Internet activism in China


Guobin Yang’s The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online is a boundary-breaking book. It is a sociology of the communities who use the internet in China; it is a contribution to the study of social movements; it is a history of a recent period of China’s modern history during which internet activism became important; it is an ethnography of the wangmin — “netizens”; and it is a snap review of some of the hottest issues in front of the Chinese public today — environmental problems, corruption, exploitation of factory workers, abuse of power, and social inequalities. Much more than in North America or Western Europe, the internet functions as a location of social activism in China, according to Yang. And it serves an enormous audience; China’s internet population is staggeringly large. Yang estimates that by June 2008 “the number of internet users had reached 253 million” (2). He indicates that surveys find that online activists are mostly young and urban, but reflecting diversity in age and occupation (32). And Yang refers to a highly heterogeneous set of internet constituencies that include “homeowners, pensioners, migrants, hepatitis-B carriers, ant farmers, consumers, even computer gamers and pet owners” (27).

Yang puts his view of the role that internet activism is playing in China in these terms:

Analyzing online activism will both reveal the new forms, dynamics, and consequences of popular contention in the age of the Internet and will shed light on general patterns and dynamics of change in contemporary China. I show how Chinese people have created a world of carnival, community, and contention in and through cyberspace and how in this process they have transformed personhood, society, and politics. This book is about people’s power in the Internet age. (1)

So what is the significance of the online presence of China’s internet users? Does the internet represent a new tool for organizing and expressing grievances? Is it simply “performative” — a space where feelings and reactions can be more safely aired than in physical spaces? Yang takes the view that the activism expressed on the internet is “active” — it is engaged, it leads to groups having stronger affinities with each other, and it can lead to a different kind of politics and democracy in the world of factories, officials, corporations, and homeowners. And in the 1990s and 2000s, these forms of collective action are more likely to be non-confrontational than was true in the mobilization leading up to 1989.

It is challenging to conceptualize the concept of “internet activism.” Is it simply a communications technology? Is it a backbone of copper and fiber through which hundreds of millions of Chinese people can interact for large purposes and small? How does the social reality of “internet society” relate to our traditional categories of “government,” “economy,” “culture,” “religion,” etc.? Yang describes his theoretical approach as “multi-interactionism,” by which he means that internet activism develops in dynamic relationship to a handful of separate social factors that facilitate and constrain the actions users can take. He refers to state power, culture, the market, civil society, and transnationalism (7) as the large contextual factors that bound the social reality of the internet; and he argues that the creative and innovative users adapt flexible strategies for dealing with each in interaction. (He attributes this view to the interactionalist approach to contention taken by Tilly, McAdam, and others.)

A question that inevitably arises when we think about the internet in China is the issue of technology censorship. How important and effective are the Chinese state’s efforts to regulate and control the internet? Does the “great firewall” actually put a significant brake on the forms of expression and mobilization that can occur in cyberspace? James Fallows gave an assessment of the overall effectiveness of censorship in 2008 in the Atlantic (link); his view there is that the state’s aim is largely to make “subversive” uses of the internet more trouble than they are worth. Is this a fair assessment? Yang too suggests that the state’s efforts at censorship are fairly ineffective, writing that “state power constrains the forms and issues of contention, but instead of preventing it from happening, it forces activists to be more creative and artful” (7). This tends to support the idea that the advantage still lies with the user; and yet it seems clear that the state is devoting a very large amount of resources to the effort. Yang describes the situation this way:

An entire apparatus of institutions and practices have appeared for the control of the Internet. Under these conditions, Internet activists have three ways of negotiating political control: rightful resistance, artful contention, and digital “hidden transcripts” of the information age. The main issues in online activism reflect both the political constraints on contention and the social milieu of activism. (23)

Yang describes the institutions and rules that the government has created to control internet activism in some detail (47-53). And he argues that the Chinese state is aware of a fundamental contemporary reality: a relatively free access to the information superhighway is a critical component of economic success. So control and economic innovation are in conflict, and so far users have been successful in finding ways of expressing themselves and gaining access to ideas and information from others.

