Modes of Activism and Engagement in the Chinese Public Sphere

Special section in Asian Studies Review, edited by Jonathan Benney & Peter Marolt

This special section began as a conference held at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore in 2012. The conference considered recent developments in activism in China, and three papers from it have been published in the latest edition of the Asian Studies Review. As writers and editors, we were motivated first by a desire to examine the data about activism in China empirically, and second to be thoughtful and creative in our interpretation of this data. Our introductory article concentrates on the qualities of diversity and locality, and collectively, the papers in this section provide a contrasting analysis to the previous scholarship in the field, which has often viewed activism in China through broad prisms of state-society relations, and in particular through the concepts of the public sphere and civil society.

This special section suggests an alternative mode of analysis that concentrates on the local, on strategies, and on interpersonal relationships. We “view the state from below”, with a particular emphasis on local case studies and on flows of information. In parallel with this, we also argue that concepts of law, of rights, and ideology are being marginalised by the Chinese party-state, in tandem with its emphasis on stability and its apparatus of stability maintenance. We question the applicability of the ideas of public sphere and civil society to activism and China as it stands; in contrast, we propose a different kind of teleological analysis of activism, in which we identify language and communication as crucial in developing the potential of individuals to work as activists and to facilitate change. The papers in the section, then, provide novel analyses of the ways in which flows of information have interacted with contentious politics in modern China.

In her paper “Segmented Publics and the Regulation of Critical Speech in China,” Sophia Woodman analyses “acceptable” public speech in China. In contemporary China, strict censorship coexists with significant freedom of expression and restrictions are enforced inconsistently. Yet certain principles underlie determinations of what is acceptable public speech, depending on the institutional location of the utterance, the identity of the speaker and the time of the event. What is allowed depends on the specific circumstances, but it results from patterns in the institutional practices of Chinese politics that involve constraining debate within “segmented publics”. Woodman’s article analyses how formal and informal rules limit discussions of particular issues to specific segmented publics, and how varying degrees of debate are permitted within these institutional fields, based on the expertise of their members or, in the case of associations, their engagement in specific areas of policy implementation. Another dimension of variation relates to the personalised character of authority in the Chinese system of governance, which means that leaders set the tone for debate within institutional spheres they control. Woodman argues, however that state control is only part of the story: segmented publics are dynamic spaces where boundaries are permeable, often contested, and constantly in formation. Her article explores the operation of segmented publics through case studies of legal activism, women’s rights activism, grassroots activism in resident and villager committees, and oppositional publics.

In recent years, popular protest in China has emerged from a state of near-invisibility. Drawing on a diachronic analysis of news media coverage, H. Christoph’s Steinhardt’s paper, “From Blind Spot to Media Spotlight: Propaganda Policy, Media Activism and the Emergence of Protest Events in the Chinese Public Sphere” traces how a number of major protest events gradually entered the Chinese media’s spotlight and came to be portrayed in an increasingly protester-sympathising fashion over the course of the Hu-Wen administration. Steinhardt argues that these changes were triggered by structural transformations of the Chinese public sphere, but emphasizes that deliberate policy choices by the political leadership served as a crucial agent of change. Facing proliferating unrest and an increasingly unimpeded flow of information, the central authorities have gradually shifted propaganda policy from a suppressive to a more proactive approach. They have thereby created critical opportunities for Internet users and investigative journalists to push the envelope further towards protester-sympathising accounts. The development is significant as there are good reasons to surmise that increased media coverage has exacerbated the dynamics of popular contention. Steinhardt suggests that, theoretically, it deserves to be noted that non-inevitable choices by an authoritarian leadership have led to an outcome in which media coverage of citizens who challenge the state on the streets has become substantially more frequent and positive than before.

Giorgio Strafella and Daria Berg’s article, “’Twitter Bodhisattva’: Ai Weiwei’s Media Politics”, investigates artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s media politics. They argue that Ai embraced blogging and micro-blogging to enact the “non-compromising vigilance on society and power” that he first envisioned as part of a Chinese modernist movement in 1997. His “communication activism” is therefore part of a broader artistic and political program that long predates his online presence. By experimenting with blogging and micro-blogging in defiance of censorship and surveillance, Ai Weiwei aims at “awakening” Chinese netizens to absurd and horrific aspects of life under the CCP. More in general, Web 2.0 provides this artist-cum-activist with a platform to spread his ideas and a space to organise grassroots activism or support awareness campaigns. Ai Weiwei’s communication activism relies on a combination of celebrity status, outspoken criticism, irony and a round-the-clock interaction with his netizen audience and the media. Drawing on Baudrillard’s analysis of “private telematics” and Jodi Dean’s “blog theory”, Strafella and Berg critique the effectiveness and coherence of this mode of activism. Finally, they suggest a connection between the one-man “reality show” staged by Ai Weiwei, his critique of state surveillance and a reality show trend in Mainland popular culture.

Jonathan Benney, Lecturer of Chinese Studies, Macquarie University

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