How the Internet and Social Media Are Transforming China

ChinaFile Presents

“The Internet has radically transformed China,” said Emily Parker, author of the book Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground, in a public discussion at Asia Society in New York on February 19.

Talking about the Internet’s rise in China, Parker argued that Chinese netizens overcome the barriers of isolation and mutual distrust when they connect with like-minded individuals online. She emphasized that although they are free to criticize the one-party state on the Internet, they are censored and even persecuted for attempts to assemble a physical crowd offline.

In the decade spent conducting research for her book, Parker found that while state censors and dissidents in China, Russia, and Cuba are ensnared in an increasingly complex, sophisticated “cat-and-mouse game,” the Internet has ushered in profound psychological changes that authoritarian governments cannot reverse.

Also on stage at Asia Society was Andrew McLaughlin, former Director of Global Public Policy at Google. McLaughlin cited the Chinese government’s mounting demands that Google extend censorship to websites outside of China as one of many forces that drove the company to leave China. He recommended that the U.S. government use trade agreements as a “policy lever” to encourage its trading partners to be more open. The U.S. government must also fund research and development while maintaining a consistent domestic and international approach to freedom of information, McLaughlin, now CEO of Digg and Instapaper, said.

Parker identified U.S. technology companies as the best “ambassadors of the U.S. brand” of open access to information as they are “not weighed down” by policy agendas. She also noted that the number of Chinese citizens who seek to eradicate their current system of government remains low. Yet, McLaughlin said it was possible that a growing inequality gap in China that limits the social mobility of millions of citizens could be the ultimate factor to incite collective action against the state. For more, watch the full webcast below.