Printer Friendly

Citizen journalism and cyberactivism in China's anti-PX plant in Xiamen, 2007-2009.

INTRODUCTION

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been instrumental in the global information revolution, facilitating the transition from an industrial society, driven by forces of market globalisation, to the current information-based society. Theorists of information society such as Manuel Castells have reminded us that human beings are now living in networked societies that are fundamentally different from those of the past. The information age is leading to the increasing convergence of a number of processes, including the restructuring of capitalism and the introduction and increased application of ICTs. These processes have both facilitated and reacted to the forces of globalisation, shaping a distinct form of modern society, i.e., the information society, and changing the ways in which people communicate among themselves and with the public sector. (1)

In the modern world, the internet and short message services (SMS) are used by civil organisations, political parties and governments to embark on various social and political activities. These include newer modes of political marketing, web election campaigns, online and offline petitions, protests, social movements, propaganda, dissemination of political doctrines and cyber mass mobilisation. These activities have prompted scholars, mostly from the field of comparative politics, to conduct research on the political impact of information and mobile technologies upon authoritarian regimes, and a majority of the scholars regard the ICTs as either a potent driver of, or a contributing force for, political development and change. (2)

The post-9/11 world has seen a new surge of interest in the study of ICTs in internet politics. A new revisionist literature has emerged that calls into question the conventional wisdom of ICTs and the wishful thinking associated with the sociology of technology, dubbed "technological determinism". (3) This "wishful" thinking had previously been inspired by and strengthened following the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union and East Central Europe, where the authoritarian communist states were argued to be incapable of reining in the electronic flow of subversive information. (4) These works on ICT's political impact have sought to readdress the fundamental question of whether new technologies like the internet undermine the power of authoritarian regimes.

Many contemporary studies suggest that there is little evidence to support the previous "wishful" thesis; instead they tend to hold that states around the world are having a degree of success in managing this medium and are staging something of a counterrevolution. (5) Several of these discussions centre on the People's Republic of China. Some contend that the Chinese government has set a good example for other authoritarian regimes, and to a lesser extent, developing countries, in that the central government has been able to aggressively promote ICT developments to stimulate economic growth, but at the same time sustain its stronghold on authoritarian political power. (6)

Recent work on China and the internet has indeed reached a new level of sophistication in comprehending the effects and impact of the new information technologies upon Chinese politics and society. Outside of traditional research on internet control and anti-control, there is little work done on the study of the impact of innovative and interactive information technologies, such as blogs, microblogs (miniblog, Weibo) and Twitter upon China's social and political development. Studies on newly emerging online phenomena, such as the ICT-enabled and mediated citizen journalism and environmental activism are also under-explored. Therefore, a study of the Chinese experience can serve as an illuminating case that may shed light on ICT's social and political impact on current developing and undemocratic states.

Using the case of the Xiamen anti-paraxylene (PX) plant movement, this article investigates the evolving phenomenon of citizen journalism with Chinese characteristics. (7) Alongside this, ICT-empowered environmental activism and the implications of citizen journalists for China's sociopolitical development are also explored. The Xiamen PX plant is in itself an important case that exemplifies the utilisation of modern information technology in challenging and revising (local) governments' policy agendas, boosting grassroots participation in civic affairs, and holding the government to be more responsive, transparent and accountable. Amid rapid economic growth and intensified globalisation, the Chinese people, in particular those living in relatively better-off provinces and coastal cities, have increasingly not only demanded improved standards of living and a better quality of life, but have also called for institutionalised mechanisms that can better accommodate their needs and promote and protect their socio-political and economic rights in a way that is timely, low-cost and free from the state's arbitrary intervention.

CITIZEN JOURNALISM WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS

Mass media in China has seldom been a significant forum for free policy discussion and debate, (8) with the rationale for this being a concern for overall social and political stability. The media's political role has long been that of an agent of stability, charged with the political task of helping to preserve sociopolitical order, particularly during times of crisis. The restricted nature of the "traditional" media and government-controlled news outlets has hindered the growth of a free media space outside of the Chinese state apparatus. However, with the continued proliferation of websites, cyber chatrooms, individual blogs and microblogging (Weibo) in Chinese cyberspace, (9) the new media is acquiring the potential to exert much greater impact on the political system and state-society relationship in general, and on the government-controlled media in particular, as an alternative source of information and opinion that is readily available online rather than through the traditional or mainstream media outlets.

