Fans, netizens and publics

We hear a lot about Chinese “netizens” in the media. Whether it is journalists marvelling at the huge size of the internet population, reporting the latest online vox pop, or discussing whether we should actually be using the term “netizen”, Chinese internet users are a frequently referenced demographic. For all the popular interest in them, there is little systematic research on how Chinese netizens behave, what their attitudes are, how they come together and what the implications are for Chinese society, both online and IRL (“in real life”). Focusing on netizens and their online communities, The internet and new social formation in China is a welcome addition to Chinese internet studies. Furthermore, in focusing largely on “fans”, it contributes a promising angle to the growing field of Chinese celebrity studies.

The underlying argument is that online fan communities have the potential to evolve into meaningful new “social collectivities” through the “transformation of fans to publics”. Drawing on some well-grounded theoretical antecedents (Castells, Bourdieu), the book employs a network approach to understanding how online communities form, expand and mutate. A major finding is that cyberspace does not merely replicate physical world forms of fandom, rather technological affordances influence how atomistic fans can become collective publics through a combination online and offline networking. A number of case studies are presented, all fascinating.

The most fully developed case study is that of Rear Window, which started as an online discussion board for movie fans in 1998. Zhang interviewed contributors in 2003 and spent years as a participant observer before carrying out follow up interviews a decade later. Although this earlier period in the development of the Chinese internet has taken on an innocent and nostalgic hue, the profile of Zhang’s sample in 2003—99% of her respondents were aged 18-35 and 97% had a college degree—is a reminder of how unequal access was before cheap smartphones and the popularization of the mobile internet.

Rear Window’s amateur enthusiasts contributed to innumerable forum discussions on the merits of individual movies, filmmaking and the industry, contributing to a “counter discourse” distinct from state and commercial preoccupations. The film buffs also mobilized their resources to organize “Private Movie Watchings”, networking with universities, malls and bars to secure space and equipment for collective viewings of art house, classic and foreign language films on DVD. This was community building in a physical space that cemented the links made online. Growing in scale, Rear Window came to the attention of the mass media which publicised the site, repurposed their content, reported on their activities (and wrote op-eds about the legalities of Private Movie Watchings). According to Zhang, it was this networking-led entry into the public consciousness that “turned the movie fans into a subaltern public” (p. 46), an idea she has developed in several prior publications.

When Zhang revisited the Rear Window contributors ten years on, many had leveraged their knowledge and enthusiasm for film, and the relationships (should we say guanxi?) established in the community, to become critics, playwrights, movie makers and directors. The internet had undergone major changes in this time too, and these changes were also partly responsible. The popularization of blogging—symbolized by the launch of Sina’s blog platform in 2005—precipitated a shift away from unheralded contributions on discussion boards to seeking substantial audiences, perhaps even becoming a famous blogger. The connection between blogging (and later, microblogging) and fame was explicit from the start: Sina’s blog platform was built on the popularity of celebrities like Xu Jinglei, Ai Weiwei and Han Han.

Nearly all the Rear Window alumni had their own blogs (as did a third of Chinese internet users at one point in time) and some of them became minor blog stars. Blogs, and then microblogging, spelt the end of the BBS golden age, but they were instrumental in propelling many individuals into the public consciousness. In the case of Rear Window, a network that was initiated in cyberspace and concretized through the accumulation of social capital via online and offline connections, Zhang argues that they helped transform a “subaltern public” into a “regular public.” One might logically ask what the implications of this transformation might be. The answer to that question awaits further study, but Zhang is convinced that “the politics of fandom publics is not democracy” (p. 134).

One further discussion, though embryonic, looks at how new technological affordances have reduced the distance between audiences and celebrities, making it possible for Chinese fans to experience (the illusion of) personal and reciprocal “relationships” with stars, via services like Weibo, Weixin or Fenda, the “ask-a-celebrity” mobile app that was recently banned. Zhang draws the tentative inference that people are no longer just “onlookers,” but members of a network or community drawn to the same “fan object.” This requires further investigation, but how fans and celebrities use the internet to interact is a fascinating question that Chinese celebrity studies is just starting to grapple with.

