Buddhists in the land of their birth. Sina Weibo now gives them unprecedented reach. However, it is in the less orthodox bloggers that we can find even more innovative examples.

Terry Hu (胡茵夢) is a Taiwanese movie star turned author6. Her works are spiritual in nature, and include a translation of the biography of the 20th century Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. Currently promoting her autobiography, Hu is tapping into her network of Sina Weibo followers to drum up publicity by holding competitions. Those who forward details of her book onto three friends have the opportunity to win more books and the writers of the five most outstanding comments will also win a book. Several hundred bloggers have participated in this marketing ploy.

Another Taiwanese author writing and translating in the ‘body, mind, spirit’ genre (身心靈) is Tiffany Chang (張德芬)7 . Prior to her career as a spiritual figure, Chang was a news anchor on Taiwan’s TTV channel. Aside from writing her own books (Meeting the Unknown Self) and translating popular foreign authors, such as Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth), Chang has produced a short series of videos where she reviews books8 and has assisted Taipei’s Huan-ting zen in Taiwan and China. Demonstrating considerable web savvy, Chang operates a China-based body, mind, spirit website called ‘Inner Space’9. She uses her Sina Weibo account to distribute news of updates on Inner Space to her followers, who number just under 100,000.

Perhaps the most interesting religious figure using Sina Weibo is the young Buddhist monk, Shi Daoxin (釋道心)10. Having accumulated over 189,000 followers, he uses Sina Weibo in a way that some might more associate with a self-absorbed and self-promoting youth. I have never seen a monk demonstrate such fashion sense; Shi Daoxin has a knack for matching his robes with his (often gaudily coloured) glasses. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, scroll down his blog and you will see a fantastic variety of photos.

Shi Daoxin pouting. Shi Daoxin posing wistfully outside a temple. Shi Daoxin rendered as a cartoon. Shi Daoxin meditating. Shi Daoxin meditating next to a naked babe.

The photo of Shi Daoxin meditating behind a penitent-looking female nude is particularly interesting. Apparently the winner of the Virginia Photo Exhibition in the USA, this photo is titled “Mind without obscuration” (心無罣礙) and is re-blogged with a quote from the Heart Sutra: “form is emptiness” (色即是空).

Besides his own manifold images, Shi Daoxin also uses Sina Weibo to disseminate Buddhist teachings, including videos from more established teachers, such as Xing Yun. He has also circulated several of his music videos, including one karaoke-friendly ditty where he sings a Buddhist song while wandering around a temple garden and market. The suitably devout chorus is “Amitabha Buddha, please protect me” (阿彌陀佛,呵護著我). Shi Daoxin has achieved some degree of celebrity, having participated in the TV dating show “The Whole City is Madly in Love” (全城熱戀) and was interviewed on China’s top daytime TV talk show “A Date with Luyu” (魯豫有約).

If there is one thing that this brief survey shows, it is that each of these bloggers is attempting to make religious ideas relevant to life in contemporary China. Methods vary greatly—orthodox or radical, commercial or benevolent—but the bloggers are linked by the common goal of seeking to share a spiritual message with the widest possible audience. Doing so via Sina Weibo does not necessarily dilute the potency of their messages. Writing on religious innovation in contemporary China, the Cambridge anthropologist Adam Yuet Chau recently wrote that

Modern technologies and other non-traditional elements can often be effortlessly incorporated into the framework of traditional idioms and practices, which in turn reveals the dynamic innovability of the traditions themselves11.

Sina Weibo is an ideal example of this innovability. Even the more ‘traditional’ bloggers discussed here, such as Dharma Drum Mountain and Xing Yun, have made a concerted effort over many decades to revitalise Buddhism so it is more relevant to life in the contemporary world. Microblogs are just another stage in the evolution of this process. Not surprisingly, Shi Daoxin also claims to be a disseminator of modern Buddhist culture and art, albeit in his own unique way. For the time being, Shi Daoxin et al will continue to be able to encourage, inspire, question and interact with their followers through Sina Weibo. And when Sina Weibo loses its lustre or is blocked, then I’m sure they will be among the early adopters of the next web platform, whatever it may be.

