Friday, March 26, 2010

A Different Perspective On The Internet In China

With all of the attention being paid this week to Google's decision to shut down google.cn, the impression one is left with is of a Chinese Internet that is fundamentally defined by censorship. It is incontrovertible, of course, that politically sensitive topics (e.g., Tibet, Taiwan, and the Tiananmen Square incident) run afoul of the government's vision for online information and discussion. And it is definitely the case that the four of us did (and will) encounter difficulties accessing websites we take for granted in the United States. In the end, it is looking less and less like the Internet will serve as an immediate force for democratization, a view that many around the world held back in the 1990s.

All of that said, it is at the same time undeniable that the Chinese Internet is a very lively and chaotic place, even when it comes to matters of public affairs. Truth be told, democratization is simply not on the immediate agenda of the vast majority of Chinese citizens. This perhaps surprising, from a Western point of view, reality does not necessarily imply that Chinese citizens are apolitical in their orientation. In fact, there is an awful lot of concern on the proverbial street about issues in politics and public policy that affect the quality of people's everyday lives. More and more of this national conversation is taking place in cyberspace, a trend that by all accounts shows no signs of slowing down in spite of the censorship maneuvers that periodically attract front page attention.

Take health care reform, for example. By many measures, the Chinese health care system is in disarray. The majority of citizens do not possess insurance of any sort. Costs are spiraling out of control. Put all of this together and you have a recipe for household savings rates that economists argue are disproportionately high and that stymie government efforts to reduce the nation's dependence on exports as drivers of economic growth.

Although health care is an area where the government is under pressure to improve its performance, the issue is not politically sensitive in any sense that immediately threatens the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on power. Health care therefore is an arena where government officials see a value in turning to societal stakeholders for information that is of potential use in crafting policies that are technically sound and politically sustainable.

Such consultation, which has produced tens of thousands of submissions to a dedicated website (the accompanying screen shot captures one illustrative submission), certainly does not represent deliberative policymaking in anything close to its ideal form. It is unclear to what extent public officials and citizens are actually engaging in a good faith dialogue designed to solve difficult societal problems, as opposed to performing together in a kind of Kabuki theater. Such uncertainties, it has to be acknowledged, are by no means a Chinese phenomenon, as the policymaking process in the United States is often criticized along exactly the same lines.

Despite these imperfections, it is important to recognize that there is such a thing as everyday policymaking in China and that the Internet is increasingly playing a central role in such episodes. When asked about their views on health care reform, citizens who submitted comments were more likely to express concerns about the plan than to indicate support for the specific directions proposed by the government. In addition, participants were in an overall sense not all that optimistic about the extent to which public officials would be responsive to suggestions, except in the context of comments offered by individuals working in privileged sectors such as the government and medical and health industry.

Such familiar patterns suggest that there is a politics of the Chinese Internet that is not all that unlike what occurs in the United States, with all of its promise and practical shortcomings. It is just that such manifestations are often not immediately apparent to our democratic Western eyes. In the end, within the larger dictates of censorship, a space for political participation and the expression of disagreement continues to emerge online in China. These developments, no less than incidents like the Google controversy, deserve the systematic attention of observers around the world.

~Steve

PS: If you would like more information about the survey of health care reform participants referenced above, just let me know and I will send you a copy of a working paper I have just completed on the subject.

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