The Chinese government has persistently practised information control and censorship, despite the commercialisation of the media sector, through an intricate process that determines the type of information disclosure allowed at each level. (10) This media mechanism that has long been in practice involves the procedure of informing (xinxi), guiding (yindao), harmonising (xietong), safeguarding (baozhang) and constraining (xianzhi). The purpose is to maintain a tight overall control over the news media from news reporting and production to content creation and dissemination. Through this process, the Party-state has been able to manage vertical information flow and restrict the development of horizontal information channel.

Three decades of economic reform and opening up to the outside world have weakened the CPC's core political ideology. (11) The younger generations of Chinese in the post-reform era have been cultivating a more pluralist and materialist orientation. Chinese youths have largely shifted from traditional collectivist values to those that are consistent with the pursuit of individualistic development. Material wealth and personal happiness have become salient values. (12) The trend of liberalisation arising from economic reforms has spilled over to China's mediasphere. As communication scholar Zhao Yuezhi suggested, "Media commercialization [in China] from the 1980s onwards is part and parcel of the development of a market economy". (13) However, despite the strengthened modernisation, commercialisation and globalisation of the media sector, China's journalism apparatus has not yet completely transformed into an enabling social force or a genuine media watchdog as expected in a democratic political regime of checks and balances.

Despite this, some recent subtle transitions in Chinese media, politics and journalism practices have occurred. On the one hand, Chinese authorities, in particular the propaganda department, are now proactively and adeptly promoting "virtual" propaganda and thought work by launching electronic governance (dianzi zhengwu), internet commentators (wangluo pinglunyuan), online public relations (zaixian zhengzhi gongguan), political marketing (zhengzhi xingxiao) and the like in the state's online battle against the seemingly unfettered democratic potentials of ICTs. (14) On the other hand, the internet and other mobile technologies are constantly enhancing and mediating Chinese civil discourse, thereby permitting public opinion and debates on social, economic, as well as environmental issues as discussed below, to be expressed and conducted in cyberspace. (15) We are now witnessing citizen journalists and bloggers, empowered by the new media, increasingly providing a prompt and interactive platform for the expression of public and elite opinion to be exchanged, disseminated and debated. This has led to a convergence of online and offline opinion in Chinese society, and has also, from time to time, translated into a surge of so-called "mass incidents" (quntixing shijian), (16) and many other offline social movements (shehui yundong).

Information and communication technologies are becoming a hub of online activities for creating, discussing and disseminating information in China, and social and political movements are relying heavily on advanced forms of technology and mass communication as a sociopolitical mobilising tool. This is evidenced in the case of the Xiamen anti-PX movement as detailed in the next section. This case exemplifies how citizens and netizens are empowered by the internet, and are also motivated by bloggers, citizen journalists and opinion leaders to set their own policy agenda, defend their (statutory) rights and collectively organise marches to fight against local government policy.

XIAMEN'S PX PLANT, 2007-2009

The plan to build a PX plant in the coastal city of Xiamen, Fujian province, was initiated in February 2004 by Taiwan's Xianglu Group. It is the largest ever project in Xiamen with an investment of up to RMB10.8 billion and an expected contribution of RMB80 billion to the city's gross annual product, which is equal to one-fourth of the present gross domestic product of Xiamen. The environmental impact assessment attached to the PX industrial project was approved in principle by the State Environmental Protection Administration in July 2005. Owing to the potential that this project may not only bring prestige to local government officials, but also provide enormous benefits for Xiamen's annual economic growth and regional prosperity, it was incorporated as one of the seven large PX projects in China's 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) on Industrial Planning by the National Development and Reform Commission. (17) The local government website proudly proclaimed that the new plant was a "world-class petrochemical giant emerging on the west bank of the Taiwan Strait" (shijieji de shihua juren jueqi haixia xian).

As the plant was scheduled to go into production in the summer of 2007, Zhao Yufen, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and an academic affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Xiamen University, submitted a petition with signatures of 105 CPPCC members during the CPPCC meeting in March 2007, calling for the plant to be suspended and relocated. Her petition claimed that building a PX (which is a toxic petrochemical) plant in a populous area would increase the risk of cancer and birth defects if a leakage or explosion were to occur. The petition was neither acknowledged by relevant departments at the national level nor supported by the Xiamen government and the construction was accelerated instead.

In a break away from the conventional, the China Business newspaper (Zhongguo jingying bao) published an article, entitled "Dispute over the Safety of the Xiamen PX Plant" (Xiamen baiwanyi huagong xiangmu anwei zhengyi), on 18 March 2007. However, as the newspaper is based and distributed only in Beijing, it was not read by local residents in Xiamen. In light of this, critical intellectuals such as Lian Yue took it upon themselves to help bring public attention to this environmental issue.