(Photo courtesy of













11. Adam Yuet Chau. Religion in Contemporary China: Revitalization and Innovation, Taylor and Francis, 2011, page 20.



週一, 24 十月 2011

Internet and Civil Society in China

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)

週五, 28 十月 2011

India, China and Their Digital Natives

We've been digging through our archives, and found this gem of an interview from 2009 in which Nishant Shah, the Director of Research of the Bangalore Centre for Internet and Society, discusses the changing definitions of the term "Digital Native", the effect that the internet age has had on India, and provides a more balanced viewpoint on China's "Great Firewall of China" than the usual barrage of criticism.

India and its Digital Natives:

Alternate for readers in China

The Great Firewall of China: Censorship or Safeguard:

Apologies, this video is unavailable to readers in China



週三, 26 十月 2011

Opening Windows to the World

By Mr Qiu (62/Male/Completely Paralysed), edited by Zhang Xingwen and translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart

I've lain in this bed for 36 years now. When I was 26 years old I had a car accident, which lead to my whole body becoming paralyzed; I went from being the boss of a steelworks to a bedridden patient. It was if my life went from colour to black and white. Thanks to my natural optimism, I wasn't defeated by this attack of destiny, for 28 years I relied on reading newspapers and watching the news on television, to keep myself informed and interested, and I became a kind of scholar of the modern age.

During this period, my contact with the outside world was conducted using a stick controlled by my mouth, with which I operated the phone and the television remote. Although I had heard that computers were an indispensable technological gadget for modern life, as I was paralysed from head to toe, I didn't even have a clear idea of what computers looked like up close, never mind actually using one.

That was up until I saw a news report on disabled people using a stick held in their mouths to use computers about 8 years ago. I burned with curiosity, so I called the news station and asked for their source, and they referred me to the Assistive Technology Centre. The engineer came to my home and designed a head controlled mouse for me using the stick I normally used to operate the phone and the TV remote control. I felt as he magically transformed it into a little helper that would allow me to use the computer.

When I could use the computer, the way I lived my life changed dramatically! When I could use the computer, the way I lived my life changed completely! As well as the vast and colourful resources and information that you can browse on the internet, what helped me most was that I no longer needed someone to help me flick through the telephone book. I put all the numbers of my friends and family into an Excel worksheet, and I only needed to tap once or twice with the stick in my mouth and I could find their number.

The internet provides a lot of conveniences that able-bodied people might not think of. One example is Google Maps, with the aid of my trusty stick, I can return to my ancestral home in the mountains of Miaoli and revisit my childhood memories, as well as getting a glimpse of what it looks like now. I also discovered blogging, which is so popular these days, I only need my 'little helper' stick, and I am endowed with a voice, with which I shared my story with lots of people, as well as being able to give help and encouragement to people in the same situation as I am in.

The internet helped me to resolve my financial situation too. As I am from a low income household, employing foreign workers to help around the house is necessary but it is also a big financial burden for us. At the end of 2002, the Council of Labour Affairs raised the Employment Stability Fee for employing foreign workers from 600 NT ($20US) to 2000 NT ($66US), which increased this burden even more. I wrote to the Council of Labour Affairs by email explaining my situation but did not receive a satisfactory response. So I wrote to the office of the President, the Executive Yuan, the Association of Spinal Cord Injury in Xinzhu, a disability organization, and finally the Social Welfare Department of the Ministry of the Interior to explain my situation. It was the Social Welfare Department that ended up helping me out. From the 1st July, 2007 the Employment Stability Fee varied according to income, low income households only need to pay 600 NT ($20US) per month and middle income households only 1200 NT ($40US) per month. Although in my letter I had asked that low and middle income households be exempt from the Employment Stability Fee, it was better than nothing. This is a clear-cut example of how the internet has helped me to overcome problems that have a real effect on my quality of life.

