The Other Net Behind the Great Wall (II)

Chinanet is an autonomous internet, separated from the rest of the word and characterised by a different usage that is more about performance than participation.

The Great Wall of China at Nankou, 1920

The Great Wall of China at Nankou, 1920. Source: The National Archives UK.

With over 564 million users, China is home to the planet’s largest network of connected citizens. The Internet was introduced in China in 1994, along with the process of reform that began after the Cultural Revolution. The economy of the socialist market consists of opening up the country to foreign capital and implementing new technologies. This policy has led to what Rodney Wai-chi Chu and Chung-tai Cheng have called “riding a double juggernaut”: the rapid, almost simultaneous capitalisation and cyberization of the country. This second part of the article explores the development of ‘Chinanet’, an autonomous internet, separated from the rest of the world and characterised by a different usage that is more about performance than participation.

Chinanet is a recreational space where users spend an average of 20.5 hours a week, mainly connecting from home. The use of cyber cafes, which where the most usual spaces for access and for promotion when the Internet was first introduced, has decreased since computers and service providers have become more accessible. But far from disappearing as they have in other countries, cyber cafes are still a popular meeting place for young people who go there to play online games, and they continue to account for 32.4% of connection time. As we have already mentioned, one of the most popular applications in China is instant messaging, which is used by 82.9% of the population, while email is in decline and used only by 44.5%. The next most popular service is search engines, online music (435 million users), personal blogs, online video platforms, videogames, and microblogs, with 309 million users, 65.5% of whom connect via their mobiles. These are followed by social networks, with 275 million users, and online shopping, which is experiencing strong growth of almost 25% per annum and reached 242 million users in 2013. These figures show the existence of an active digital culture in China in spite of the control, and usage patterns that differ from the rest of the World Wide Web. This particular development is due to several factors, such as the rapid uptake of the Internet along with the consumer market, the country’s increasing wealth, and a discourse that revolves around technological determinism. The differences are also due to Chinese cultural heritage, which is still alive at the heart of Chinese civil society.

In the rest of the world, the Internet is not a technology but a medium that has evolved from the convergence of numerous technologies that began to emerge in the sixties, and of different concepts and theories from numerous fields. It is a software-based medium that has been shaped by market demands, but also through the contributions and uses of very diverse creators and users, bringing together engineers and technologists and also scientists, psychologists, artists and designers. It is a space of convergence for liberals in favour of new economy based on knowledge production; philosophers of the virtual realm and sociologists of a new public sphere; post-colonialist anthropologists on the lookout for the Other; cyberpunks fuelling the techno-utopia of an open, autonomous space that will become the seeds of a new society; ‘new agers’ who believe in new transpersonal ecologies; artists developing shared authorship environments and new interactive processes; hackers ready to bend the medium and elude control by keeping it open; activists who see it as a tool for civic gatherings and citizen empowerment, and educators fighting for digital literacy and a medium accessible to all. These interdisciplinary groups have contributed to developing the software that in turn has become a techno-social device, and has shaped new forms of interaction and sociability. From the early mailing lists for non-profit projects with cultural or social aims, to open source co-creation platforms and databases or archives that have generated collective intelligence and communal action, all of these uses have helped to mould the stigmergic logarithmic medium that our everyday reality has become immersed in This has made the Internet a living medium, in which there is always tension between the possibilities of a new virtual public sphere and the interests and needs of day-to-day reality.

The introduction of the Internet in China, however, did not go through this evolutionary process, and its users have found themselves in an environment that is tragically separated from the complex ecology that it grew out of. If we add to this the peculiar nature of the context where it has been implemented – a society based on social engineering, behaviour modelling, and the benevolence of the state – we have Chinanet, a space that is separate from everyday life and social life, even though it has connections to physical space given that the use of RFDI cards and other ubiquitous technology devices is commonplace and growing.

Chinese censors at work.

Chinese censors at work. Source: Charles Hope.

Chinese society is still influenced by Confucian ethics, in which the universalism and equality that defines relations between free, autonomous individuals in Western civil society is replaced by a rejection of individualism in favour of situation-based behaviour and the acceptance of hierarchies. In addition, there are the effects of modernisation, which has increased social differences – there are an estimated 2.7 million millionaires, and over 251 billionaires (calculated in US dollars), while 13% of the population lives on les than 2.25 dollars a day – and strong competition for the scarce opportunities to climb the social ladder. There is a large population of young people, most of which are only children without siblings, who are under a great deal of pressure to adapt and improve their place in the world, although Chinese society offers few opportunities for change and intervention. For these young people, the Internet is an escape valve. A place where they can enjoy banal entertainment, the anonymity of online forums and microblogs, and the sense of purpose and easy success that videogames offer. The Internet thus becomes a space where normal everyday life is suspended, what the sociologist David Kurt Herold, in Noise, Spectacle, Politics: Carnival in Chinese cyberspace compares to the concept of carnival as developed by Mikhail Bakhtin.

Carnival is a period in which normal social distinctions and rules are suspended, and everyone participates on equal terms, protected by the anonymity of masks, without fearing the consequences of their actions. It is a space where there is no difference between spectators and actors, and it is lived rather than performed. It is full of fun but also of ambivalence and parody, which are shared and transmitted and capable of producing new identities and forms of association. In authoritarian societies, control, entertainment and consumption all go hand in hand; nonetheless, wherever there are open spaces for diversion, there is the possibility of the kind of free play that Giorgio Agamben identifies with profanation. Profanation in this sense is a political action, in that it liberates a medium and returns it to common use, giving back spaces that had been confiscated by power. It frees a form of behaviour from its particular genetic ties and allows new forms of subjectivation to appear.