Being an active blogger and a prolific freelance writer, Lian Yue republished the original news report from China Business on his blog on the same day it appeared and posted his comments in 150,000 characters about the PX project with a shocking title--"Xiamen Suicides" (Xiamen zisha). Meanwhile, this report could not be found in any local media except Lian's personal blog, The Eighth Continent of Lian Yue (Lian Yue de dibadazhou). A few other websites, including the popular local internet forum Little Fish Community (xiaoyu shequ), the real estate net, and the public bulletin board system (BBS) of Xiamen University, relayed these reports. The people of Xiamen, who had no previous knowledge of or information about the PX construction, were alerted of the imminent threat to their local environment.

In his blog, Lian Yue published a series of articles denouncing the PX construction project. Highlighting the severe consequences to public safety and the environment, he published an inspiring blog on 29 March 2007, urging Xiamen residents to break the information blockade and to save themselves by taking these measures:

1. Do not be afraid. Discussing the CPPCC proposal is not a crime; you will not get arrested;

2. If you have a blog or visit BBS often, please post this news by China Business, entitled 'Dispute over the Safety of the Xiamen PX Plant'. It is legal to reproduce and post any news report published by legally published newspapers and magazines on your own blog;

3. If you are afraid, you can share and discuss the facts with your friends, families and colleagues. They might not have known about the project yet;

4. If you are still afraid, then tell your best friend and your family;

5. If you are not afraid, tell your friends in Zhangzhou and Quanzhou cities because they are also in danger;

6. Tell them the following facts;

7. This is a chemical plant opposed by 105 CPPCC members, some of whom are authorities;

8. A PX project should be located at least 100 kilometres away from a city to be considered safe;

9. Xiamen residents were deprived of the right to know about the PX project, a fact that proves the project is against the people's will;

10. It will cause an economic recession, property depreciation and a reduction in tourist arrivals. Furthermore, Xiamen people will be considered weak and dim-witted;

11. Your chances of getting cancer will drastically increase;

12. You do not need to act bravely. Simply let people around you know the facts. You will not be blamed for Xiamen's future. (18)

Lian's call to Xiamen's residents demonstrated that there were still many dangerous projects being launched within China without a whisper of opposition. It was apparent that despite the official commitment to pursue "sustainable development" (kechixu zengzhang), an oft-repeated phrase salient in current national policy development and implementation, local residents lived in a public space without proper public safety. While Lian continued to write column stories on the PX project in his blog, he also re-published a well-known news article, entitled "Xiamen: An Island in the Shadow of a Chemical Plant" (Xiamen: yizuo daocheng de huagong yinying), from Phoenix Weekly (Fenghuang zhoukan), (19) after the periodical was removed from bookstalls and newsstands to prevent further dissemination and circulation of the news article in the affected issue. This added to the already huge swell of public opinion pregnant with intense discontent and anxieties over the ongoing plant construction. By this time, the petition, along with the many blog articles, had awakened local residents to realise the potential severity of the impacts of the construction. Some intellectuals and real estate developers began to protest against the construction of a chemical plant in close proximity to the residential areas as this could not only affect the market value of the real estate, but also potentially threaten the environment and residents' health.

In an attempt to introduce the full scenario of the Haicang PX project, the official Xiamen Evening News published a report on 29 May after interviewing the city's environmental protection bureau. The release of this report was considered to be the government's justification for the project, with a strong official stance to push the project through. (20) Local newspapers and TV news programmes ran story after story about the economic benefits that Xiamen could reap from the new factory. On the same day, the Xiamen government requested its various departments to be prepared to pacify and rally the masses so as to ensure that the PX project could go through smoothly. This environmental issue soon became the subject of extensive discourse among Xiamen residents and was disputed heatedly in cyberspace, thereby generating continual internet contributions advocating "protect Xiamen" and "give me back my blue sky". The subsequent proliferation of the anti-PX messages via emails and mobile instant messaging reached a much higher level, leading to people's intolerance of the government's ignoring of their voices and demands to relocate the plant. Notably, one particular SMS text message that was sent around 28 May spread to about 1.5 million mobile phone users in Xiamen:
   The Taiwan-funded Xianglu Group has begun building a PX plant. It
   is like an atomic bomb in Xiamen. Many people will suffer
   leukaemia and more babies will be born with congenital defects.
   A paraxylene project should be at least 100 kilometres from a
   major urban settlement, but we are only 16 kilometres from the
   project. For the sake of our future generation, please forward
   the message to all your friends to demonstrate in the streets on
   1 June 2007.


