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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’

我强调围观是一种最低限度的公共参与,它其实与通过参与达成共识或通过共识再采取决策和行动这些东西都距离非常遥远。所以,我们如果简单地认为围观就能够改变中国的话,肯定是对中国的现实报以太过于天真的幻想。但是,反过来讲,我们不能够因此低估网络围观的意义,因为它降低了行动的门槛,导致很多人可以去表达一种立场、一种诉求,这种立场和诉求积少成多、集腋成裘,可以形成一个很大的舆论力量。

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.

另外,我觉得说,这个围观还有一个很重要的东西在于哪里?所谓的围观,就意味着说大家彼此能够互相看见对方,互相看见对方是非常重要的。因为,我经常讲到的一个观点说,在当下的中国社会,人的原罪不是无知,而是视而不见,视而不见比无知是一种更大的危害。也正是由于如此,在当下的中国社会,单纯的看见这样一种渴望,就会引起很多人的恐慌,引起某些机构的恐慌,原因在于看见本身就是一种力量,因为它代表着公民对很多事情的一种见证,这样的见证如果又是互相能够守望的一种见证,至少它所产生的心理的和社会的动能是不可低估的。

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

一方面,我们当然要肯定围观政治的积极作用,但是围观政治的确有它的一些比较明显的弊端,比如说短暂性。短暂性是一个比较明显的特点,在中国,尤其是互联网的舆论,总是呈现一种波浪形的,它是一波一波的。换句话讲,一个事件形成以后,它的热点非常集中,形成大家铺天盖地的舆论,但是它的维持舆论的势头其实是有问题的。如果一个新的热点出现,原来的就会很快淡出视野,甚至会被人们遗忘。实际上说,这种围观政治的短暂性,包括民众对于议题的注意力的易碎程度,其实不是特别有利于改变中国的制度结构。

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.

这是一个注意力的螺旋定律,就是说为了要获得注意力就要采取一些极端的做法,但是,下一次要获得更大的注意力就只能采取更极端的做法。也有人把这种东西叫做审丑疲劳,就是大家比丑,一个事情比一个事情更丑恶,丑恶到最后,大家对这些东西都比较麻木不仁。所以,我一直觉得,我们一方面要非常肯定这些新的工具带来的民众的参与性,但是,我们要意识到,这其实是一个最基础的工作,我们永远要把这种政治参与度或者是对社会事务的关注度的提升作为一个很大的好事来鼓吹,因为它提供了将来结构改变的一种最为核心的基础,如果不打这个基础的话,我觉得任何改变都是纸上谈兵。但是,也不要把打基础的工作夸大为好像就是在建造某个新的结构,或者是说在建造某个新的大厦,打基础和建大厦的区别还是非常明显的。我觉得,微博政治或者围观政治到目前为止,其实还是为我们的民主的微观政治提供了很多改良的机会和手段,它为我们以后更大的社会变迁在打基础,但是它不能代替很多很多的制度化的变革。

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

今天的中国的变革并不需要一种强有力的革命性的力量,它需要的是一种微动力。这个微动力为什么是重要的?因为,在过去,少数人跟大多数民众之间,中间的联系是断裂的,总会有一些少数的动力特别充足的人,他们会推动某个事情的前进,但是他们永远搞不清楚的是,“为什么大众总是不关心我们所做的事情,甚至在我们给他们争取利益的时候,大众也不关心”。而大众通常会觉得这些少数动力十足的人,他们太政治化了,可能有他们自己的目的或想法。我觉得,由于微动力的出现,会导致在这两者的断裂间架设起很多的桥梁,这就是微动力的作用。

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

当下的中国,如果我们有一些公民的行动,或者用更大的词,我们有一些社会运动,那我觉得,它的功能或者效果不是revolutionary,就是它不是革命性的,但是,它可能是transformative[渐变的]。等于说,它会推动中国社会缓慢地沿着一个长线的道路前进,比如让所有的中国人享有更多的尊严,能够在一个更加公平的社会环境下生活。我觉得,它会推动社会向这个方面有一个很缓慢的转变。所以,可能很多人期待的是,我们有没有可能有一个一夜之间的变化。鲁迅很早就说得很清楚,在中国搬一张桌子都是要流血的。其实,中国的任何事情都不会有很快的变化,都是一个缓慢的变化。那么,在这个意义上来讲,这种微博政治或者围观政治还有一个很大的好处,就是它会锻炼我们的精神。我那时候经常引用朱学勤的话,他说“纵使十年不将军,却无一日不拱卒”,就是不要期待很容易就将军了,但是要日复一日的拱卒,这种精神恰好是很多中国人比较欠缺的东西。大家习惯于速成,习惯于走捷径。西方有一个谚语说,捷径其实是最远的道路。那就是说,我们特别欠缺就是耐心对峙、长期渐进的一种韧性的战斗。而我觉得,凡是期待迅速变化的人会失望,但是,这一次一次的过程,其实在告诉我们,在中国人当中培养这样一种精神,这种精神最终能够改变现在很多不良的政治和社会。

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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