Similarly, the controlled recreational space of Chinanet has given rise to an active culture, a liberated form of behaviour that contains the seeds for a different kind of empowerment. New identities emerge in this culture, embodied as popular bloggers like Han Han and the BackDormBoys, young people who adopt new, cheerful and informal behaviour, released from the seriousness and distances of a hierarchic society, and who become hugely popular. A specific kind of language is also emerging out of microblog posts and comments and in forums. Microblogging is one of the most popular online practices in China, partly due to a peculiarity of the Chinese language, which requires approximately three times less characters than phonetic languages to communicate the same thing. Microbloggers start up anonymous, spontaneous dialogues that lead to the development and dissemination of expressions and practices that are shared and spread virally, creating new forms of interaction and identification. Expressions that have become common include “Penzi” to refer to a spammer (somebody who uses the medium to distribute advertising); “Zhao Chou”, a kind of troll who posts something polemic in an attempt to trigger confrontation; “Diao Yu” to refer to a post that is fishing or trying to draw attention, and reproving terms like “Nao Can”, which means idiot, and “Daiosi”, which is translated as “loser” and has become a term used to describe those who don’t share the usual definition of success. Other expressions include “Huliansu”, for somebody who posts selfies to increase his or her popularity, and “Xuanfu” a disapproving term for somebody who boasts of wealth.

As well as a new language, Chinese internet users are developing new practices such as “E-Gao”, a kind of parody made possible by new technologies. The name is made up of the characters “e”, which means evil or devil, and “gao” which means work, and has been described by the China Daily as a popular subculture that deconstruct serious subjects in order to entertain people and make them laugh. It is characterised by humour, rebelliousness, subversion, spontaneity, defiance of authority, and mass participation in a multimedia technology. Basically, it consists of editing and remixing well-known images, creating short videos in which the original content is distorted to comic effect. It is a comic way of expressing criticism, a playful subversion of discourses linked to authority, which triggers emotional catharsis and is widely shared and spread, allowing users to participate in shaping an institutionalised narrative.

But beyond parody and humour, Chinanet offers other ways of socialising. Non-individualistic societies have a weaker idea of authorship, so it is not unusual to find groups who use the Internet to create a common project. For example, there is an active community of users who create Chinese subtitles for popular foreign television series, making it possible for them to be screened in a very short period of time. There is also a very active, flourishing “maker” movement, which does not have its roots in the counterculture that the movement grew out of in the West, but on more pragmatic principles.

Finally, in among the humour and critical laughter, and in spite of the overt control and surveillance that makes it unthinkable for many citizens to confront the State, there is also a certain activism, which is referred to as “climbing over the wall” and is principally expressed through the use of illegal technologies and memes.

“Climbing over the wall” (fan qiang) is a reference to technological and ideological strategies used to outsmart the Great Firewall. The expression was popularised by internationally recognised Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and activist Bei Feng during a protest against the Green Dam. The Green Dam Youth Escort Online Filtering Software was a project launched in 2009 that aimed to create a filtering software that was to be installed in all computers sold in China. The project stirred up considerable controversy and was finally overturned due to marketing problems and copyright claims, although it is installed in computers at some public educational centres.

There are various technological ways of outsmarting the surveillance system and crossing over into the space of the World Wide Web, such as the use of free proxies and encrypted channels for example. The most popular and most secure are VPN (Virtual Private Networks) and SSH (Secure Shell), which use proxies and encrypted channels but rely on a private virtual host or an account located outside of China. Many Internet users in China, particularly foreigners living in the country and researchers interested in the use of the Internet, habitually use these technologies to communicate with the outside world.

But “climbing over the wall” also refers to criticism of censorship and to the promotion of freedom of information, expressed through the use of political memes. The term “meme” was coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe a unit of information that can be transmitted and recombined. The term has become popular on the Internet to refer to images to which text is added, which allude to widely known facts in an indirect and critical way, and which spread virally through the Internet and become part of the shared imaginary. In China, memes have been an effective means to get around censorship, given that they are not in text format and are harder to decipher. Some of the memes that have become most popular include “dressing nudes”, in which nudes from Classical art are shown with clothes superimposed on them. This is a reference to a China Central Television broadcast of an exhibition at the National Museum of China in which the genitals of Michelangelo’s David were blurred. Another popular meme is based on images of sunflower seeds, used to mock the blacklisting of the name of the artist Ai Weiwei through a reference to his famous work at the Tate. These and other memes can be found listed on the blog www.88-bar.com. But the most popular and widely used meme is the “grass mud horse”, a creature resembling an alpaca, which, along with its enemy the “river crab”, has become one of the mythological animals populating Chinese cyberspace. The meme first appeared in 2009, and is based on a popular children’s song as a means to criticise censorship.

The song recounts how the alpacas, gentle and brave inhabitants of the desert, must defend their pastures from the river crabs. Their courage results in victory, and they manage to throw out the invading enemy. The meme is based on the approximate homophony between càonǐmā (grass mud horse), and the expression “fuck your mother” in English, and between the expression “river crab” and the word “harmonious”, which began to be used as a synonym for “censorship” after it was cited as part of the strategy to create a quiescent society that grows harmoniously.

The implementation of the Internet in China reveals the effects of introducing a global technology in a differentiated local space. Unlike the case of Egypt, where the banning of Facebook by President Mubarak led to a mass protest on the streets, Chinese authorities have been able to control and limit the medium by means of complex technology and the use of a shopping mall-style development model. A delimited, controlled commercial space that citizens use without being aware of the potentiality of public space, or of the attacks on their privacy. It is a recreational space, in which in spite of the control and surveillance, net-citizens are becoming actors, cheerful, anonymous performers of new models of behaviour and new forms of subjectivation, against a backdrop in which an incipient civil society is seeking strategies for joint participation.

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The Other Net Behind the Great Wall (II)