What sorts of issues have created strong responses from online activists? There are many examples of websites and campaigns that are stimulated as protests against injustice — police beatings and killings, bad treatment of workers or homeowners, etc. And there are many instances of campaigns that have to do with assertions of group identity and rights — for example, the hepatitis-B carriers or diabetes patients. So social protest and identity expression are key. But here is a more extensive list of issue areas that Yang identifies within online activism: popular nationalism; rights defense; corruption and power abuse; environment; cultural contention; muckraking; and online charity (55). And within the category of rights defense he lists: vulnerable persons, homeowners, forced relocation, hepatitis-B carriers and diabetes patients, consumer rights, human rights, and other issues of urban middle-class concern (56). (Many of these issues about rights are the same subjects that Kevin O’Brien identifies under the heading of “rightful protest”; Rightful Resistance in Rural China.)

We might close by asking what effects “internet activism” is likely to have in China. And after reading Guobin Yang’s book, we might offer a best guess that goes along these lines. The internet serves as a large, dynamic space of expression and contention, that plays a critically important role in shaping Chinese people’s political and social attitudes. Its importance is less as an instrument of political organization and mobilization, than as a decentralized medium of consciousness formation. The anger and sorrow that is expressed over a single wrongful death — repeated tens of thousands of times in a variety of forums and forms — can also produce a stronger sense of a need for change in China. And so the effects of internet activism are somewhat unpredictable. But we might speculate that it can lead in the end to powerful and popular demands in earthly China for important legal and institutional reforms. Perhaps Charter ’08 will be the big winner (link): legal protections and a broadened scope for life within civil society.

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New forms of collective behavior?


Personal electronic communication and the Internet — have these new technologies changed the game for collective action? Here I am thinking of email and instant messaging, but also cell phones and other personal communications devices, as well as the powerful capacity for dissemination of ideas over the web — has this dense new network of communication and coordination fundamentally changed the ability of groups to pursue their political or social goals?

There is no doubt that these technologies are relevant to collective action. Communication, coordination, and assurance are crucial features of successful collective action — and these are precisely the qualities that current technologies offer. Moreover, the ability for a party or movement to disseminate its programs, ideas, and promises to potential followers is crucial for its ability to gather support; and this is what the Web offers better than any prior form of communications technology.

A couple of data points are relevant.

  • The City of New York has recently subpoenaed the software and records of TXTmob from an MIT graduate student (story). TXTmob is a software tool created more or less on the fly before the party conventions in 2004 to permit demonstrators to use text messages to assemble and disperse quickly and effectively.
  • Will.i.am’s music video of Barak Obama’s “Yes We Can” speeches has been viewed by eight million people since posting on YouTube — generating funds, votes, and passion for the candidate.
  • Cell phone photos and videos have made their way out of Tibet and Burma documenting the crackdowns that have occurred in those places — allowing passionate groups of people outside the area to bring their protests to bear.

So what is genuinely new in this list? Covert cameras and travelers have existed for a long time. Cell phones were available in Gdansk and Teheran during street protests there in the 1970s. And newspapers, magazines, and television and radio have disseminated ideas widely. So, again, is there any reason to think that current communications technologies have changed anything fundamental — either the nature of popular mobilization or the balance of power between the powerful and the numerous?

Two factors are important enough to significantly change the nature of struggles between the powerful and the popular. First is the capacity for coordination among a large group that is created by cell phones and IM devices. A “flash mob” can form and dissolve in minutes. This can make their actions and demonstrations more effective and more difficult to repress. And there is a secondary benefit for the organization — rapid multi-sided communication can help to maintain solidarity and commitment within the group.

Second, the low cost and broad distribution of web-based communication gives a new advantage to the numerous but poor. Swift Boaters required hundreds of thousands of dollars to disseminate their attack ads against candidate Kerry — whereas a six-minute video can reach millions of people on YouTube for free. This tips the balance of power away from the deep pockets towards the creative activist group.

So it seems reasonable to judge that these communications technologies are indeed a significant new element in the field of play of collective action. Groups can self-organize more effectively; they can coordinate their actions; and they can share and reinforce the urgency of their commitments through the use of cell phones, text messages, web pages, and dissemination points such as YouTube.

All this has implications for popular politics within a law-governed democracy. It is less clear that these technologies offer as much leverage for the powerless within an authoritarian state. Combine a powerful authoritarian state’s ability to monitor communications with a perfect readiness to repress activists and dissidents and to control the technology — and you get a situation in which these tools of communication are much less useful for an opposition.