Chinese cyber policy

With the launch of a twenty year National Informatization Plan in 2000, progress towards an information society became an official aspiration for the Chinese Party-state. With the goal of increasing social productivity, the ambition to move beyond a barely nascent information economy was a bold one. For one thing, it would require the Party-state to relinquish its monopoly on information, a hypothetical move that would transform Chinese society. The formidable obstacles in the way of this goal were quickly thrown into harsh relief by the SARS cover-up in 2003, when the Party-State saw fit to withhold and actively cover up information that was literally of life and death importance from its people. The ambition for transparency was shown up for what it was—rhetoric that would not survive the political imperative of maintaining the authoritarian information order. At the same time that informatization was being discussed as an aspiration for a modernizing society, the idea of the “sovereignty of information” and the internet as an ideological battleground took precedence.

Despite the Party-state’s deep mistrust of information, the allure, in some quarters of government more than others, of informatization (信息化), would not go away. In 2006 a comprehensive e-government strategy was launched along with the portal. A 2010 White Paper discussed online idea exchange, supervision of government, and the right to know. A Chinese Academy of Science report in 2011, Information Science and Technology China: A Roadmap to 2050, argued that a new set of political values was needed in order to make the transition to an information society. The report advocated for national information systems to be user-oriented, to promote convenient access to information, and, more radically, to operate free from monopoly. The report implied that informatization could only succeed with transparency and free flow of information. This radical notion was tempered by the caveat that it should also foster the construction of a “harmonious society”, a byword for many things (not least netizens’ understanding of “being harmonized” 被和谐, to be censored). It should also be noted that cybersecurity has been a preoccupation since at least 2003, when the Coordinating Small Group for Cyber and Information Security was established and issued its famous Document 27 set of recommendations.

The Party-state’s relationship with information abounds with contradictions. On one level, there is an acknowledgement that openness is a defining characteristic of information society, but while information continues to be treated with suspicion as a potential enemy eroding the Party-State’s hold on power, it is hard to see how genuine progress can be made. The principles of transparency and access do not go far before running into the roadblock of vested political and bureaucratic interests. What hope for an information society when the Party-state is willing to go to extraordinary efforts to impose total information blackouts on tragedies like the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 or unpleasant reminders of its treatment of dissenting voices like Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize? It doesn’t help that the cyber decision-making terrain is so crowded, with party leaders, technocrats, the armed forces, internal security, numerous different ministries and departments and business leaders squeezing out the few scholars and even fewer civil society actors who have a voice. Ultimately the public security and armed forces need only to invoke national security to intervene in any aspect of cyber policymaking, from technological choices to education programs and online censorship.

In 2014 the State Information Leading Group gave way to the National Leading Group for Cyber and Information Security headed for the first time by the Party General Secretary himself, in close cooperation with the renamed Cyberspace Administration of China. With President Xi taking a leading role, cyber policy has taken on a much greater security and political complexion. The rhetoric around informatization had consistently cast it as a driver of economic prosperity and social organization. But since Xi came in these goals have been downgraded or side-lined for a focus on control and cybersecurity. Stories in the western media on Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping’s family wealth culled from public records led to a tightening of the rules on internet privacy. A crackdown on social media followed, with new rules on spreading rumours and punishments for online influencers having the intended chilling effect on unruly cyberspace. The main thrust of cyber policy in the last year appears to be on the threat of foreign software and the development of Chinese systems to avoid this threat. Although informatization has been linked to the en vogue catchwords corruption, rule of law and better governance, the “supervision” and “consultation” that have appeared in discourse on informatization appear to have stopped at ad hoc adjustments and interventions made on the back of online outrage. And now even the tolerance for websites that outed officials for showing off gold watches and expensive cigarettes appear to have evaporated.

Although Xi said in 2014 that “no informatization means no modernization”, what the Party-state wants falls short of the transformative information society. It wants a secure and trusted (and Chinese developed) environment for non-political information, to foster business and commerce, which includes reigning in cyber-crime, putting a curb on the “wildness” we saw at the apotheosis of ‘weibo power’, establishing itself as an internet power (网路大国), and getting prepared for the growing challenges of cybersecurity and information warfare. Soon after launching the new Leadin gGroup Xi also said that there could be “no national security without cyber security”. What this means for the rest of the world remains to be seen, but in a week when Github, a popular repository for open-source code, appeared to be have been attacked via Chinese government organs allegedly for hosting mirrors of websites the Chinese government doesn’t like, prompting Barack Obama to upgrade American cybersecurity to a “national emergency”, there is little cause for optimism. To make real progress on its informatization goals a new political vision is needed and there is scant evidence that the Party-state has the confidence in itself to move beyond its normal playbook. This is not to say that issues around informatization are no longer relevant. In particular for individual Chinese (whose rights are subservient to the Party-state’s interests) questions of privacy, surveillance and the uses to which ‘big data’ may be put are even more salient than they are in the post-Snowden west. On this point too, there is little cause for optimism.

