Democratic Participation in China – A Long Way to Go?

Interview with Isaac Mao

The entire interview will be printed in the book: Reboot_D Digitale Demokratie (pub. end of Nov. 2009)

Isaac Mao is a blogger from the People’s Republic of China.
He is co-founder of CNBlog.org and a researcher in social learning. In 2005, he started the movement for adopting Chinese bloggers on overseas servers.Mao is a venture capitalist, blogger, software architect, entrepreneur and researcher in learning and social technology. He divides his time between research, social works, business and technology. He is now Vice President of United Capital Investment Group and Director to Social Brain Foundation, advisor to Global Voices Online and several Web 2.0 businesses. He became a Berkman Fellow last year.
Mao is a co-founder of CNBlog.org and a co-organizer of the Chinese Blogger Conference.

Introduction
The growing use of the web log reveals a radical socio-cultural transition and a progressing public sphere in China. In particular, bloggers actively exchange interests, comments and values and have formed a characteristically Chinese blogging culture. The feature of individualism shows that bloggers who insist on freedom of expression and pursue personal ideas can always find a place in the blogosphere. Isaac Mao, one of the first bloggers in China and one among many others today, demonstrate that individual opinions across the blogosphere have significantly reflected public consensus and implicitly changed political culture. However, the pursuit of freedom of expression in the blogosphere has to struggle with a strong political censorship, negotiate an unstable living space and thus, can only enjoy a limited success. Therefore, critical communication and democratic participation in China still have a long way to go.

Interview

Reboot_D: When we in the western hemisphere think about Chinese politics and the Internet, censorship is the first thing that comes to mind. Is the Chinese government using the Internet for its own purposes, and if so how are they using it?

Isaac Mao: Censorship is the first characteristic applicable to the Internet in China, but censorship also operates in different ways across the whole of society. I would say “Freedom” and “Censorship” are the two main forces shaping the Internet in China. Or, to put it in a modern Chinese context, “Caonima v. Hexie” (Grass Mud Horse v. River Crab). I think that China is now passing through the strangest phase in its history, because both the authorities and the grassroots believe in the importance of the new platform but each hold totally different views about what that importance means and differ so widely without any transparent dialog between them taking place. I would argue that the Chinese government always held a passive position, even though investment in censorship has reached an unprecedented level as with the ridiculous fund to support Green Dam software then invalidate it in the short term.

Reboot_D: Do you see any chances of starting a dialogue?

Isaac Mao: I’m very optimistic that new emerging social norms within the grassroots will foster dialogue. However, it’s very hard to foster a conversation of equals between the authorities and the people. The symbolic confrontation between “Grass Mud Horse” and “River Crab” is just the result of arrogance on the part of the ruling party. The problem springs from two key reasons: firstly, the ruling party is paranoid and uses power to emphasize its legitimacy; secondly, every abuse of its power shows that it’s weak on legitimacy. Unfortunately, these two reasons are interlocked. After the earlier unrest, the government is now starting to panic about everything, and especially about any sign of “dissident” voices. They are increasingly shutting down local sites and blocking overseas web sites with filters on particular keywords. I see many peaceful users becoming outraged about this. People are losing patience waiting for change from inside the ruling party. I never wanted to see such a divide, but sadly it has now become a fact of life.  

Reboot_D: Isaac, you are known as the first Chinese blogger. What made you start?

Isaac Mao: I’m one of the earliest bloggers in China but I believe there were a number of us back in early 2002. However, it’s very hard to identify them now. With my years of business management and research on learning technologies, I realized that a simple tool to share knowledge could be the best way for individuals to learn in a more complex world. This belief then developed into “Sharism”, which over the past seven years has proved itself to be the driving force behind the boom in user generated content. I myself, of course, am not only a theorist on sharing, but also a practitioner on the inside and on the front line at all times.  

Reboot_D: One widely held view is that nowhere else in the world has the impact of the Internet been as great as it has in China. Do you agree?