Chaos and coordination in social life

Much social behavior is chaotic, in that it simply emerges from the independent choices of numerous agents during a period of time. It is analogous to Brownian motion — particles in a liquid moving in random motions as a result of innumerable bumps and pushes at the molecular level.

However, there are also many patterns that become visible in social behavior — examples of what I would like to call “coordinated social action”: stock market panic selling, holiday travel, rumors, style, riots, pickpockets in train stations. And we can identify many causes of coordination of individual behavior into larger patterns: commands, regulations, institutions, customs, conventions, collective plans, shared beliefs about social behavior, common sources of information, and common changes in the environment of choice, for example.

What I mean by “coordination” here is the opposite of chaos — something analogous to the coherence of photons associated with the laser effect. In a laser a set of photons are stimulated to fire coherently with each other, resulting in a beam of light that possesses focus and parallel propagation that is different in kind from the scattered diffusion of photons from an incandescent bulb. “Coordinated” social action is a set of actions that possess synchronicity or regularity in their occurrence, resulting in an observable regularity of behavior over time and space. A crucial problem for social inquiry is to provide an explanation of the mechanisms that underlie the instances of coordinated social action that we can identify.

Examples of coordinated social action can easily be offered, and specific mechanisms can be identified that produce these forms of social coordination. An army moves in concert across a landscape (command). People drive on the right in North America (regulation). People send their children to school (institution). People greet each other with a polite “good morning” (custom). Villagers come together to fish as a group in the morning (convention). People discuss a spontaneous demonstration in front of the mayor’s office on Wednesday, and many appear (collective plans). Drivers choose Route 3 rather than Route 1 because they expect a lot of traffic on Route 1 (shared beliefs). People buy a large number of batteries and chocolate, anticipating an approaching hurricane (common environmental change).

These are all mechanisms that create a degree of coordination or synchronization of behavior among independent agents. There seem to be several large categories of mechanisms here: hierarchical coordination (command, regulation); common response coordination (each individually responds to the same signal); communications and network coordination (individuals exchange messages to secure coordination); and strategic coordination (each intends to behave in a way that will be desirable given his/her expectation of actions by others). Might we try out the thought that all forms of regularities of social behavior derive from one or another of these forms of coordination? This thought is probably somewhat too strong a claim. For example, there are probably social regularities that derive from our biology and evolutionary histories — limitations of memory, bonds of intra-group loyalty, kin altruism. But the impulse is a sound one: when we are able to observe patterns of social behavior, there must be a cause of those regularities that works its way through influence on the individual actors who constitute the domain of action. And there are only so many mechanisms that might serve.

These sorts of regularities and mechanisms constitute part of the regularity of social life, but perhaps only part. It may be that they don’t capture other kinds of more “structural” regularities — for example, “racial discrimination increases health disparities,” “feudal political systems are slow to respond to external aggression”, “capitalist market systems are more innovaative than planned economies”. But there is an important aspect of social explanation that centers exactly on this question: what are the social mechanisms that bring a degree of coherence and coordination among the actions of a population of independent actors?

Is network analysis inconsistent with agent-centered explanation?


Quite a few researchers who study dynamic social processes are making use of some of the tools of network analysis. And it is sometimes maintained that this approach is inconsistent with an agent-centered approach to social processes. Some of these researchers take the view that “it’s not what is in the heads of various actors, but rather their relationships in networks that provide the causal underpinnings of social change.” And they sometimes maintain that the actor’s psychological states can’t even be identified in isolation from his/her social relationships. So, once again, explanation cannot rest upon facts about individuals alone. And this sort of finding is thought to cast doubt on methodological individualism in particular, and agent-centered explanatory strategies more generally. (Chuck Tilly and co-authors sometimes take a view along these lines; for example, Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention.)

There is something right about the intuition that we can’t ground social explanations on assumptions that are too narrowly confined to features of individual psychology. Individuals are socially constucted and socially developed, and our explanations of social processes need
to reflect this fact. This is why I prefer the phrase “methodological localism” to “methodological individualism.” But both ontologies are agent-centered. So the question remains: does the causal salience of social networks demonstrate that agent-centered accounts are inherently incomplete — or even worse, inherently unworkable (because we can’t even specify the individual agent’s powers and motives independently of his/her networks)?

