I don’t know how long this fascinating New York Times article about blogging in China will survive as something you can read without any payment or other complication, so I quote from it now at some length.
Chinese Web logs have existed since early in this decade, but the form has exploded in recent months, challenging China’s ever vigilant online censors and giving flesh to the kind of free-spoken civil society whose emergence the government has long been determined to prevent or at least tightly control.
Web experts say the surge in blogging is a result of strong growth in broadband Internet use, coupled with a huge commercial push by the country’s Internet providers aimed at wooing users. Common estimates of the numbers of blogs in China range from one million to two million and growing fast.
In my opinion, that is the key to this development. What matters most is its sheer scale. Sure, censorship works, in the sense that you are not allowed to say that the entire government – listed by name – are a pack of corrupt scoundrels who should be replaced by this other group of virtuous persons, again listed by name. You cannot praise democracy, or freedom, or Falung Gong, or whatnot. But how do you stop this kind of thing?
“The content is often political, but not directly political, in the sense that you are not advocating anything, but at the same time you are undermining the ideological basis of power.”
A fresh example was served up last week with the announcement by China of five cartoonlike mascot figures for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. They were lavishly praised in the press – and widely ridiculed in blogs that seemed to accurately express public sentiment toward them.
“It’s not difficult to create a mascot that’s silly and ugly,” wrote one blogger. “The difficulty is in creating five mascots, each sillier and uglier than the one before it.”
Answer: you stop it. But only after countless thousands of bloggers have had their chuckle, and after many dozens of them have copied it and pasted it.
By far the biggest category of blogs remains the domain of the personal diary, and in this crowded realm, getting attention places a premium on uniqueness.
For the past few months, Mu Mu, the Shanghai dancer, has held pride of place, revealing glimpses of her body while maintaining an intimate and clever banter with her many followers, who are carefully kept in the dark about her real identity.
“In China, the concepts of private life and public life have emerged only in the past 10 to 20 years,” she said in an online interview. “Before that, if a person had any private life, it only included their physical privacy – the sex life, between man and woman, for couples.
“I’m fortunate to live in a transitional society, from a highly political one to a commercial one,” she wrote, “and this allows me to enjoy private pleasures, like blogging.”
What those concluding paragraphs hint at is the real punch of something like blogging. It is not that defiantly political things are being shouted from the rooftops. That is still far too dangerous. What blogs are doing is enabling an alternative attitude to assemble itself, as it were, and an alternative tone of voice to develop and to be communally celebrated. What is at stake here is not only what is said, but how it is said. Friendly chat around the table replaces the booming official megaphone. (Thought while proofing this: banning overt politics may actually amplify this particular contrast.) Once assembled, these blog communities develop their various code phrases and metaphors, so that they always know what they are saying but so that the censors are running around in a state of permanent confusion, mostly because they now, suddenly, are faced with just too damn much stuff to censor. (One of the things that the cryptic metaphors will refer to will be links by means of which the censors can be got around.)
Beneath and behind all this is the brute fact of economic development. The CHinese government has bet the farm on this. So, although I am perfectly sure that groups of censors get together in their corridors and shout in chorus: “Shut the whole f***ing thing down, you idiots!”, the government is in no position to do that. I further bet you that among the ranks of the censors are to be found some of the Chinese government’s most thoughtful and well-informed critics, because nobody understands the weaknesses and foolishnesses of a weakening system better than the people who are paid to try to keep it going. (I well remember in the old Alternative Bookshop, that some of our best and best informed and most rabidly anti-statist customers were the ones working in the middle to upper reaches of the British Civil Service. They knew it was crazy.) The Chinese government wants its cake, economic development, but to eat it too, to keep the commercial classes and their children politically docile. Hm. How can it do this? Difficult, very difficult.
So, blogs form an alternative attitude, and they simultaneously sap the will to power of the ruling elite. All that is then needed is some genuine – although not especially outrageous – outrage to be committed by the government, and the whole Chinese blogosphere (now many millions in number) may then erupt with more explicit rebellion, on a scale which again overwhelms the censors. If and when that happens, the blogs will then do something else unprecedented. They will report what is happening, to each other, and to the outside world, such as to the New York Times person, Howard W. French, who wrote this article. Some will report what is happening while simultaneously saying that they oppose what is happening. Makes no difference.
And yes, if you are thinking this, this story does indeed illustrate that the much maligned Mainstream Media can indeed make a big difference in circumstances like these. Although, saying that the MSM are essential is something else again. I am sure that there are plenty of English language blogs out here – “web experts” is all that French calls them, no doubt in many cases being vague about it for very good reasons – where all these possibilities are understood and explained in great detail, and by using which French did a lot of his background research. Besides which, I only read French’s article because Instapundit linked to it.
Meanwhile, French notes, the Chinese censors have resorted to leaving critical comments, supportive of the government, on Chinese blog entries. They might as well just put: “We surrender!” Now, suddenly, they must persuade the bloggers and their readers. Talk about reversing the burden of proof. So all the bloggers have to do is keep their peckers up. Many will not last. Having come, they will fade. But others will persist.
No doubt I am being, as is my taate, too optimistic about how well things in China might turn out. But I really do not see how the Chinese government can now expect anything better (for them) than merely to manage the demise of even the pretence of communism, and the emergence of a more participatory and democratic political culture. The idea that they can indefinitely sustain the communist power monopoly in the face of a new communicational world strikes me as far too pessimistic.