Isaac Mao: I do agree but with certain reservations. China is climbing from the bottom of communism up to a mixture of capitalism and socialism, so every- thing seems to be in the throes of dramatic big change. The Internet itself has become a huge gold mine enriching a huge population. Luckily, the Chinese adopted the Internet before the ruling party realized its enormous potential to promote democracy. In a highly regulated media space, Chinese people embraced the Internet as the only channel they had to express themselves. Yet it’s still a long way from bridging the wide gap between China and modern society. The story continues. The authorities have learnt some new strategies to guide and contain Internet voices. However, the huge flood of content will eventually disrupt those dams. 

Reboot_D: Does the Internet really help build a civil society in China? What is the role of social media in China? (Movements like Caonima, the “citizen journalists” revealing scandals which have real consequences for politicians, the riots in Xinjiang etc)

Isaac Mao: As yet it’s too early to say that civil society has formed in China. It’s really emerging from the bottom up spontaneously rather than in an organized way. Some movements, including those like “Human Flesh Search” on corruption, don’t reflect real collaboration and dialogue in the whole of society. Most Internet users are still “read-only” users who focus on no more than five web sites. With tougher control over Internet business and Internet cafes by the authorities, most of these so-called “300M Internet” users still don’t know what they don’t know. This definitely slows down collaboration at grassroots level, not to mention civil society and democracy. 

Reboot_D: Is there something like an Internet with “Chinese characteristics”?

Isaac Mao: I believe there are a lot of common features between the Internet in China and the Internet everywhere else in the world. The “C2C”(Copy to China) model is also generic everywhere, though it seems more successful in terms of the big user base. The very unique and unfortunate characteristic of the Internet in China is the twisted and divided agenda between government and society, as I just mentioned. So if you do Internet business in China, you have to learn a lot of “hidden rules” like those prevailing in traditional Chinese communities. This means you can do everything online in China, as long as the authorities don’t interpret it as illegal, but even this can change totally over night. The most recent case is the big propaganda campaign directed by the government to stop Google serving pornographic content to users. Almost all the propaganda machines including the People’s Daily, CCTV, Global Times, and the Xin Hua News Agency participated in this game and left their mark. I knew that Google had previously made huge efforts to nurture its relation-ship with the government, and that they had a whole posse of lawyers working on adapting local laws. But whenever there’s a political requirement, the government will sacrifice any business interest. I clearly predicted this possibility in the open letter I sent to the founders of Google in early spring 2007. 

Reboot_D: What role does the language (barrier) play in developing the Internet?

Isaac Mao: Yes, language is still one of the biggest barriers preventing Chinese people from adopting general values around the world. It’s also one of the main reasons why most people in China are not terribly interested in getting round the controls to view overseas content. This is also the reason why most web sites without a Chinese edition are not blocked in China. The success of some copycat businesses, like Baidu.com, was built on such a loophole. That’s why I cherish projects like Yeeyan.com very much. Some bilingual bridge bloggers are also valuable channels for the future development of China, like ESWN (EastSouthWestNorth) and Global Voices. I can see the long-term change that’s taking place translating the western world to Chinese, yet I’d like to see more sentiment sharing than just content bridges. 

Reboot_D: Can you explain the impact of the Great Firewall of China?

Isaac Mao: In my recent study of the Great Firewall, I found that it’s historically harmful to human beings. It’s not just like previous concrete walls like the Berlin Wall. I would rather call it “The Mirror” – because it functions both to block your vision and distort your point of view. Blockage of information has given most Chinese people various misconceptions about the world, and how the world views China. It also eclipsed the innovations with which young people in China could compete with the world. At the same time, it also prevents the government and ruling party from making progress. This is blatantly obvious 20 years after Tiananmen. From an historical viewpoint, the censorship of knowledge and violations of people’s right to learn will be seen as a crime against humanity. And I’m sure that justice will be sought someday. 

Reboot_D: It seems as if the government has been over-reacting over the last few weeks, blocking major international sites like Google, and now apparently Amazon etc.? Why? What do they fear? Have they any reason to fear? It would be interesting to know how these measures are seen by the average Chinese. 