I don’t think so, for several reasons. First, what is a network but a set of socially constructed agents in concrete relations with each other — communication, coordination, power, subordination, and recognition? The facts about the network are exhausted by a description of the social beliefs of the relevant actors and their material relations to each other.

Second, it is certainly true that an agent’s possibilities for exercising power are a function of facts beyond his/her own psychological characteristics. So Albert, the peasant activist in the tiny Breton village, is much more empowered than his psychological twin across the border in Normandy, by the fact that he alone has strong relationships with leaders in both the Catholic Church and the wine-growers’ guild. His social networks permit him to amplify the scope of action and effect he may attempt. What this means is that Albert’s social networks are a causal component in his ability to wield influence. In this sense it is reasonable as well to attribute causal status to the network and to characterize this standing as being independent of Albert as an individual.

But it remains true that all of the causal powers associated with the network depend on the states of agency of the many persons who make it up. We therefore need to be able to provide an agent-centered account of the network’s causal powers, distributed over the many agents who make it up. We must have “microfoundations” for the claim that the network exercises social influence. If the actors who constitute nodes within the network didn’t have the right mental frameworks, motivational dispositions, or bodies of knowledge, then they would not in fact behave in a way that was sustaining of the network’s social-causal properties.

So, it seems inescapable that, when we say that “Albert’s power as a peasant activist depends upon the social fact that he is part of such-and-so networks” — that we have only uncovered another field of research where more agent-centered research is needed. The network’s social-causal properties must themselves disaggregate onto a set of facts about the agents who constitute the network. The current causal properties of the network and the agents who make it up are the complex and iterative result of many inter-related actions and alliances of prior generations of agents.

And this in turn demonstrates that network analysis is by no means inconsistent with an agent-centered approach to social explanation.

(See “Levels of the social” for more on this subject.)

Structure, psychology, power

Political and social power involves the exercise of social resources to compel various kinds of unwilling behavior by others. What creates power in society? What are the sorts of social and structural factors that permit individuals to exercise power? And what features of personality lead a given individual to choose to use the instruments of power to achieve his/her will? In short — how does power pertain to “structure” and “agency”?

This is one of the categories in social analysis that requires that we bring together both agency and structure. Individuals wield power; but they only do so on the basis of resources and advantages that are conferred upon them by existing social relations. The enduring social relations that exist in a society — for example, property relations, administrative and political relations, or the legal system — constitute a structure within which agents act, and they determine the distribution of crucial social resources that become the raw materials on the basis of which agents exercise power over other individuals and groups. So the particular details of a social structure are crucial in determining the forms of power that exist in the society. For example, a privileged position within the property system — the possession of significant income and wealth — confers a resource advantage on people in that position. They can use their wealth to solicit powerful allies; they can purchase media outlets; they can influence politicians — all with an eye to achieving their goals in spite of the contrary wishes or interests of others.

Likewise, a privileged position in the communications system — a television news producer or newspaper publisher, for example — can use his/her position to alter the way in which stories are presented in such a way as to change the way the public thinks about the issues; and these changes in thought can lead to changes in behavior. And an elected official can exercise power by setting the agenda for others — by including or excluding various options from consideration.

So one’s position within these various social structures — systems of social relations — determines the volume of social resources upon which one can call in the effort to constrain or compel the actions of others. Position determines one’s capacity for power. But it does not determine the exercise of power. To be said to exercise power, it is necessary to have the goal of compelling people to do things they don’t want to do. This is where agency or the “will to power” comes in. It is possible for a person with access to great power resources to nonetheless behave in ways that do not make use of power but rather depend on building consent and consensus. We might contrast Churchill with Stalin in mobilizing society for war; Churchill persuaded the British people to sacrifice in support of the war effort, whereas Stalin used the coercive power of the state to achieve his war mobilization goals.