From time to time, I have to be hospitalized due to infection. Lying on a hospital bed without the internet is like being in prison, the boredom is worse than the illness. I wish that people who are confined to their beds everywhere could be given the ability to use computers and internet access, opening for them a window to the world, not having just to stare at the ceiling.

(Detail of a drawing by Bendu)

週三, 19 十月 2011

A Virtual Game that I Play for Real!

By Ni Ming, edited by Chen Yujun(Raining), translated from the Chinese original by Conor Stuart, artwork by Arvid Torres

I don't think I would survive without online games. I've enjoyed playing all kinds of computer games since I was little. In first year of university, all the guys in my class were playing ‘World of Warcraft’, so I decided to start playing it too. At one point I was playing for 8-10 hours a day, which would normally give me a headache and make me feel a little queasy because of the 3D gameplay. I had to sprint to the toilet all of a sudden.

The world of online games is like a microcosm of society. One needs to invest a lot of time and money in it. There are even people who arrange to go online every day at a certain time like punching a time-clock. As each team is made up of different characters with different classes, someone will be in charge of inflicting as much DPS (Damage per second) as possible, others heal, and others still tank, so if you are missing a team member it is impossible to continue with a quest. For the most part I undertake quests, play PvP (player vs player), or purely wandering around inside this other dimension made up of a fusion of technology and beauty. At times, when playing instances with randomly selected strangers as team members, I would be on the verge of tears from the pressure, although I also had good experiences. As the more challenging parts of the game need cooperation and communication between team members, if you make a mistake it can lead to the death of the whole team, so when you make a mistake it is hard to avoid feeling frustrated, that you have let everyone else down.

However, not everyone's attitude to the online game is the same, not everyone takes it as seriously as others. As well as this, due to controls set in place by the CCP on the mainland, if mainlanders want to play the latest version of World of Warcraft they have to find a way to use the servers for Taiwan and Hong-Kong, which means the servers are overburdened. Differences in culture, habits, and ways of talking inevitably cause friction between players. For example, one time when our team were in the middle of a game, one member of the team suddenly stopped responding, I was stunned, after a quite a long while someone said, "He runs a store, he's with a customer...". Everyone commits a lot of time and money to play, but this guy just abandoned the game without even a word to his team members! It leaves you speechless. As well as this kind of thing, there are quite a lot of strongly worded political arguments conducted between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese players, which destroy the experience of the game for many people, leading some of the game's older devotees to stop playing altogether. Although the simulated world of the game is not so far from the real world in terms of how people interact, in the game gender is not important except in appearance, it all depends on the skill and style of the player, this makes the game's reality different from real life. Although it is not easy to tell a player's real gender, in the world of the game, girls often play male characters and male players often play as pretty girls, which is pretty interesting (although because male players are the majority, when people come across a female character they will often assume that the player is male).

On the whole, the current World of Warcraft is very diverse, although this diversity comes hand and hand with the problems mentioned above. People still organize player get-togethers, arrange to meet in the real world and make friends but the game lacks the sense of community that it once had. This is also true of the internet in general, due to changes in society, it has become less and less safe, and it is impossible to go back to simpler times. My experience of online gaming has influenced my value system, because it is real experience, even if it occurs in a simulated world, it is still an extension of the real world.


週一, 31 十月 2011

The Internet as Continuity of Human Existence

Between the years of 2006-2007 I engaged in an ethnographic research about players of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft (WoW). Ever since then, I have had the impression that a lot of what has been said and written about the internet is in fact, hot air. Let us have a quick look at the two sides of the raging debate about the internet.

On the blue corner are the custodians of the 'old ways'. Much has been made of the internet censorship laws in China. Chinese authorities defend their measures by arguing that an unregulated internet would turn into a means of spreading rumours and propaganda. Similarly legislation in countries like Turkey and Iran limit content access on the internet on the grounds that it damages their 'moral fibre'. The 'affluent west' has it's own brand of conservatives, who unscrupulously use clinical language to describe the relationship between man and the internet. We see a new industry emerging around the 'curing' of 'internet addiction'. The problems with this approach to the internet are too obvious and hence, offer scant intellectual delight.

