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China: Social media for social change

Discussion about the political power of social media has focussed on its potential to organize mass protests for revolutionary changes. In the January/February 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs, however, Clay Shirky argued that the real power of social media lies in supporting civil society and the public sphere, with impacts that should be measured in years and decades, not weeks or months.

Hu Yong, a media scholar at Peking University, would probably agree with Clay Shirky. In an article published shortly after Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize was announced, Hu claimed that Twitter and all its clones (the various microblogs offered by major portals) have become important tools in China for organizing activism like social resistance and civic investigation. But rather than leading to a ‘Twivolution’, he argued that social media would lead to more subtle social progress in China:

That subtlety reflects the distinction between macro-politics and micro-politics. Macro-politics is structural, whereas micro-politics is daily. Changes in the micro-political system do not necessarily lead to an adjustment in the macro structure, particularly in hyper-controlled political systems like China’s. But if small units are well organized, they can greatly improve the well-being of society as a whole, bit by bit, by working at the micro level. ‘Micro-information’ and ‘micro-exchange’ can push forward real change.

In a recent interview about the Chinese social media landscape with Xiaomi (@xiaomi2020) from the China blog Translators, Hu Yong (@huyong) expanded upon this notion of gradualism. He stated that it would be innocent to think that social media can lead to revolutionary changes in China, as many participants are merely ‘onlookers’ of public events. However, it has a transformative power which should not be underestimated. Below are some of the comments expressed by Hu Yong during the interview (titles added by author of this post for ease of reading).

The meaning of ‘onlooking’


I emphasized that onlooking is the minimum level of public participation. In fact, it is very far from the kind of politics in which people participate, reach a consensus, make decisions, and then act. Therefore, it would be too innocent to think that onlooking can change the reality of China. On the other hand, we should not underestimate the meaning of this onlooking in social media. It lowers the threshold of public participation, enabling many people to express their views and desires. These micro-expressions, when combined together, can form formidable public opinion.


Apart from this, I think that this kind of onlooking represents something important. The so-called onlooking means that people can see each other. This is very important. As I always emphasize, the original sin of people in contemporary China is not ignorance, but apathy, which is more harmful than ignorance. The fact that some parts of the government panic when faced with public demands in the social media shows that onlooking is a force of its own. It represents a kind of witness and caring about each other on the part of the citizenry. The psychological and social momentum generated by it should not be underestimated.

Social media and political consumerism


We should acknowledge the positive force of the ‘onlooking politics’. But it has its limitations, of which transience is a major one. In China, public opinion come and go like waves. When an incident first breaks, coverage concentrates on it, with massive amounts of reports and comments. But this attention is not sustainable. If another hotspot emerges, the original event will fade away or even be forgotten. This short attention span of the Chinese public is not helpful in effecting structural political changes in China.


This is the spiral rule of attracting attention. You can attract the spotlight through some extreme methods. But to do the same next time, you have to resort to even more extreme means. Sometimes this is called scandal fatigue, in which people compete with each other on being uglier. In the end, people become insensitive. Therefore, I sense that while we should affirm the positive role of social media in encouraging public participation, we should also realize that it is very primitive. Our goal should always be raising this political participation and care about public affairs to a new level, which would provide the foundation of structural changes in China. If we don’t construct this foundation, all else will be empty talks. However, we should not equate this foundation building with creating a new structure. After all, the difference between foundation building and constructing a high-rise is apparent. I think that microblogging or onlooking provides a lot of opportunities and tools for us to improve our politics in a micro sense. They lay the foundation for something bigger, but they cannot replace the many structural reforms required.

The role of micro-power


Today’s China does not need a strong, revolutionary force. What it needs is micro-power. Why is micro-power important? This is because, in the past, there was a disconnect between the minority and the majority. The politically active minority always pushes forward real change, but what they find it difficult to understand is, ‘why is the mass always unconcerned about what we are doing, even when we are fighting for their benefits?’ On the other hand, the majority thinks of this active minority as too politicized, perhaps with their own agenda. I think that the presence of micro-power creates many bridges between the two disconnected groups. This is the role of micro-power.

Revolutionary vs. transformative


I think that the effect of citizen actions or even social movements in today’s China is not revolutionary, but transformative. It will propel China through a long path of improvements, like more dignity for individuals or a fairer society. It will go along this path slowly. Perhaps many people expect changes overnight. But as Lu Xun pointed out long ago, change in China does not come easily – this was a place where even moving a table will almost always end in bloodshed. From this point of view, microblogging or onlooking has an immense benefit – it refines our spirit. I used to quote Zhu Xueqin, ‘we may not be delivering checkmate in ten years, but we waste not a single day advancing our troops.’ Don’t expect an easy checkmate, but advancing step by step. This spirit is what most Chinese are lacking. We are used to shortcuts and accelerations. There is a good saying, ‘a shortcut is the longest distance between two points.’ In other words, we lack patience and a progressive, tough fighting spirit. Those who expect sudden changes will be disappointed. But, one incident after another, this process will develop our spirit, and this spirit will correct the defects of our politics and society.


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