The widespread speculations, rumours and general unease about the various safety and environmental issues were indeed rampant. This drew the attention of the Fujian provincial party committee to the progress of the PX project, as well as strong public opinion from netizens in Xiamen and beyond. The local government responded to the public outcry on 30 May, with an announcement from the Xiamen Executive Vice-Mayor Ding Guoyan to temporarily suspend the Haicang PX project. Ding stated that the city government had commissioned a new authoritative environmental impact assessment organisation to conduct a more extensive study investigating the overall impact of the proposed chemical industrial zone on the environment. However, the official assurance from the government did not completely dispel public doubts. There were still worries about the deteriorating environment in the Haicang district in recent years. Thus, local citizens decided to take one step forward. Knowing that the Xiamen authorities would not approve any application for street protests against the PX plant project, the citizens utilised the internet and the mobile phone network to organise and wage a peaceful "stroll" (sanbu) outside the local government's headquarters on 1 June 2007.

Many anti-PX messages had been unequivocally censored. Yet dissenting opinions and angry messages still managed to be transmitted to local residents and activists. Going against local authorities' warnings, many citizens and netizens responded to the call from these widely circulated SMS messages, along with discussions on other online fora, to show up on the streets and defend their livelihoods. Angry citizens walked through the city's commercial district and surrounded the city hall to demonstrate against the construction of the PX plant. The waves of heated mobile phone text messaging and online petitions that strongly opposed the construction project played a significant role in prompting and mobilising about 10,000 local citizens to take to the streets on 1 and 2 June. The crowds were holding up banners and chanting slogans, such as "Boycott PX, Protect Xiamen" (dizhi PX, baowei Xiamen), "Stop Construction, No Postponement" (yaotingjian, buyao huanjian) and "Resist the PX Project, Protect City residents' Health and Protect Xiamen's Environment" (dizhi PX xiangmu, bao shimin jiankang, bao Xiamen huanjing).

As soon as the protest broke out, most mainstream media remained reticent as they did not intend to take risks in covering this "unauthorised" protest. However, the blogosphere and mobile phone campaign picked up momentum as citizen journalists furiously relayed live reports of this event to other Chinese citizens in and outside of Xiamen through sending text messages and/or uploading real-time updates to their personal blogs or YouTube. The minute-by-minute live updates on the ground had given the demonstration national coverage.

Xiamen authorities later accused the June First marchers of violating the law. The Public Security Bureau in Xiamen stated that well-intentioned citizens were being manipulated by troublemakers. The authorities claimed through Xiamen Satellite TV that "there were continuous illegal demonstrations and gatherings in our city today and yesterday, which have gravely disturbed social public order and obstructed the life and work of all residents". (21) On 3 June, the Bureau of Public Security continued to urge all residents to "treasure the favourable situation of harmony and stability, coordinate with the public security and follow their own lines of duty, keep highly vigilant, maintain your judgment and be sure to avoid being used by lawless people". (22)

The development of this anti-PX march had alarmed the high-ranking officials in Beijing. A few days after the march, China's deputy environment minister Pan Yue called for an independent environmental impact assessment of the PX plant as well as Xiamen's overall urban development plans. Pan even commented that relevant parties should comply with the existing regulations and measures on environmental impact assessments that require a public consultation process and the release of relevant information to the public. (23)

In February 2006, China's State Environmental Protection Administration promulgated the "Temporary Provisions for Public Participation in Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)" (Huanjingyingxiangpingjia gongzhong canyu zhanxing banfa) (24) regime. While the importance of "openness, equality, inclusiveness and convenience" (25) was emphasised as a general principle of public engagement in the EIA process, the provisional provisions also imposed obligations on project proponents, EIA institutions and the environmental authorities to disclose information and consult with the public. The "Measures for the Disclosure of Environmental Information (for Trial)" (Huanjing xinxi gongkai banfa, shixing) (26) created in 2007 also signalled the move towards transparency. Both legal documents made public participation in environmental protection not an empty catchword. Instead, they promote fundamental environmental rights, i.e., the public's right to know, participate and serve as a watchdog of government environmental policies. Yet, before the escalation of the anti-PX demonstration, the Xiamen city government seemed to have failed to comply with these environmental regulations.