On the red corner, we have the champions of 'enlightenment'. Here are the bookie's favourite. The self appointed crusaders of progress are a very mixed bunch. In the Chinese context for instance we have the brave men and women of Google who have valiantly turned their failed investment in China, into a PR spectacle featuring themselves on the lead role as the stout hearted warriors waving the banner for freedom of speech in the land of the uncivilized heathens. In the western front the same battle is waged by groups like 'Anonymous' or 'Lulzsec' with varying degrees of success. There is far more intellectual flesh here for the enthusiastic polemicist to get their critical teeth into. Although crushing the dreams of stary eyed digital utopians provides a sense of immediate gratification of a predatory nature, it is scarcely productive nor satisfying in the long run.

Homo sapiens for good or ill, has a tendency to pick sides on issues that vary from the utterly trivial to existentially critical. Families can break up over potato salad recipes, just as generations can slaughter each other in the name of religion.

"What is your bloody point?" I hear you cry impatient reader. My point is that polarisation of the debate about the internet unfortunately misses some interesting things that are actually going on. We are struggling with the inevitability of change on one hand and the necessity to protect what we hold dear as a society. The assumption that both sides have in common is that the internet presents a massive rupture in human existence. An alternative is to look at the internet through the lens of continuity.

For instance during his aforementioned research your humble author has discovered that WoW players tend to model their social organisation on conventional organisational structures they have familiarised with outside the context of the internet. Also, contrary to the common belief that the particular form of anonymous interaction forged over MMO platforms dissolve sexual identity, I have observed that young boys and girls actually learn to perform their sexual identity through their interactions with the rest of the community.

What I am trying to get across here is that if we had spilled as much ink describing the effects of the internet as we have over the question of whether the Internet is a 'good thing' or a 'bad thing', we would have by now reached a state where we can accurately evaluate the direction that we want the internet to take. But where is the fun in that?

(Detail of a drawing by Bendu)

週五, 21 十月 2011

Would Like to Meet Online

By Yoshi (34 / Male / Vagrant), edited by Raining Be, translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart, artwork by Arvid Torres

I have had two experiences of love online. The first was in 2001, just before I graduated from university, I met a girl online. I saw a message she had left on a BBS forum, and thought she seemed interesting, so I made an effort to befriend her. We exchanged messages online, and talked on the phone for about 3 months, and we agreed that we were officially dating. At that time she was studying in Texas, I even went there to visit her. The second time also began on a BBS forum, the girl was a friend of a friend. We kept in touch using Skype, although she refused to show me what she looked like (maybe she thought she wasn't pretty enough), I didn't really care about it at the time, as I think someone's character is the most important thing. This state of affairs continued for quite a while, in the meantime I had gone to study in Britain, until I returned to Taiwan and finally got to meet her.

Although both these online love affairs eventually fizzled out, the experience was not so different from other dating experiences, the feelings were all for real, in the end we still met in person, and there was proper interaction in both cases. These experiences made me realize that the online world and the real world are not parallel to each other, the internet is still just a part of the real world, it is not another dimension. The reason online love is not actually as unreal as one might think is that there are forms of intimate interaction with the internet, like phone sex for example. Phone sex is pretty interesting; it is really just two people getting off by themselves. I think that there is a link between the experience of phone sex and that of real sex, the difference is quantitative not qualitative. What I mean by quantitative is that phone sex relies only on stimulating someone with only their sense of hearing, it is not like real sex where all 5 senses are stimulated, but you are still interacting with the person, so there's no difference in the quality of the experience. It is like the difference between holding hands, kissing, and sex, they are contiguous, there's no defined boundary. In reality, phone sex is more intimate than holding hands, in my experience.

According to research into social psychology, it is easy for people to lose their inhibitions when using the internet, which means that when you are separated from other people by a computer screen, without the physicality of distance, people often feel more confident and secure. An example of this would be people who normally feel or react in an inhibited way, being able to talk to strangers about their private lives. So it is very common for people's speech and behaviour to be very different online compared to the real world.

