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Séverine Arsène, Internet et politique en Chine

(Internet and Politics in China), Paris, Karthala, 2011, 420 pp.
Éric Sautedé
Translated by Laetitia Mottet
p. 104-105

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  • 1  Eric Sautedé, “Pour en finir avec les ‘technologies de la libération’: Internet, société civile et (...)

1China has already had for many years the largest population of Internet users (564 million at the end of 2012), way ahead of the United States (245 million) and even farther ahead of India (137 million). Furthermore, the Chinese communist regime represents a polysemous counterpoint to the idea that any modernisation process would inevitably be conducive to a democratic political transformation: the period under the “reform and open door” policy that started in 1978 has gone on longer than the period of repeated tragedies of revolution without leading to any formal proposition on political reform. The Internet in China is thus challenging the effects associated with the unrealistic “technologies of liberation:”1 If the new electronic means of communication speed up and deeply transform social relations and the individualisation processes, they do not necessarily guarantee the triumph of liberty over the dark forces of an authoritarian Party-state. Does this mean that politics do not exist on the digital highways of information in China? Does the apparent omnipotence of fierce censorship forbid any public display of interest in public affairs? If there is any political expression, can it be freed from its official function as a highly valued tool for technocratic governance? This book by Séverine Arsène addresses all these issues and admirably succeeds in reconstructing the complex expectations of what she calls the “ordinary Internet users.”

2If the aim is to “analyse the formation of Chinese public opinion online as a product of a dominant ideology in urban China,” it is in order to demonstrate that beyond censorship and the self-censorship, “the legitimate methods for speaking out individually and collectively on the Internet” (p. 47) allow original forms of mobilisation that gain a certain autonomy simply because today the regime builds its legitimacy partially on the existence of this public opinion. Beyond the famous causes of virtual mobilisations, from the Sun Zhigang case to the provocative outrage of Ai Weiwei over the disproportionate number of school collapses during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, or from the pugnacity of the cyber-journalist Zuola to the “discordant” blog of Fu Jianfeng at Nanfang zhoumo (南方周末) when the scandal over the melamine-tainted milk began to emerge, Séverine Arsène focuses on the multiplicity of the “small daily actions that the Internet users do online almost incidentally,” which represent “such a smooth form of participation that it is almost unconscious” but nevertheless “powerful” (p. 411).

3After a very (too) long introduction setting out the political context (an authoritarian state governed by a monopolistic party) and the social one (modernisation through the development of middle classes if not “invented” then at least “patronised”), highlighting the balance of power between the state and society, going beyond the dichotomy liberation/repression and taking the usual precautionary academic steps in explaining her sampling of 50 semi-directed interviews with “ordinary Internet users” (young, educated, and urban… in this case exclusively Beijing dwellers), Séverine Arsène unravels her main findings in three broad sections, closely combining long excerpts of the stories gathered with more high-profile cases. The first section focuses on the issue of modernity and on the form that the affirmation of individualism takes in China, and ends with the sad statement that the standards imposed by the dominant ideology necessarily lead to a distrust of political affairs, which Séverine Arsène skilfully refers to as the “evaporation of politics.” Nevertheless, the second section emphasises the “responsibilising” nature of speaking out online, in whatever form it takes, and the necessity to observe the forms of expression in “chiaroscuro,” which would avoid the constraints that prevent public speech. Finally, the last section highlights the diversity of positions (outrage, involvement, mobilisation, etc.) by insisting on the ambiguities of “the Chinese governance of public opinion,” master and slave at the same time. The book ends with a conclusion (unfortunately underdeveloped) on the paradoxical power of online public opinion, which will ultimately prevail at least because of its utilitarian nature.

  • 2  From Wikipedia: “Astroturfing refers to political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that (...)

4Needless to say, Séverine Arsène’s book is an important and even essential work. It is important because it fills a gap in the landscape of French publications: while publications in English on this subject have mushroomed since 2003, when Shanthi Kalathil’s Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule was published, only some rare, brief journalistic volumes existed in French, multiplying anecdotes that inevitably led to the emancipation of a thousand Davids from an ultimately out-dated Goliath. It is also important because it offers a sophisticated and shimmering interpretation of the complexity of public expression in China, moreover in a virtual context where the line between public and private spheres is significantly blurred at the same time as the private sphere has enlarged substantially. Beyond this praise, two drawbacks have to be singled out. First of all, on the form, the sequences of the work could have been extensively reworked: 70 pages for the introduction, but only four pages for the conclusion! And several repetitions could have been easily avoided (thus on the “50 Cent Party” [wumaodang五毛党], the specifically Chinese form of astroturfing2 – an unfortunately absent term – an identical mention appears on p. 34 and p. 42). The three large sections themselves could have been adjusted to offer a panorama more accessible to a non-expert reader: for example, the individual, the client, and the citizen. Here I do not blame the author but rather the editor, who could have contributed to making the text clearer and stronger. Regarding the content, our objection lies in a fascination with the information issuer/recipient that necessarily leads the author to give an over-determined tacit power to Internet users: from an analytical perspective, it prevents the author from taking an interest in the transformations of the nature of the regime and in how the Chinese model(s) represent a genuine challenge to the democratic and liberal ideal; from a theoretical perspective, it would give precedence to Michel de Certeau and Erving Goffman over Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and Alain Touraine, and here it appears to be more a question of faith than reason. Of course these objections do not overshadow the merits of this work, since in the end there is no debate without disagreement, and no open academic life without debate!

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Notes

1  Eric Sautedé, “Pour en finir avec les ‘technologies de la libération’: Internet, société civile et politique en Chine” (Down with technologies of liberation”: Internet, civil society and politics in China), Hermès, December 2009, No. 55, pp. 133-40.

2  From Wikipedia: “Astroturfing refers to political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are designed to mask the sponsors of the message to give the appearance of coming from a disinterested, grassroots participant.”

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References

Electronic reference

Éric Sautedé, « Séverine Arsène, Internet et politique en Chine », China Perspectives [Online], 2013/1 | 2013, Online since 01 March 2013, connection on 24 March 2017. URL : http://chinaperspectives.revues.org/6130

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About the author

Éric Sautedé

Éric Sautedé teaches political science and is the coordinator for research at the University of Saint Joseph, Macao (esautede@usj.edu.mo).  

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