After weeks of mounting tension, local political leaders formally responded to the torrent of online and offline protests by reaffirming a suspension of the project in Haicang district, pending a further environmental review for six months from June to December 2007. Meanwhile, the Xiamen city government announced that the construction project had moved on to the stage of public hearing and deliberation, with a shift in official stance from strong condemnation of criticism, to embracing any form of public opinions conveyed through mobile phone, telephone, fax, emails, letters and so forth.

Following the public outcry that culminated in the anti-PX demonstrations in early June, the environmental report commissioned by the Xiamen city government was eventually made public on 5 December 2007. The report stated that the southern area of Haicang district was too small to buffer from the harmful effects of atmospheric pollution. Consequently, the city government should consider whether the area was to be developed as a petrochemical industrial zone or as a secondary city centre. The report further stated that it was imperative for the city to make a decision on whether to relocate the chemical plant or relocate the residents. (27) In line with these recommendations, the official Xiamen Online launched a "virtual" poll to measure the public's reaction to the report. The poll later demonstrated that an overwhelming majority--55,376 out of 58,454 votes--were against the project.

A public hearing was convened on 13 and 14 December 2007, offering an opportunity for Xiamen citizens to voice their opinions on the PX project, but not have the final say. 100 public representatives, half of whom were from the municipal People's Congress and Political Consultative Committee, and the other half from the general public, were chosen and invited to deliberate on the project at this pubic meeting. Again, up to 90 per cent of representatives opposed the PX project: 45 of 49 citizen representatives rejected the project, as did seven of the eight government representatives who had time to speak. (28) The then Party Secretary of Fujian Province, Lu Zhangong, later commented, "In the face of such public opposition, we need to enter into careful consideration of the project. We should look at the problem using the principles of the scientific view of development, democratic decision-making, and valuing public opinion". (29) A final decision was eventually made to relocate the controversial Xiamen PX project to the neighbouring Zhangzhou city on 15 December 2007. This decision was formally approved by China's Environment Protection Ministry one year later on 20 January 2009.

CITIZEN JOURNALISM AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR CHINA'S SOCIOPOLITICAL DEVELOPMENT

It is generally believed that China lacks an effective and adequate mechanism that facilitates the articulation and accommodation of public opinion, which is essential for a better representation of government policy that meets public needs and demands. (30) In the Xiamen anti-PX incident, the ICT-mediated blogging and citizen journalism served as a conduit for citizens to address their concerns, voice their opinions and deliberate on environmental issues in cyberspace. Citizen journalism enabled citizens to act collectively on the streets, even though mass gatherings are discouraged within the authoritarian context in China, let alone large-scale demonstrations. This form of individualistic participatory media by amateur journalists and bloggers is effectively challenging China's official media coverage but it supplements topical coverage by highlighting top stories that are of interest and concern to the general public.

As Liu and Diamond rightly suggest, "China is lurching between accelerating environmental damages and accelerating environmental protection". (31) The mode of cyber environmentalism reflects the changing style of China's new citizen activism, which can be contrasted with the previous student-based movement in Beijing in 1989. (32) Bloggers and citizen journalists employing the internet and SMS have contributed to the awakening of civil rights--the environmental rights and justice as discussed in this article--and are holding local governments to be more accountable and responsive to the rising power of grassroots citizens.

Presently in China, serious public health issues and deteriorating living environments have typically become the locus of heated online discussions and debates. As reflected in the review of the Xiamen case, the city government maintained a do-othing, non-accountable, non-transparent and non-responsive stance in addressing the petition from academic Zhao Yufen and online commentaries from the blogger Lian Yue along with many other citizen journalists. After many letters of complaint to the Haicang district government and Xiamen city mayor's mailbox elicited no response from them, citizens were forced to turn to cyberspace and SMS in order to acquire information and consult with others. For the Chinese propaganda regime, this outcome seriously disrupted the CPC's long-established vertical flow of communication, leading to the development of a horizontal system of communication through digital media like the internet and SMS. As a result, not only were the image and authority of local governments undermined, but also the top leaders and the CPC.

During the anti-PX march in June 2007, the ICTs served as an effective medium to promote and organise a peaceful protest, sanbu, so to speak. Incensed by the central government's tight rein over the media coverage of the demonstration, netizens used personal social media space like Lian Yue's blog to continue the spirited and lively online discussions, encouraging higher participation. Lian Yue further documented and posted summaries of the comments of all the representatives who spoke at the public hearing on his blog. Individual and interactive websites and blogs led to the positive development of "virtual" civic engagement in problem-solving for the public good. "Citizen journalism" featured on online blogs have made such personal weblogs an alternative and even subversive "virtual" media space capable of posing a formidable challenge to traditional modes of vertical, one-to-all and top-down propagandisation. In a sense, ICTs empowered Xiamen's citizens to expand the scope and volume of, and expedite the transmission of information about issues of major public concern by adopting a horizontal, two-way mode of communication.