This difference in mentality is very interesting when it comes to love, if ordinary dating is physical proximity, online these stages can be skipped, hence unique phenomena like phone sex can occur. It's like hitting a proverbial home run, without any actual physical contact. Perhaps, because I'm not so much about materiality when it comes to these things, it was easier for me to adapt. It's not enough, of course, but it allows people to reach a level of intimacy that other people only attain after several months or even several years -- it is something extremely personal, it requires trust, and an intensity of passion. Maybe this is what they refer to when they say it "lowers your inhibitions", the situation is extremely real.

However, you have to invest a lot more energy into love online than you would normally when you are dating someone in real life, with the exclusion of students and successful entrepreneurs, I doubt there are many people with the time to keep something like that going. The fact that it relies on voice and language means that if you are not a good talker, or you are clumsy with language, this kind of love affair is probably not for you, you have to be very sensitive to words and tone. The two girls I dated online had nice voices, and that was the main attraction really.

週三, 19 十月 2011

Privacy, Intimacy and Teleportation

Jose Ramon Duran, PhD student at National Taiwan University talks about the hazards and the future of the internet.

週三, 26 十月 2011

From Porn to Prime: Internet Life

I grew up with a small boxy TV. A Christmas present for my sisters, my brother and me. We even had our own den to watch it in, so my parents could watch their own TV, in their own space. 8 years later there was a new screen in our house. Not our first computer, but our first with a dial up modem and an Internet connection. For me the TV ceased to exist. At the time you needed just that to surf the Internet, time. Pages took so long to load that it was not efficient to spend time there. As quickly as it took for dial up to turn to cable and from cable to broadband, the Internet was my new medium for all things TV used to be. In my late teens, I should be honest and say, it replaced Playboy.

As I’ve grown with the Internet, and as it has grown to an uncountable number of pages and more than a staggering one billion gigabytes of information, I’ve never really taken time to consider what it is to me. It’s easily the most important piece of globe-shrinking technology since the airplane. It brings people, ideas, information (good and bad) together all in one place. And as I reflect on it, its major difference from the TV I grew up with is this: when we sit in front of the TV, it is programmed for us. All of it, the news, the sitcoms, cartoons and of course the advertisements, are all programmed so we don’t have to think about it. Our biggest decision is what to watch, and then let it flood into our minds without thinking too much more about it. Of course you can make a case that there is some good TV out there that makes you think, but if you are going to be honest you have to admit it is of the smallest fraction. With the Internet, every click of the mouse on any given link is your choice. The Internet offers you the power to program yourself, to find things that matter to you and dive deep into them, allowing you to decipher what is good information or bad, to offer your thoughts on these matters and find like-minded people.

Certainly the social media aspect of the Internet has been the boon of the last few years with the mainstream acceptance of all things Facebook, with over 800 million one-time users and 400 million daily users. The Internet is also responsible for the race in hardware and software innovation. One reason technology becomes outdated so quickly is the manufacturing of poor products to encourage the cycle of consumerism. Another is that the Internet doesn’t suffer from that cycle. It allows its users the arena to improve it at every moment. The internet in not being rapidly expanded or funded by the governments, corporations or the military industrial complex which rule our daily lives outside of it. It is just this fact that makes this piece of technology so important to the natural world around us. You can’t argue that humanity is destroying its habitat at a rate never seen before. And here the Internet is helping humanity as well; with more intelligent people getting positive ideas of change to a wider audience each time a user connects to the web.

As I said before, the Internet allows individuals to program their own content. I feel more and more of its users are, after gaining more confidence in how to navigate it, making better, smarter choices in the programming they are choosing. These better informed decisions, and we can see this already with all of the democracy driven movements around the world, are speeding up our return to sustainable living exponentially. Had this marvelous piece of technology not been available to the people of the world, corporations and governments would have free reign to brainwash a public addicted to the boob tube, and continue it’s agenda of raping our planet of every last resource at all costs.