Isaac Mao: As their predecessors did, the current government takes the whole of the universe as their permanent target. This is no joke. They even ordered Xin Hua News to homogenize all its news reporting about the total eclipse of the sun. You see, the party believes that people will take astronomical phenomena as a chance to glean political hints. What they fear is anyone talking about the regime in a way they haven’t defined. You can talk about “democracy” in this country, but only in specific places, at specific times, and to specific people. Once they found the Internet was playing to a totally different set of rules to their own, they started to redefine the rules.  

Reboot_D: Can you explain the 五毛党 Fifty Cent Party?

Isaac Mao: Wu Mao Dang (50 cents) is part of the censorship system but was introduced to take a different approach to simple blocking. Misusing the surplus profit created by the taxes paid by Chinese people, the government is hiring increasing numbers of low-cost personnel to create noise online or skew public opinion by posting articles favorable to the government. Such guided voices inundate major web sites, BBS, and the blogosphere to distract people’s attention or annoy authors or their audience. The name Wu Mao Dang came from some leaked government documents, but now such operatives are publicly recruited as official “web commentators”. They are paid not to express their own views but rather to post views in support of the government.

Reboot_D: What about the information divide between China and the West? Is this still a valid view? What is the role of projects like Yeeyan, EcoCN, TED-china which are making “Western” (American, English) content available to the Chinese public? Doesn’t this create another divide? Very biased American information? I’m asking this question of course as a European!

Isaac Mao: I would rather emphasize the divide within China itself right now. In practical terms, the divide between pursuing freedom and maintaining the status quo grows ever larger. 

Reboot_D: How does the average Chinese use the Net? Not the intellectual or Internet savvy person, just the average guy. Are they buying stuff – like videos or games?

Isaac Mao: One ironic result of a recent survey of the Internet finds that the most popular activities in China are “Entertainment, Chatting and News”. Some people joked that “News” should be removed because there is no real news at all in this country. Instead, all we have is “Olds” and “Fakes”. I would say entertainment is a really powerful engine for business. If you visit an Internet cafe anywhere in China, you will understand what all those 300M Internet users are doing. You may be very surprised that many of them do not even have an email box but play online game for hours on end each day. 

Reboot_D: What trends do you see for the Internet in China – on a practical level and a political/cultural one?

Isaac Mao: I’m still optimistic about the disruption of the censorship system before the year 2014 as my own predictions make out. The Great Firewall or The Mirror as I prefer to call it is now reaching its maximum point of effectiveness. Take the recent comic finding from the testing of Green Dam – all that effort that went into trying to leverage desktops to censor people. A famous patriotic song with lyrics “I love Beijing Tiananmen” was totally eradicated by the censorship system. In its published form it became “I love SENSITIVE WORD SENSITIVE WORD”. More and more paranoia and regulation is being built into the censorship system. But the sheer power of the whole information space will take its revenge. Anyway, this is just a – philosophically correct – hope. The real changes should be made by people themselves by sharing information at all times. 

Reboot_D: Is Information Warfare still a political concept? (The term was coined by a Chinese researcher; Shen Weiguang 沈)

Isaac Mao: I don’t know about such things as yet. But as an observer of the Chinese government who knows about their information security from the Green Dam case, I don’t think they are in any position to protect their own information system. 

Reboot_D: And finally a rather specialized question – how is the relation between the real world and virtual environments from a legal point of view? Can you be sued for things you do in a virtual world? I have been told that this is possible!

Isaac Mao: The Internet seems to pose great challenges to traditional philosophy in terms of epistemology and ontology. But I would argue there are no changes to humanity. It’s all about the information inside and outside our brain. But it really does pose a challenge to the legal system in society when more information becomes public that affect not only yourself but also the others around you. I believe it will take time for human beings to form new social norms to adapt to these new challenges, and especially to gain the level of literacy needed to distinguish vacuous from real information. As more and more people realize that the IP address is not the real link between the real world and the virtual world, a new social identity based on social networking will become critical. Laws will change accordingly, though maybe not so soon. Respect of anonymity as a natural right will come into being. The fact is you cannot tell who really owns a piece of information since one type of behavior (like sharing a movie) can be owned by thousands of people together. China still has a long way to go and the best way forward is to retain anonymity for as long as you can.