There is a relatively "thin" public media space in which mass opinion in China can be fully expressed without fear of retaliation from the Party-state as there are few institutional and established working mechanisms in China's current sociopolitical system to genuinely accommodate public opinion. To counteract this, bloggers and citizen journalists, empowered by the internet and other communication tools, have adeptly used the range of new media outlets to broaden citizens' horizontal communication, enlarge their access to (alternative) information, provide a platform to express their opinions, allow more people to better articulate their (policy) interests and proactively set their own agenda, and more importantly as discussed in this article, partake in the decision-making process of civil and environmental affairs. In other words, through the new media, citizens can better express their grievances, discuss and debate public policies, and organise themselves into social movements to mobilise and coordinate collective action when necessary.

While ordinary citizens and netizens are greatly empowered by new communication technologies to set their own policy agenda, defend their statutory (environmental) rights and collectively organise activities to protest against government's viewpoints and policies, Chinese authorities have become increasingly politically alert to this new social and online development. The high degree of public attention and pressure facilitated by the new media allows weiquan (rights protection) activists to exert influence and pressure on corrupt or irresponsible individuals and officials. In modern China today, citizens seek greater involvement and participation and not simply an official or institutionalised mechanism through which the regime unilaterally address their social, economic and political demands. If the latter were the case, they would certainly, in the very first place, demand the establishment of adequate institutions to allow them to proactively voice their viewpoints. Engagement through the internet and social media such as forums, Weibo, blogs, instant messaging systems, QQ, Twitter and other communication tools allows people to better articulate their (policy) interests and proactively set their own agenda. They can express grievances, discuss and debate public policies and organise themselves into social movements to mobilise and coordinate collective action when needed.

As Joseph S. Nye, Jr. argues, information dissemination implies that "power is more distributed and networks tend to undercut the monopoly of traditional bureaucracy". (33) Following this logic, he implies that the speed of the internet has to some extent constrained government agendas, whether at central or local levels, requiring a much more rapid response to events from the authorities. Although netizens, citizen journalists and their associated public opinion, as well as commentaries may not be granted the final say on the direction of environmental policies, the subtle change in public attitudes and sociopolitical behaviour is having a far-reaching impact on the roles, institutions and bureaucracies of the Chinese local and central governments. This is primarily because when ordinary people, citizen journalists and opinion leaders lose their fear of independent communication and information-sharing channels, government "of the people" becomes more problematic in terms of good and effective governance. In addition, while internet users and citizen journalists may not have directly and immediately subverted communist rule, they have nevertheless mobilised what are deemed by the authorities to be "reactionary" powers to challenge the government's agenda and bring about a greater degree of sociopolitical relaxation. This change partly explains why the Chinese government has gradually begun to take public opinion, whether from citizen journalists or general netizens, into consideration when initiating and implementing public policies, including environmental issues.

There is, of course, a difference between taking public opinion into account --which every government, even a dictatorship, must do to a certain extent if it wants to avoid unnecessary sociopolitical unrest and conflict within society--and permitting public opinion to get involved in the political process. The point here is that the ICTs and associated citizen journalism and cyberactivism have indeed fostered a greater degree of civic engagement in China. The new media has also enhanced the public's awareness of the government's blemishes and has empowered them to rise up to defend their statutory rights, a process termed "weiquan" in Mandarin Chinese. Indeed, the voice of calls for environmental rights in the wake of the wider application of ICTs has caused some observers to indulge in wishful thinking that modern information technology will fundamentally open the door to a much freer sociopolitical environment in China. This, nevertheless, makes me refrain from an overly-optimistic or romanticised estimate of the capacity of ICTs to promote political democratisation at this stage. The Chinese government seems reluctant to give ground to grassroots civil rights activists empowered by new technologies. On the contrary, it is attempting to revive state authority and capacity in line with the reinvigoration of the state apparatus in the age of globalisation and the internet.

In sum, enhanced public participation and environmental rights defences are developing in China. The dramatic increase in alternative sources of information available online through internet-mediated bloggers as well as citizen journalists poses a potentially formidable challenge to both the CPC's propaganda-filled media environment and their effective governance. I believe that the internet's political impact will be shaped and determined less by the intrinsic nature of the internet itself than by the underlying political dynamics of public opinion, civil participation, citizen journalism and cyber-activism in China.