Han Han: This Generation

It is somewhat disconcerting to read a blogger’s work, post after post, covering a span of several years. Blog posts are usually written in response to something that has just happened and it is the immediacy that gives them a sense of urgency and purpose. It is unfair to hold a blogger, whose currency is on-the-spot reaction, to the test of time, where the perspective of hindsight often trumps timeliness. To Han’s credit, the posts collected in This Generation (a small proportion of the hundreds of posts Han made in the period) hold up remarkably well. Some of this is down to editorial and authorial selection—most of the pieces have been drawn from a collection published in Chinese (in Taipei) in 2010 (Qingchun). Although some famous pieces are absent (for instance critiques of Chen Kaige, Bai Ye and Robin Li), as a representation of Han’s blogging oeuvre, This Generation is a useful collection for readers in English, especially for those coming to Han for the first time. Organized chronologically, the collection gives a strong sense of Han’s preoccupations and his changing personality over time. Notably, as he discusses in Talking About Democracy (Dec 24 2011) it is a period in which he has become increasingly “realistic”, losing much of his previous idealism and refocusing his expectations and exhortations on the Chinese people as well as criticizing the Party-State.

Thanks to a generous helping of international media curiosity, Han’s story is fairly well-known in the west. Born to lower middle class parents in the-then semi-rural outskirts of Shanghai, he left school at 17 after winning a national essay competition with a piece on the Chinese character (杯中窥人). The paradox of a high school dropout with a precocious literary talent (and a chip on his shoulder) generated controversy and the all-important “buzz.” The decision to focus his efforts on writing paid spectacular dividends, with his first novel (三重门), a tale of teenage romance amid the pressures of Chinese high school life, becoming a bestseller. Born in 1982, Han has, according to the blurb and foreword, come to represent China’s post-80s reform era generation. His brand of individualism certainly struck a nerve as the only-child/economic boom generation came of age, both among those attracted by his urban iconoclasm and the discomfort of their parents’ generation who had known a vastly different China of political upheaval and economic hardship. The scolding didacticism of some of Han’s critics (famously including the literary critic Bai Ye (白烨)), was a very visible manifestation of China’s growing generation gap. The post-80s generation suffered sustained attacks in the Chinese media for much of the last decade, criticised for the rebelliousness, cynicism and self-centredness manifest in Han’s trenchant writings and impatience with older norms. The literary establishment snootily said that Han and his ilk were hooligans writing worthless pop-fiction—Han responded that the literary establishment was a piece of shit, and watched his popularity soar.

Han’s novels and since 2006 his blog, have generated an extraordinarily large audience, by most accounts in the hundreds of millions, leading to the international recognition that concretized his reputation still further. His blog writings are critical, sarcastic, straightforward, observant, patriotic, detached, self-deprecating and often funny. They generally take current events and observations as their stimuli and focus, which acts as a springboard for broader social commentary, including much critique of the party and state. Via his blog, Han has evolved from a popular author with the trappings of the young pop star or movie idol (偶像), to become a serious critical social commentator. Han has been able to sustain his open critique of the party-state because he plays the give-and-take game more adroitly than Ai Weiwei, for instance, whose criticism and mobilization efforts leave little room for manoeuvre. Han is candid about this. In the post Talking Freely Wine in Hand (May 7 2010), he compares the interview styles of Chinese and foreign journalists. Noting that foreign reporters’ questions are more direct he writes “to answer that question would exact too high a price, one that’s not worth paying, at least not now.” Ironically, he continues “I tend to be more expansive with Chinese journalists because they will self-censor and nothing that gets into the paper will be problematic”. From the vantage point of a western democracy where freedom of speech is taken for granted it is facile to criticize the compromises needed to work within the prevailing information order and dismiss it as self-censorship.