This fact suggests that we need to consider something of the psychology of power. This is a topic that Adorno and other critical theorists invoked through the concept of the “authoritarian personality” — an idea invoked largely in an effort to understand fascism. Others might attempt to assimilate the willingness to use power under the category of “opportunistic” or “instrumentalist” decision-making: coercion is considered as simply one out a menu of feasible strategies for achieving one’s will. (This is perhaps the foundation of Hobbes’s understanding of the pursuit and use of power.) And here we might speculate that the “democratic personality” is a set of dispositions to behavior that lead the agent to seek out persuasion and consensus rather than force, deception, and coercion as instruments through which to achieve one’s goals. (Taken to the limit, we might say that a proper democracy creates an environment in which there is neither opportunity nor impulse towards the exercise of power.)

On this way of laying out the landscape of power, there are several dimensions to be considered: the social arrangements that make it possible for some individuals to pressure, coerce, and compel other individuals to do their bidding; the social arrangements that create profound conflicts of interest in the context of which the incentive to wield power naturally arises; and the circumstances of social psychology and personality that lead some individuals to choose to make use of resources of power to coerce, while others choose strategies that depend on willing consent to achieve collective purposes.

Power: corporations

How do large corporations wield power? What are the kinds of outcomes that corporate leaders want to influence? What are the instruments available to them through which they can influence outcomes? And are there impersonal means through which corporations influence society — i.e., wield power or exert causal influence?

Consider first the outcomes. Corporations are businesses with interests. These include first and foremost profitability — short, medium, and longterm. Profitability is influenced by a number of economic, legal, and political factors: a favorable trading environment; a favorable environment for secure property and contract rights; a favorable regulatory environment; favorable and predictable relationships with the workforce and unions; and favorable attitudes from consumers and the public. So corporate officers are charged to do everything possible to bring about positive results for the company in all these spheres.

Lobbying is a central activity through which the corporation pursues its agenda. The corporation employs professionals at a range of levels whose job it is to persuade and influence political and agency actors — legislators, staffers, agency officials, lower-level agency workers who can influence regulations and findings. Lobbying works through personal relationships, campaign support (including campaign gifts), and other forms of influence. (The subject of corruption and conflict of interest and commitment comes in here, but not all lobbying effort
falls in that category.)

Advertising, communications, and public relations are related efforts by the corporation through which the corporation exercises influence. The corporation expends substantial resources to “get its message out” — and these expenditures have measurable effects. Targeted audiences change their opinions and behavior as a result of these efforts.

So far we have identified instruments of suasion and incentives — persuading various actors to act in ways that are favorable to the corporation. And these efforts are substantially effective because of the weight of the resources the corporation can devote to the effort. Are there also more coercive means available to the corporation? There are. A company can threaten various constituencies through redirection of business activities to compel actions favorable to its agenda. For example, it can threaten to close a factory, or to lay off a group of workers, or to move production to overseas locations. These threats influence the behavior of municipalities, state governments, and unions.

In some historical circumstances corporations can also use violence and the threat of violence as part of its strategy for achieving its agenda. Examples of violence and intimidation can be found in China and Columbia today, and in the British and American business- labor struggles of the past. Violence and intimidation are among the tools through which strategic actors may pursue their goals.

This inventory indicates that businesses behave strategically in pursuit of their interests; that they have means of influencing powerful political and social actors through resources, organization, and intimidation; and that the results of this strategic action over time significantly influence the social space in which business activity, political rule-setting, and labor activism occur. In other words, corporations have significant causal powers in modern societies, and corporations constitute a significant locus of power in the contemporary world.

What is "power" in the twenty-first century?

Is “power” different in the twenty-first century?

Is power the same as “ability to influence behavior”?

Do the internet and new forms of communication and social networking create new opportunities for power–for good or bad purposes?

Think about the ways power was created and used in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries: the power of the state to regulate and enforce; the power of the police to arrest and confine; the power of Europe and North America to administer global empires; the power of the press to focus attention on subjects of concern (political corruption, tainted food, child labor).

These forms of power turn on a few more basic ideas: the ability to use force in order to coerce or threaten; the ability to use mechanisms of communication to influence public opinion and action; the ability to deploy a dispersed bureaucracy in order to organize the actions of distant actors.

Has the balance of power shifted between organized states and networked anti-state organizations?

The exercise of power is a crucial mechanism of social causation, and the analysis of the sources and organization of power is an important task for social science and social theory.

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