(1) Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Cambridge, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), The Power of Identity (Cambridge, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), End of Millennium (Cambridge, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) and The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on Internet, Business, and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

(2) See, for example, K.C. Ho, Randolph Kluver and Kenneth C.C. Yang, Asia.com: Asia Encounters the Internet (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003); Jens Hoff, ed., Internet, Governance and Democracy: Democratic Transitions from Asian and European Perspectives (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2006).

(3) For classic discussions, see, for example, Langdon Winner, "Do Artifacts Have Politics", in The Social Shaping of Technology: How the Refrigerator Got Its Hum, ed. Donald MacKenzie and Judy Wajcman (Milton Keynes; Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1985), pp. 26-38; Robin Williams and David Edge, "The Social Shaping of Technology", Research Policy 25, no. 6 (Sept. 1996): 865-99.

(4) See, for example, Frank Ellis, From Glasnost to the Internet: Russia's New Infosphere (London: Macmillan Press, 1999).

(5) See Shanthi Kalathil, Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rules (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003); and James Gomez, "Online Opposition in Singapore: Communications Outreach Without Electoral Gain", Journal of Contemporary Asia 38, no. 4 (Nov. 2008): 591-612.

(6) See Christopher R. Hughes and Gudrun Wacker, eds., China and the Internet: Politics of the Digital Leap Forward (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003); Nina Hachigian, "The Internet and Power in One-Party East Asian States", The Washington Quarterly 25, no. 3 (Summer 2002): 41-58.

(7) It is noted that the most recent anti-PX chemical factory protest occurred in Dalian, in Liaoning Province, on 14 Aug. 2011, in which students and white-collar workers gathered outside a government building to demand the relocation of the Fujia chemical plant which produces the carcinogenic petrochemical, paraxylene. See also a more general discussion in Ma Ji, Michael Webber and Brian L. Finlayson, "On Sealing a Lakebed: Mass Media and Environmental Democratisation in China", Environmental Science & Policy 12, no. 1 (Feb. 2009): 71-83. See also the discussion on the rise of China's environmental non-governmental organisations and its relations with the mass media at Yang Guobin, "Environmental NGOs and Institutional Dynamics in China", The China Quarterly 181 (Mar. 2005): 46-66.

(8) Investigative journalism has been gradually developing in China in recent years. For example, "Focus" (Jiaodian fangtan) and other similar TV programmes have generally discussed serious social issues and current affairs in China. For more discussions about investigative journalism and related propaganda issues, see David Bandurski and Martin Hala, eds., Investigative Journalism in China: Eight Cases in Chinese Watchdog Journalism (Seattle, WA and London: University of Washington Press, 2010); Tong Jingrong and Colin Sparks, "Investigative Journalism in China Today", Journalism Studies 10, no. 3 (June 2009): 337-52; Alex Chan, "From Propaganda to Hegemony: Jiaodian Fangtan and China's Media Policy", Journal of Contemporary China 11, no. 30 (Feb. 2002): 35-51.

(9) According to Wang Chen, head of the State Council Information Office and also chief of the State Internet Information Office, China's internet users now number more than 500 million, placing the country's internet penetration rate close to 40 per cent. Sina Weibo (Sina microblog) has over 100 million registered users by the end of February 2009. See "China Internet Users Exceed 500 million", China Daily, 29 Sept. 2009; Chen Limin, "Sina Weibo User Number Soars", China Daily, 3 Mar. 2011, at <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2011-03/03/content_12108262.htm> [12 Feb. 2013]; China Internet Network Information Center, State Statistical Report on Internet Development in China, at <http:// www1.cnnic.cn/IDR/ReportDownloads/> [2 Dec. 2012].

(10) Tony Saich, Governance and Politics of China (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 306-7.

(11) See, for example, Bruce J. Dickson, Democratization in China and Taiwan: The Adaptability of Leninist Parties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Gordon White, Riding the Tiger: The Politics of Economic Reform in Post-Mao China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993); and Kalpana Misra, From Post-Maoism to Post-Marxism: The Erosion of Official Ideology in Deng's China (New York and London: Routledge, 1998).

(12) Cen Gouzhen and Li Dan, "Social Transformation and Values Conflicts among Youth in Contemporary China", in International Perspectives on Youth Conflict and Development, ed. Colette Daiute, Zeynep F. Beykont, Craig Higson-Smith and Larry Nucci (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 156-71.

(13) Zhao Yuezhi, Media, Market, and Democracy in China: Between the Party Line and the Bottom Line (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998), p. 52.