Although Han has had some posts taken down by the censors, what remains can be highly critical, even on what one would imagine to be ‘sensitive’ topics. In Letters from Strangers (April 4 2010) for instance, he writes: “the letters and visits office is the only resource for most people who have been treated unjustly [but] in a country where the judiciary has no independence how can you expect another branch of government to come to your defence? Petitioning for redress not only gets [people] nowhere, but actually amounts to putting their own names on the blacklist.” In Youth (May 28 2010), Han asks “why have our politicians been able to pump up their chests ion the world political stage? It is because of you, China’s cheap labour: you are China’s gambling chips, hostages to GDP.” In Just Testing (15 Jan 2000) he reports tongue-in-cheek that “Shanghai’s bulldozers are pressing forward with urban construction at the rate of practically one crushed person a day”.

Han often wraps his criticism in ‘rational patriotism’—a fundamental desire to improve the country—while frequently lampooning the ironies of Chinese nationalism. Throughout This Generation there are references to the paradox of nationalism in the context of China’s rise: the curious mixture of arrogance and insecurity, simultaneous complexes of superiority and inferiority. He writes in Market Day for Patriots (April 20 2008), just a few months before the spectacular Beijing Olympics would wow a global audience: “Why is our national self-respect so fragile and superficial?” He was writing on the occasion of protests against French supermarket chain, Carrefour, the unfortunate scapegoat for the patriotic fury that erupted when pro-Tibet activists disrupted the progress of the Olympic Torch as it passed through Paris. Why should the world’s great rising power, with a much vaunted 5000 year civilization, feel so defamed as to seek to punish the blameless purveyor of (mainly Chinese) food and goods? In Insults to China (Aug 11 2007) he identifies another symptom: “We Chinese people have very thin skins. We respond very poorly to any kind of unfavourable opinion.” The causes of popular nationalism are not deeply probed, but the irony of patriotic protests (specifically the anti-Japan feeling with which patriotism is worryingly becoming synonymous) is neatly encapsulated in the post Should We or Shouldn’t We? (Sept 19 2010). Around the anniversary of the Mukden Incident, the pretext Imperial Japan concocted to invade Manchuria, Han recounts how he and his friends discussed whether or not to go onto the streets seeing that the government had allowed people to join the anti-Japan protests without consequence. In fact Han and his friends had no desire to protest against Japan, but simply felt: “Finally, in a nation where in many chat rooms it is impossible even to type the word demonstrate, we are free to demonstrate.”

Although Han has been a trenchant critic of the party-state, over time—dare I say, as he ages?—some of his arguments have become more ‘conventional’. The post Speaking of Revolution (Dec 23 2011) provides one such example. Here Han argues that the best time for a revolution in China is “when everyone knows to dim their headlights when they pass another car on the road. But a country like that doesn’t actually need a revolution at all. When the people’s personal calibre and education level reaches that point, everything will just happen automatically.” Wittingly or not, this argument invokes several tropes supporting the continuation of the status quo—Putting the onus on Chinese people to change (with the promise that everything will be ok if they do), rather than prompting the Party to reform. The need for the Chinese people to raise the level of their civilization (文明), suggesting that they are as yet insufficiently civilized to enjoy anything other than authoritarian rule, is an argument that stakeholders of the status quo including the Chinese Communist Party and the proponents of Asian Values and the alleged incompatibility of Confucian heritage and democracy, might put forward. This interpretation may be unfair, but Han’s pessimism towards the Chinese people has certainly increased over time. Instead of prompting questions about political change, he argues, “villagers’ resentment of authoritarian government and corruption [merely makes them ask] why can’t I or my family have what officials have?” Writing toward the end of the excessive Hu era, Han argued that narrow self-interest had come to define both the Party and the people, noting that “once a party reaches a certain scale it takes on the character of the people […] it can’t be thought of simply as a political party or a ruling elite. A lot of the time the Party’s shortcomings are the people’s shortcomings”.

Han’s fame and fortune have brought the curse of excessive adulation, envy and hatred. His activities have earned him a passionate and loyal following, and a comfortable lifestyle in a desirable city. He has also been attacked from various sides; conservatives affronted by his liberalism and ‘hot’ nationalists unwilling to listen to reason. Controversies follow him; rumours about ghost-written works refuse to go away. Han is an important figure in the study of contemporary Chinese society and the Chinese internet, but to sum up his views as manifest in This Generation, I would call it an ideology of reasonableness. It does not denigrate Han—not in a country that routinely jails people for their views—to say that his position on many issues is to advocate careful open-mindedness. This may sound like a recipe for platitudinizing, but it says much about the state of politics, society and public discourse in China that Han’s musings have gained such a following.