So in conclusion, I can say not only is the Internet good for a well-informed intelligent population, but also it is possibly the best thing to happen to mother earth since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

(Drawing by Bendu)


週二, 30 三月 2010

Is the Internet the Bedrock of Civil Society in China?

In China, the importance of the internet exceeds even that which we attach to it in the rest of the world. It has become the only available public space where everyone's dreams, ambitions and fantasies lie. To see the extent of the internet's omnipresence, it suffices to take notice of some recent debates in the Chinese and international press.

The revelations by Google and other corporations of highly sophisticated cyber spying attacks against them have pointed the spotlight on the more than dubious methods possibly being employed by the Chinese state to maximise her political and industrial advantages. However this is not the essential point and furthermore, the participation of the Chinese state has yet to be proved. What is clear for all to see is the proliferation of Chinese hackers; their sophistication, their active cooperation and their ability to share the work in order to reach their pre-designated target. Some of these networks could be linked to prestigious universities and others could merely be random cells. What's for sure is that there is an alliance between a highly lucrative new market and the coming of a generation who have grown up in, and been raised by, the internet. This generation is caught inside this web, with no other professional or personal way out other than by marauding at the web's boundaries. In other words, the proliferation of Chinese hackers is a manifestation of what we could call the 'desocialisation' of China - the impoverishment of their traditional social networks and their reconstruction on fraudulent and clandestine foundations.

On that note, I was recently witness to a very typical case. In Shanxi province entrepreneurs have formed well-protected hoax networks on the internet (e.g. the selling of nonexistent wares). To 'bait' the naive clients, they recruit youths from the most underprivileged provinces. Then, following brainwashing and training in the techniques of baiting they spend their days and nights glued to the screen in search of their prey. They are paid nothing, instead being deluded by promises of riches to come; a type of enslavement. One of them has recently managed to escape from the network, but since his name has been compromised as one of the participants in the fraudulence, he dares not expose the group.

Another worrying trait of the internet's proliferation is the 'hunt for human flesh' as it's known in Chinese (人肉搜索). The revealing of real or imaginary abuses has become a national sport. For example someone shows a video of another who had tortured an animal or committed an act that goes against public civility. The netizens get asked to help identify this person. As soon as his name gets out, the accusations multiply and, almost automatically the person is laid off and most of the time forced to move to a different town. This type of 'mobbing' of which we have seen examples in Korea, can be considered as the collective letting off steam or even a new game of pirates.

These points are important in understanding that the internet is not only an instrument for the 'liberation' of China, as some have dreamt. It's also a milieu for dependency, exploitation and persecution. This should not obscure the great role it plays in the formation of civil society in China. Opinions can be expressed, exchanged, discussed; and news can travel more freely than by any other method. Scandals committed by party cadres were denounced fairly and successfully, and the netizens consistently managed to make the government fall back. The censorship of most 'social networking' sites and Youtube videos means nothing; the Chinese just 'jump the wall', using proxies to view banned sites and learning how to decrypt all the latest news. The netizens are showing themselves to be more and more sophisticated in their employment of this unique source of information and opinions.

A real showdown has begun between the government and people. The authorities want to install pirate software on all new computers; they now prohibit the registering of sites by a person not acting on behalf of an organisation; and they are employing an army of mercenaries to intervene in the forums. For the moment however, these manoeuvres still fail to bring full ideological control over the population as the number, ingenuity and determination of netizens grows by the day. The Chinese middle class have found in the internet what the rising classes of past Europe used to find in cafes, newspapers and pamphlets: an irreplaceable instrument for education and democratisation.

The internet contributes greatly in making the Chinese middle classes conscious of their identity and power. It remains to be seen with which values the middle classes will shape and determine the internet: if it's the spirit of resentment, egotism and greed that prevails, then the internet will never be a  force for true civility. It's up to the social, religious and cultural organisations to make the internet the vehicle of a China which can debate peacefully with herself and the world.

Translated from French by N. Coulson

(Photo copyright of eRenlai)





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