(14) See, for example, Anne-Marie Brady, Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China (Lanham, MD and Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) and "Regimenting the Public Mind: The Modernization of Propaganda in the PRC", International Journal 57, no. 4 (Autumn 2002): 563-78.

(15) See, for example, Yang Guobin, The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); Zhang Xiaoling and Zheng Yongnian, eds., China's Information and Communications Technology Revolution: Social Changes and State Responses (London and New York: Routledge, 2009); Tai Zixue, The Internet in China: Cyberspace and Civil Society (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).

(16) Li Peilin and Chen Guangjin, "China Steps into a New Stage of Growth: Analysis and Forecast, 2009-2010", in 2010 Nian Zhongguo shehui xingshi fenxi yu yuce (Society of China: Analysis and Forecast 2010), ed. Ru Xin, Lu Xueyi and Li Peilin (Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2010), p. 8.

(17) Hung Chin-fu and Cheng Po-chi, "China's Public Participation in the Age of Information and Communication Technology--Case Study of the Xiamen PX Plant", Zhongguo Daluyanjiu (Mainland China Studies) 53, no. 2 (June 2010): 14.

(18) Lian Yue, What Xiamen People Can Do (Xiamen renmin zhemeban), 29 Mar. 2007, at <https://www. yasker.org/cn/blog/archives/86> [2 Dec. 2012].

(19) Liu Yanxun, "Xiamen: An Island in the Shadow of Chemical Plant", Phoenix Weekly no. 253 (30 May 2007), at <http://news.phoenixtv.com/phoenixtv/73020766223859712/20070530/908176.shtml> [2 Dec. 2012].

(20) "Haicang PX xiangmu yian guojia fading chengxu pizhun zaijian" (The Haicang PX Project is Under Construction after being Approved According to the Legal State Procedures), Xiamen Wanbao (Xiamen Evening News), 29 May 2007.

(21) See <http://nf.nfdaily.cn/nanfangdaily/southnews/djjz/200706030212.asp> [2 Dec. 2012].

(22) See <http://news.163.com/07/0603/09/3G272GRH000120GU.html> [12 Feb. 2013].

(23) Edward Cody, "Text Messages Giving Voice to Chinese", The Washington Post, 28 June 2007.

(24) For full text, see <http://www.gov.cn/jrzg/2006-02/22/content_207093_2.htm> [12 Feb. 2013].

(25) Ibid., see article 4.

(26) For full text, see <http://www.gov.cn/flfg/2007-04/20/content_589673.htm> [12 Feb. 2013].

(27) The China Research Academy of Environmental Sciences was entrusted to conduct this review report. The report indicates that the decision to relocate or continue to construct the plant ultimately rests with the city government, which has the power to designate the primary use of Haicang district on the city's master plan. If the government chooses to designate Haicang district as a petrochemical industrial district, the project can proceed. But if it decides to the district to be designated as a secondary city centre, then the PX project will have to be constructed elsewhere. See <http://www.china.com.cn/news/ txt/2007-12/14/content_9381703.htm> [2 Dec. 2012].

(28) See http://news.xinhuanet.com/local/2007-12/14/content_7246158.htm [12 Feb. 2013].

(29) See <http://www.360doc.com/content/07/1223/10/142_917869.shtml> [12 Feb. 2012].

(30) See, for example, Hu Yong, Zhongsheng xuanhua: wanglu shidai de geren biaoda yu gongzhong taolun (The Rising Cacophony: Personal Expression and Public Discussion in the Internet Age) (Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2009), p. 310.

(31) Liu Jianguo and Jared Diamond, "China's Environment in a Globalizing World", Nature 435, no. 30 (June 2005): 1186.

(32) Yang Guobin, The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), pp. 94-5.

(33) Joseph S. Nye Jr., "Information Technology and Democratic Governance", in Governance.com: Democracy in the Information Age, ed. Elaine Giulla Kamarck and Joseph S. Nye Jr. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2002), p. 11.

Hung Chin-fu (bcfhung@mail.ncku.edu.tw) is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Graduate Institute of Political Economy at National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan. He holds a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the University of Warwick, UK. His main research interests include internet politics and society, China Studies and sociopolitical development in East and Southeast Asia.
COPYRIGHT 2013 East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Chin-fu, Hung
Publication:China: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Apr 1, 2013
Words:6822
Previous Article:Political interest distribution and provincial response strategies: central-local relations in China after the 17th National Congress of the CPC.
Next Article:The Chinese currency and global rebalancing: a discussion.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |