Edgar Shaohua Huang
Redbud Hill Apt 901
Bloomington, IN 47408-2378
Email: [log in to unmask]
Abstract: This paper examined the impact of current Internet technology on
grassroots-level democratic development in China. Methods employed included
actual web observation as well as interpretive content analysis. Although this
study concluded that the Internet does not itself wield an inherently
irresistible democratizing force, it determined that the virtual classroom
created by the Internet that is otherwise unavailable to the Chinese people
allowed for the "seeds of democracy" to be kept alive and cultivated through the
continual exchange of ideas and information.
Flying Freely but in A Cage
-- An empirical study of the potential effects of the Internet
on democratic development in China
In the 1950s and 1960s, development scholars such as Daniel Lerner and
Everett Rogers defined development as "a type of social change in which new
ideas are introduced into a social system in order to produce higher per capita
incomes and levels of living through more modern production methods and improved
social organization (Rogers, 1969: 18)." Modernization, or the "development" of
the individual, was seen as "the process by which individuals change from a
traditional way of life to a more complex, technologically advanced, and rapidly
changing style of life (Rogers, 1969: 48)."
Today, however, development as a complex and multifaceted process goes far
beyond the primarily quantitative frameworks. Developmentalists began to be
aware that rising GNPs and per capita income do not necessarily lift the
population at large out of poverty; even in societies that enjoy general
economic prosperity, a majority of the people, especially women, may still be
politically, socially, and economically oppressed. As a result, "another
development," that is, the pursuit of the guarantee of human rights, access,
participation and democracy, have been put on agenda since the 1980s (Jayaweera,
1987: 78). Being called for are those political, social and economic reforms
that will ensure equity and guarantee an environment in which all human beings
may attain their highest potential (Ibid). Development, therefore, some scholars
argued, should not simply involve the transfer of technology but should also
involve the free and open dialogue of democratic ideas and principles thus
liberating people from the shackles of forced silence and freeing them to make
relevant plans and meaningful decisions regarding their own development
(Hedebro, 1982; Melkote, 1991).
Democracy, as Leo Bogart said, is hard to define since "no single political
system can lay exclusive claim to the term and it is not at all certain that we
know it when we see it (Bogart, 1996)." All democracies, however, do share
certain vital precepts such as open debate, sufferance of unpopular opinions,
and decisions reached by honest voting and thereupon accepted (Ibid). These
features closely mirror the tenor of Frederick W. Frey's concept of "political
development" -- a unique configuration within a society that "features wide
distribution and great reciprocity of power. It is the opposite of autocracy
(Frey 1963: 298)."
As channels for the dissemination of modern ideas and practices, mass media
have been seen as integral in the process of social transformation. Mass media's
role in the national development process, many believe, is to act as innovators
and mobilizers of transformation, changing old habits and fostering new ethics
(West and Fair, 1993: 91). Some studies reported examples of the impact of mass
media such as television, broadcast and video on programs of national
development like family planning and retaining cultural identity in developing
countries (Kincaid et al, 1992; Aufderheide, 1993).
Nevertheless, some scholars have expressed their doubts about the relevance
of new communication technologies to democratic development in developing
countries. It was found that democracy and development might not be compatible.
For example, authoritarian leaders in some Asian countries such as China,
Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have successfully implemented market-oriented
economies with no discernible trend toward democratization. It is firmly
believed by these leaders that heavy-handed restrictions on political rights and
civil liberties are necessary to promote stability and growth (Graybow, 1995).
In his 'Electronic Democracy: An Indian Perspective,' Ammu Joseph explores the
questions of not only how new communication technologies--especially the
electronic media--can contribute to the democratic process, but whether or not
such contributions are even possible. He asks: Who controls the airwaves? Who
will get to represent the public? Who can have access to broadcasting from
within India (Joseph, 1996)? His findings tell us that the current consumerist
orientation of television, which leaves the majority of the Indian population
out in the cold, is likely to be reinforced. "As a result, television in India
today is not only not an agent of empowerment, it actually contributes towards
the further marginalizaiton and disempowerment of the vast majority of the
country's citizenry (Ibid. 65)." Joseph's conclusion was that "technology per se
appears to be a not very important factor, and far from being a determinant,
compared with political will and social purpose" in democratic development
With the advent of the Internet, some scholars have begun to examine the
role this new communication technology may play as a mass medium (Morris and
Ogan, 1996) in promoting democracy. They hold high hopes for the Internet as an
agent of social change, and reiterate one of the viewpoints from the dominant
paradigm of development that modern technology would create a modern
environment. For instance, Joseph Nye and William Owens, former Clinton
administration Defense Department officials and authors of America's Information
Edge, maintain that information technology has an inherently democratizing
force, one that is almost impossible to resist (Teachout, 1996). We also hear
such opinions that "[w]ith a PC and a modem as his or her new mouthpiece, the
citizen of the twenty-first century will enjoy a democracy simply inconceivable
to earlier generations of the disenfranchised and oppressed (Hirschkop, 1996)."
These scholars believe that the Internet, with its open access to any form of
specialized knowledge, represents a new form of egalitarian democracy.
But does the Internet technology inherently serve democracy and foster the
dissemination and exchange of ideas and information? And in a tolerant spirit?
Such questions may not have simple answers. Mass communication, as Bogart
argued, on the macro-level, does help in the worldwide diffusion of democratic
ideas (Bogart, 1996). But, what about potential manipulation by political
authorities motivated by ideological considerations or crude self-interest? What
will these leaders do when economic forces limit their resources, their variety
and their integrity? What does this new communication technology (NCT) mean to
those netizens of Third World countries? The question of whether the Internet is
inevitably an agent of democracy still exist.
Today, less developed countries (LDC) all over the world are enthusiastic
about the Internet technology. China, as the last major communist citadel, has
also been active in adopting this NCT. However, China has not allowed America
and other developed countries to easily project the appeal of their ideals,
ideology, culture, economic model, and social and political institution. Since
the April 5th Movement of 1976, in which the general public in China publicly
expressed for the first time their dissatisfaction toward the totalitarian
ruling of the communist regime over its people, the Chinese Communist Party
(CCP) has regarded the word democracy as a taboo, willingly, eagerly, and
submissively surrendered the "laurel" of democracy to the West, and criticized
democracy as "spiritual pollution" from the West. Since then, from Xidan
Democratic Wall Movement at the end of the 1970s to the suppressed student
movement in 1989, democratic movements have always been spontaneous bottom-up
mass movements in China. Since the mass media are all owned and controlled by
the CCP, the public have used wall paper, which was outlawed at the beginning of
the 1980s, as a major form of "mass" communication to exchange idea, disseminate
information, and later press the government for political reform.
Because of such historical background, this paper is intended to examine
the impact of diffusion of the Internet technology on the development of
democracy in China on the grassroots level. I am interested in finding out how
ordinary citizens have used the Internet--a legal virtual wall paper in the
information age--to promote democratic development and to continue their fights
in the old days for democracy, how their self-expressions and discussions have
been politically framed both by netizens themselves and by the Internet services
providers (ISP), which are usually state-owned enterprises, and whether this new
technology has an inherently democratizing force in China.
The Internet technology is relatively new all around the world, and it is
just approximately 3 years since it was open to the general public in China in
1994. A wide search both in hard-copy academic journals and in electronic media
such as Lexis-Nexis and WWW shows that literally no study about the uses of the
Internet in programs of national development in China has been done so far. This
paper is an exploratory study in this field.
My research methods for this paper include a combination of web observation
appropriated from the field observation method often used in anthropological
studies and interpretive content analysis of actual posted messages. Thanks to
the high-tech nature of the Internet, any observers can easily get access to the
public information out there on the network. Bulletin board systems (BBSs) are
usually the only space on the Chinese networks where idea exchanges and
information dissemination occur in the public domain and can be observed.
Therefore, I have used as my observation objects BBSs based in China as well as
one BBS based in the US but accessible to the netizens of China. The content of
the observations includes the set-up of discussion topics, the per day average
number of messages posted to the discussion groups, the discussion rules, the
attitudes and approaches of discussions, the content of discussions, and the
webmasters' possible censorship of discussions.
The purposive sampling of the web sites studied was based on my
pre-web-search together with the information provided in Zhu Qiang's 'Latest
Development of the Internet in Mainland China.' The pre-web-search found 28
domestically based Chinese BBSs. They mainly fall under two categories:
university BBSs and commercial BBSs. Since most BBSs contain huge data, it is
impossible to make thorough observations in all of them in the limited time of
one university semester (This was originally a university term paper).
Therefore, I have selected the following five:
1. BOL Teahouse from Beijing On-line based in Beijing;
2. Free Market from Bamin Netcity based in the southern province of Fujian;
3. Deep Feeling on the Net (Yiwangqingsheng) from ShenzhenNet based in the
southern city of Shenzhen;
4. Richtalk Forum from Stone Richsight based in Beijing; and
5. Walton Club from Walton InfoNET, an America-based ISP.
The first three BBSs listed above are affiliated with ChinaNET. In another
word, they are directly or indirectly controlled by the government. Stone
Richsight is a privately owned joint venture, therefore, it has more latitude in
operating its BBS. Not much is known about Walton Co. because the web page that
was supposed to reveal information about this company was under construction
during the period of my observation. According to the brief information provided
by the webmaster of its Chinese Discussion Forum, Walton was run by a privately
owned America-based computer company (ABC, 11/19/1996 at 10:09:32).
The two selection criteria for the Chinese BBSs were 1). they were from
commercial ISPs, in other words, they were designed for general public and not
only for social elite in universities or academic institutes; 2). they were
technically observable on the Internet from the location of my
study--Bloomington, Indiana. Walton Club was selected because many people from
mainland China were found to be participating in its discussions. Walton Club
was also expected to work as a control group to make it possible for some
comparisons to be made between the China-based and America-based BBSs.
This study has purposely chosen not to include any university-run BBSs
simply because university students' speeches are usually not representative of
general public's opinions (Iyengar and Kinder, 1987). It is suggested that they
be included in future studies so as to make another layer of comparisons between
the academic type BBSs and commercial type BBSs.
Observations listed in this study were compiled between October 18, 1996
and November 28, 1996.
Calculation of per day average number of messages posted give us a general
sense of the extent of participation and what topics netizens are interested in
under the current configurations of BBS designs. Even though I was aware of the
fact that some messages had been censored by the webmasters (certain suggestive
censorship messages and complaints posted by some of the participants made that
clear) on four of the five BBSs, I am convinced that this censorship did not
affect the precision of actual count. The mechanism by which messages would be
posted to some of these BBSs is as follows: a message is sent to the BBS and
listed within minutes. If the webmaster was not satisfied with the posting for
some reason, it would be deleted though the title of the massage was left. If
someone clicked on the hypertext of the title, a message line would appear which
read "file not found." Since Deep Feeling on the Net had too many sub-groups to
count in the limited time, I selected the sub-groups in the first two groups as
a convenient sample of all the sub-groups. Free Market was a one-group BBS and
all discussions were directed to that one group. As a result, the average number
of messages per day was comparatively high. I presumed it was inappropriate to
incorporate it in such comparisons, therefore, the discussion of its per day
average number of message was excluded.
The unit of textual analysis of discussion content was each posted message,
and the unit of textual analysis of discussion rules was each BBS. The topics
observed on the BBSs were labeled into two parts: hard topics and soft topics.
Hard topics refer to topics like politics, democracy and current affairs while
soft topics refer to discussions of entertainment, sports, hobbies, arts and
social contact, etc.. The analysis of hard topic discussions on the BBSs are the
focal point of this paper. Since BBS content changes day by day as well as
between BBSs, it is not my intention to extend the validity of this study to
future web content or to content in BBSs not chosen by this study. The major
purpose of this study is to describe the potential impact of the Internet--a
recently introduced mass medium--as an agent for democratic development in the
early days of its diffusion in the context of the communist government of the
People's Republic of China.
What is currently happening in China may not be representative of the
situations in other LDCs like India, Egypt or Mexico because of the apparent
ideological differences. However, whatever major changes do occur in China may
affect the lives of a quarter of world's population, and will, directly or
indirectly, affect the entire world economically and politically. Therefore,
examining how the Internet is affecting the democratic development in China has
an axiomatic strategic significance.
BBSs are a comparatively new phenomenon in China. The earliest Chinese BBS
found, established in late April of 1996 according to the dates of the messages
posted, was "Deep Feeling on the Net" from ShenzhenNet. This BBS was the first
BBS on ChinaNET, the backbone network for all of China. All other BBSs were less
than half a year old up to the end of November 1996, the date of this study's
completion. My web search showed that none of the home pages of the major
Chinese networks such as ChinaNET, CERNET (China Education and Research
Network), and IHEP (Institute of High Energy Physics) contained a BBS. All the
China-based BBSs were found to be located in local networks affiliated to those
major networks. In fact, of all the nearly 100 universities linked to CERNET,
only 9 of them were found to have a BBS.
Almost all postings were in Chinese characters except for a designated
English discussion group on Walton Club. Table 1 shows that there were three
times as many postings to the Chinese discussion forum in Walton Club as there
were to its English counterpart. These findings obviously indicate that most
discussions took place between Chinese people themselves. Following are the
categorical findings from the five BBSs.
Table 1: Per day average number of messages in different discussion groups on
the five BBSs
Duration of messages posted
Number of posted messages
Per day average number of messages
Deep Feeling on the Net (Yiwangqingsheng)
Duration of messages posted
Number of posted messages
Per day average number of messages
BBS related discussions (3)
BBS Station affairs
Leisure and Entertainment (11)
Empress (sic) (meaning "Martial arts")
MJ (a gambling poker)
None of the other 9 groups containing 44 sub groups was sampled
Grand mean of the sampled groups
Duration of messages posted
Number of posted messages
Per day average number of messages
Duration of messages posted
Number of posted messages
Per day average number of messages
I am on-line today
My inborn talent
Duration of messages posted
Number of posted messages
Per day average number of messages
English Discussion Forum
Chinese Culture Workshop
Chinese Discussion Forum
The Inner World of Chinese
Fun on the Net
Big5 Chinese Discussion Forum
History and Philosophy Workshop
The set-up of discussion groups and topics
The set-up of discussion groups or topics varied greatly from BBS to BBS.
BOL Teahouse, Richtalk Forum and Walton Club had comparatively fixed discussion
groups, each having seven to eight groups. Free Market, less than one month old
when I began my observation, was a one group forum. On November 28, the last day
of my observation, however, its newly designed web pages began to be used and
seven discussion groups were found on there. Deep Feeling on the Net
continuously created new discussion groups at the request of a minimum number of
participants. That is why Deep Feeling on the Net had the most lengthy list of
discussion groups: at least 58 sub-groups (see Table 1).
Soft topic groups took a major share of all the groups on these BBSs except
for Walton Club. Groups for people to engage in discussions of hard topics were
rare. Public Opinions from BOL Teahouse, Humanity and Society from Deep Feeling
on the Net, and Discussion Forum from Walton Club appear to be the groups for
such hard topic discussions.
Per day average number of messages
According to the grand means in Table 1, Richtalk Forum based in Beijing
attracted the most participants as a BBS (9.8 messages/day) while the Chinese
Discussion Forum (whose Chinese name was Current Affairs Forum) in Walton Club
had the most participants as a single discussion group (27 messages/day). In
Richtalk Forum, the most participated group was Computer Hackers (22
messages/day). I Am On Line Today and Free Talk are two pretty open names that
can accommodate a large number of topics. Actually both of them contained a few
hard topic discussions. Their per day average number of messages posted (18.9
and 16.7) were way above the rest of the groups in Richtalk Forum. BOL Teahouse,
on the other hand, had the lowest number of people participating in discussions.
All seven groups in BOL Teahouse had extremely sporadic discussions (0.04-1.1
As far as hard topic groups based in China are concerned, Public Opinion
from BOL Teahouse had only 3 postings in the 46 days of its existence. One
message titled 'ChinaNET=monopoly' complained about the high fees charged and
poor services provided by ChinaNET (zj 18:18:16 10/03/96). More than ten
attempts (at various times of different days) to contact the Humanity and
Society group from Deep Feeling on the Net demonstrated clearly that this group
literally did not exist. A couple of participants in the Free Talk group on
Richtalk Forum vented their dissatisfaction toward the CCP.
For whatever reason, the per day average number of postings in BOL Teahouse
(0.3 message/day) and in Deep Feeling on the Net (1.9 messages/day), which were
directly controlled by the government, were much lower than those of the
The observation of discussion rules can give us a general idea of what
discussion attitudes and approaches are expected by an ISP. Potential
comparisons can be made between what is expected and what is done. Table 2 shows
that the first three government-controlled BBSs gave either explicit or implicit
warnings that political discussions were dangerous. People were expected to stay
away from any discussions of politically sensitive topics which may readily be
regarded as counter-revolutionary or damaging national interest. What was also
implicitly or explicitly expressed by these rules was that participants should
be prepared for censorship if what they said was not to the webmasters' liking.
What was most ironic was that Free Market, being so named, allowed no free chats
On the other hand, Richtalk Forum and Walton Discussion Forum were quite
similar in their approach to discussion rules. For example, discussions about
politically sensitive topics were not discouraged, at least by the rules
themselves. Only general guidelines regarding potential participation were
Combining Table 1 and 2, it is easy to see that BOL Teahouse and Deep
Feeling on the Net, both of which discouraged political discussions, had
relatively low per day average number of messages posted (0.3 and 1.9
messages/day). On the other hand, Richtalk Forum and Walton Discussion Group,
which seemed liberal, had a comparatively higher number of discussions.
Table 2: Discussion rules of the five BBSs
You can publish what you think and what you act, but don't forget that there are
here many quite good audience and net members who might become your friends in
the future (sic). Show more of your humor, wit and extraordinariness. It is
necessary that you leave an unforgettable impression to others. By the way,
you'd better not publish any political speeches here.
Deep Feeling on the Net
1. Don't post any articles that involves sex, counter-revolution, and damages
2. Don't post any articles that defame, hurl invectives and engage in personal
3. Don't open more than one account lest the system be overloaded;
4. Please publish your articles in corresponding discussion areas and don't
re-post to multiple areas.
Any articles that violate the rules will be censored. Serious violators are
subject to legal suit.
"Free Market" provides you a place for free chat! Please do not touch
politically sensitive topics!
(After its web pages were redesigned on November 28, 1996, the following message
BBS--Free Market welcomes everyone to come here and have casual chats. Warning:
publishing any speeches against the Constitution is strictly forbidden!"
Have more sincere exchanges of ideas, and have less malicious wrangling;
Have more understanding and respect, and have less mean verbal thrusts;
Have more support and care, and have less sensitive extremes;
Have more mutual help, and have less mutual apathy;
The growth of the forum is strongly tied to your participation, please treasure
Walton Discussion Forum
1.Do not post an article with a long title.
2.No personal flamming and verbal abuse.
3.Foul languages and pornography are not allowed.
Note: all these discussion rules have been copied from each BBS's home page.
The attitudes and approaches of discussions
In spite of the rules of no personal flamming, foul languages,
mean-spirited verbal thrusts, malicious wrangling, etc., such languages were
seen often on all five BBSs, though severity and graphic nature of the language
was higher on Walton Club and Richtalk Forum. If there were any patterns as far
as discussion attitudes and approaches were concerned, the following four
"rare's" may describe them all.
1. Rare real names. In all the five BBS stations, no real name was ever
required for discussions. As a result, almost everyone used a unique alias such
as Mass I, Justice, Sharp Eye, or Amolin. Sometimes a participant would refuse
to include a name of any kind. No real e-mail address would be included with any
postings. Because of uses of alias and because of the manner in which a BBS is
designed, participants could make personal attacks or spout invectives without
being identified or taking any responsibility. Some participants even
appropriated other participants' aliases in order to write articles against
still other's thus defaming them in complete anonymity.
2. Rare sincerity or seriousness in exchanges of ideas. For example,
someone named Justice proposed on Walton Discussion Forum: "Let's turn this
place into a playground. There's no time for rational discussions. One liners on
the subject title with no content are especially welcomed (10/15/1996)." Such
examples were too many to list.
3. Rare respect for other participants. Those who showed any seriousness
would be especially assaulted by personal attacks, satire or verbal thrusts.
Frequent antagonism replete with foul language was often observed. For instance,
participants from mainland China made continuous efforts to dispel Taiwanese who
often used militant language or obscenities on the Walton Discussion Forum.
4. Rare hard topic discussions. Suggestions to avoid political discussions
were found more than once on Richtalk Forum and Free Market. One participant
warned: "We'd better not talk about politics on the net lest there should be
unexpected result ..... 10/29/1996 at 07:27:45)." The vast majority of
participants engaged in soft topic discussions.
The content of discussions
Hard topic discussions, especially those of the politically sensitive
nature were few and not found on all the five BBSs. Most hard topic discussions
were found in the Chinese Discussion Forum on Walton Club. A few censored
discussions about politics and democracy were also found in Free Talk on
Richtalk Forum and in Free Market. BOL Teahouse and Deep Feeling on the Net were
almost free of such discussions.
Discussions of politically sensitive nature were literally open and
un-restricted in Walton's Discussion Forum. It is a little inconceivable that
such a BBS could be accessed in mainland China. A secret document produced by
the Beijing Municipal Communist Party Committee describing the need to crackdown
on and punish students involved in the 1989 student movement was posted. A
letter written by two Chinese dissidents and sent to the CCP as well as the
Taiwan National Party was banned in mainland China but was also posted here.
Some overseas dissidents disseminated their anti-CCP views via this forum as
well. Other sensitive topics have included the rights and wrongs of Tibetan
independence movement, patriotism vs. nationalism, the rethinking of the 1989
student movement, and technical hints for breaking the CCP's censorship on the
The two most often discussed topics on Discussion Forum were democracy
construction in China, and BBS discussion rules.
Discussions about democracy in China on Walton
Most of the discussions about democracy were mildly serious, half joking or
totally ridiculous, as the following dialogue, observed in the English
Discussion Forum demonstrates:
Posted by Kuo Ming (2016) on 11/05/96:
Wang Dang (sic) must die ! China doesn't need democrazy (sic), neither does
Democrazy is bullshit ! Chinese do not need democrazy. We Chinese need 'the
Chinese characteristics.' HKnese will also enjoy the socialism with Chinese
year 1997. Who the hell wants the democrazy ? ......
Posted by mpan (2526), 11/09/96:
In Reply to: Wang Dang must die! China doesn't need democrazy, neither does
Hong Kong! posted
by Kuo Ming (2016) on 11/05/96:
Hi. You must be from Mainland China. Me too. I am FuJian. You said China
democrazy. I disagree with you. Every country needs democrazy. The only
difference is our China
needs a democrazy with Chinese characteristics which is (sic) different
Posted by Kuo Ming (2016), 11/09/96:
In Reply to: Every country needs democrazy-----Min Pan posted by mpan
(2526) on 11/09/96:
I am from HK. I advocate the promising National Social Reform Party which
will, if in power,
force every Chinese to follow GVT's way. Every walk of living should be
dressing uniforms to make
sure the national integrity be not violated. Legally death sentence will be
the only way to
eliminate traitors like Wang Dan and the people who refuse to follow the
political moves leading
china to be great.
Chinese characteristics, basically are anti-democracy and not able to match
with the democratic
environment. CCP is now walking to the right direction. But she made a
mistake by letting Wang Dan
alive. If Wang Dan is executed, the west will shut their mouths all
together. ...... Friend, believe
me. Chinese including singaporean, HKers or Taiwanese, are the last people
that will take democracy.
Autocracy is the Chinese characteristics mentioned.
Many similar debates were too long to reproduce here but the following clip
of a group of message titles in the form of hypertext, which often was all that
a participant wanted to say, shows us an example of how wild such discussions
could become. In a posting titled 'The Resolution of the Plenary Meeting: A
mobilization order for taking the road back,' the participant did a rational and
logical analysis of the resolution of the CCP's recent Plenary Meeting and
expressed his (?) serious doubt regarding any positive role this meeting could
have played in promoting democratic development in China. Five messages with
only titles and no content in content pages, then, followed:
y The Resolution of the Plenary Meeting: A mobilization order for taking
the road back.
Jingcao 01:35:33 11/14/96
Re: If you want to propagate something, don't talk nonsense Truth 03:26:11
If you cannot fathom what is happening in Beijing, it's because you
have a stupid brain!
ROGER 00:54:11 11/14/96
Of course, most of us people are good people, but that is not the
case in foreigners,
most of them are bad people! Scorn! 15:29:06 11/14/96
Are you intelligently handicapped, (sic) if your head is filled
with glue, why are
you speaking like a lunatic? }} 19:37:29 11/14/96
If I had not been nuts when I were together with a person like
you, wouldn't I
have given you enough face (showing due respect for your
feelings--author)? 22:34:45 11/14/96 (from
Chinese Discussion Forum)
However, not all discussions about democracy were that irrational, as
someone proposed. Within half a month from October 28-November 12 of 1996,
twelve messages were posted in Chinese Discussion Forum that discussed what
democracy is, whether China has democracy now or not, whether China is moving
toward democracy and whether setting up a mayor's hotline and mayor's mailbox is
itself democracy. All these discussions addressed the issues in mainland China.
Three participants (one of them labeled self as an
ex-democracy-movement-participant) agreed that developing the economy should be
the government's first priority and that democratic development is best
considered only after basic education is first developed. The
ex-democracy-movement-participant singled India out as an example to make the
point that democratic development does not necessarily get people out of the mud
of poverty. Therefore, he championed the government's current policy of
prioritizing economic development while maintaining control, and thus stability,
over everything else (11/08/1996 at 06:38:09). Another participant named
"trakemi" said that "China has maintained a high developing speed for 16 years
and the prospects are very good, we should not make any social experiments
because of some idealism, instead, we should maintain the current developing
momentum, stabilize the society and do a better job in economy (11/07/1996 at
11:38:44)." In response to such opinions, a participant named Liu Jianjun, who
might be the only person in this discussion group who used his real name, wrote
that democracy is not geographically distinctive, "there are no American style
democracy, British style democracy, or Japanese style democracy. ..... As a
matter of fact, both economy and democracy are needed in the process of human
development, both humankind's landing on the moon and acquiring right to vote
are a progress toward the world of freedom. The existence and development of
human being--the life with thoughts--need both food and clothing and dignity as
well (11/12/1996 at 11:01:36).
Discussions about BBS discussion rules on Walton
Walton Discussion Forum was commingled with rational and irrational,
serious and non-serious discussions. On most occasions, a rational and serious
posting would be followed by irrational and/or non-serious attacks, as I pointed
out in the section of "The attitudes and approaches of discussions." One
participant questioned why all the posted messages that dealt with facts had
been cursed (Reply, 11/09/1996 at 13:54:51). A frequent participant named
"little grass" found that the forum was so filled with invectives that Walton
was more like a free market rather than a place for serious exploration, and
that someone even used his alias to defame him, therefore he decided to leave
this forum for a "fresher place (10/20/1996 at 03:19:47)." Another participant
expressed dissatisfaction with this forum in his (?) message 'Shut up your dirty
mouth': "It is no longer easy to see excellent articles and sentences on Walton.
It is full of foul language and dirty words. Is this what the inner world of us
Chinese like? Please cherish this forum. It is hard to come by for us to meet
here (jiach, 11/16/96)." A participant named "Explorer" suggested to the
webmaster: "The net is like a society. It should have its law. Those people who
only swear, but neither know how to do theoretical analysis, nor respect fact
and other participants should be punished. ...... (11/09/1996 at 09:52:06)."
Some participants even doubted if more freedom is a good thing for Chinese
people. One of them wrote: "More freedom is not necessarily a good thing. Walton
is no more than four months old. The result of freedom is that the webmaster has
to delete dirty words online every day (Weird, 11/08/1996 at 09:56:04)."
In the face of such chaos, the webmaster ABC asked participants for
discussions of self-discipline principles. He held that "we need to maintain the
freedom of speech, but should get rid of senseless invectives," and proposed
that "any messages carried with words of sexual organs, the f--- words and other
adult literature will be censored (11/15/1996 at 15:43:02)." This suggestion got
two positive responses.
In the English Discussion Forum, someone called Fall also called upon
disallowing anyone to fake another's name, and gave some detailed technical
suggestions (10/14/1996). A participant called Ultra Man argued for rational
political discussions in this forum: "Let us have another crack at it. Not so
long ago, we saw a group of TI'ers from China Chat trash this forum; they
conducted verbal assaults, used foul language pervasively, and faked the
identities of other chatters. All the while these guys helped to defend each
other. Let us not see this happen again. ...... (11/24/1996)." In reply to this
message, a participant named Cathay wrote that "Some amount of debate or dispute
is indispensable to make the forum lively and interesting. However there is a
limit beyond which the forum and people on it will be degraded. ...... It is a
good idea to engage in gentleman-like debate for the benefit of better
Compared to the Chinese Discussion Forum, the webmasters (who went under
two names shenjee and barbara) of the English Discussion forum were much more
heavy-handed. In reply to a message asking why all the old postings were all
gone, they wrote:
Nothing happened. I just cleaned up all the old junk messages. No one
was driven away.
It's just that the house rules of no foul languages and no personal attacks
will be reinforced here
from now on. Rest in peace, and speak when you have something meaningful to
I will be watching this forum from now on. This forum has been a
disgrace. I hope from now
on people will start to respect each other, and most of all, respect
themselves. All discussions
with a view will be welcomed. Personal attacks will be removed. This is our
It was interesting to note that on this America-based BBS, almost every
message criticizing the CCP or analyzing current affairs with a liberal tone
would be accompanied by replies in favor of CCP, like 'The most reactionary...
Revolutionary 17:10:26 11/26/96,' 'His parents and your parents are all
counter-revolutionists. Down-with-opportunists 17:16:47 11/26/96,' 'Extremely
reactionary! Extremely crazy! Kill! Kill!! Kill!!!
Firmly-crash-the-counter-revolutionary-group 18:19:06 11/26/96.' Critical
postings would usually encounter harsh criticism by style articles. As a matter
of fact, articles and news reports from Xinhua News Agency and other mainland
Chinese mass media were often pasted to the Forum. No wonder someone exclaimed
that the forum had been controlled by the CCP (Ma 11/06/1996 at 23:34:12).
Hard topic discussions on Richtalk Forum and Free Market
A huge gap was observed between America-based Walton Club groups and the
China-based Richtalk Forum and Free Market groups with respect to the number of
messages containing hard topic discussions. During the period of observation, a
group of derogatory remarks were posted in one message sent to Richtalk Forum's
Free Talk group in the form of doggerel. The remarks criticized bureaucratic
phenomena and unjust social distribution of income, and described teachers' low
standard of living and countryside cadres' economic exploitation on farmers
(Eastern Bird, 11/03/1996 at 22:31:56). Someone, then, replied to this message
by adding one more derogatory remark that mocked the CCP's Four Basic
Principles in order to criticize the communist grass-roots cadres: "Cigarette
is basically given free by others. Alcohol is basically paid as tribute by
others. Salary is basically not raised. Wife is basically not used (ssaamm,
11/05/1996 at 16:14:27)."
One participant named Mars Man, who was apparently not satisfied with the
abusive use of the Internet as reflected in such BBS discussions, wrote: "Earth
men, especially you people in backward China, should treasure this advanced
technology (11/13/1996 at 03:37:34)." The message incurred 3 hostile replies:
Get out and go back to Mars!!! knight 11/13/1996 at 05:23:12
Don't talk nonsense here if you feel bored. Bored 11/16/1996 at 02:23:23
What I am most tired of is the f---ed egg of "justice" like you. Bored
11/19/1996 at 04:29:08
In addition to hard topic discussions found on Richtalk Forum, the Free
Market group on Bamin Netcity was also analyzed. About the time Free Market
began, a pro-government book entitled China Can Say No got popular in China.
This book discussed the role China can play in the world, Sino-American
relationship and the CCP's rule. Readers were obviously eager to present their
opinions of this pro-government as fifteen messages, some praising, some
criticizing the book, were observed on Free Market.
The webmasters' censorship of discussions
Censorship of message content was observed on all the BBSs except BOL
Teahouse. The censorship on Walton was done according the two rules proposed by
the webmaster in the Chinese Discussion Forum: 1. Any messages containing the
words of sexual organs, the "F" word and other "adult" literature will be
censored; 2. Any messages that contain content in the "title" and "name" columns
but have no content in "content" column will be deleted (11/15/1996 at
15:43:02). The first type censorship took place on a daily basis while the
messages that met the second censorship criterion were left in the Forum for
anywhere from two weeks to more than a month. Perhaps this was because the
webmaster wanted to retain the natural and logical flow of original postings. No
salient censorship of radical political advocacy, criticism, or opinions was
observed on Walton Discussion Forum.
Censorship on the China-based BBSs was more politically oriented. Even
simple criticisms of some government agencies were sometimes not tolerated. In
Richtalk Forum, the message mentioned above titled 'Excuse me, how many more
years can the CCP be in power?' was censored the next day after it was posted.
Such discussions were absolutely forbidden on Richtalk Forum even though such
censorship rules were never stated. A couple of protest messages were found in
the Test Area discussion group on Deep Feeling on the Net. One of them wrote:
"My article about the difficulty of dialing into 96300 modem pool run by the
Post and Telecommunication Bureau was deleted overnight. 96300 does not think of
improving its terrible services, on the contrary, it does not allow any
criticism. This is the typical bureaucratic style. ... (rt, 11/23/1996 at
The most dramatic censorship was observed in the newly established Free
Market on Bamin Netcity. The webmaster seemed determined to keep his (?) words
stated in the discussion rules "Please do not touch politically sensitive
topics!" On the evening of November 4 (China time), the first article about the
popular book China Can Say No was posted (20:04:13). On November 4th (the US
time), when I observed this forum, I found the content of this article, which I
had not a chance to read, was replaced by the following message: "The webmaster
said: 'Please do not touch politically sensitive topics!!! This article has been
deleted!!!" What was interesting was that another article posted on the morning
of November 5th (China time) which discussed this book in a positive tone
survived. In fact, it remained in the forum until the web pages were redesigned
at the end of that month. As a result of this observation, it is assumed that
the first article must have criticized the book and was therefore, not to the
liking of the webmaster. This presumption was confirmed by another message
censored at the noon of November 5th, which, in turn, criticized the second
article, which was retained. Webmaster's swift censorship of the initial message
obviously caused great discontent from participants. Two of them wrote
The webmaster's response was really fast. If he did not censor those
articles, I am afraid
in a week Bamin itself will be "censored" by the government. Can any
netizens provide me (the names
of) some overseas BBS stations? Preferably in GB mode (11/05/1996 at
It is the webmaster who can really say NO! (11/10/1996 at 01:17:26)
Another participant wrote:
So far there are already 7 to 8 pieces of articles discussing China
Can Say No, two of
which are positive about the book, and all the other have vehemently
criticized it. The two articles
censored by the webmaster both criticized the book as far as I know. Isn't
it very clear which needs
courage, writing China Can Say No, or criticizing this book (11/10/1996 at
Following these criticisms of the webmaster's censorship, all subsequent
messages, either praising or criticizing the book, were retained. However, it
would be wrong to assume that this episode brought an end to censorship on the
"web." It is more likely that, since this particular BBS has just opened, the
webmaster was either afraid that overt censorship would scare away participants,
or he was simply not quite sure if what he (?) had done was right. After another
two weeks had passed and the Free Market's web pages were redesigned, all the
postings about the book, whether pro and con, were deleted. A new "welcome
title" was seen which read "BBS--Free Market welcomes everyone to come here and
have casual chats (emphasized by the author)." An eye-catching line in bold, red
words immediately followed the title: "Warning: publishing any speeches against
the Constitution is strictly forbidden!"
Censorship was not observed on the BOL Forum which has also been recently
established. As an example, two messages that vehemently criticized ChinaNET,
the sponsor of the BOL Forum, for high charges and slow data transmissions were
Following is a summation of my findings.
1. Neither hard topic discussion groups nor hard topic discussions were
easily found on the domestically based Chinese BBSs. This was not surprising in
light of the fact that these are either directly or indirectly influenced by the
government's network policies. The majority of hard topic discussion groups and
discussions were found in Walton Club, an overseas BBS which was neither
administratively nor legally tied to the Chinese government. It is apparent that
BBSs in China have been set up mainly for the purposes of casual chats, and not
for political and democratic involvement.
2. From state owned BBSs, through the privately owned BBS, to the overseas
BBS, discussion rules were more and more favorable for open and un-restricted
hard topic discussions. The statistics of per day average number of posted
messages on different BBSs tell us that those BBSs with less draconian
discussion rules and/or no political censorship and those discussion groups
offering unrestricted hard topic discussions have attracted the most netizens.
Currently, overall participation in any BBS discussions in China is still very
low compared to that in the West.
3. Discussions tended to be belligerent, offensive, and confrontational,
especially on non-government-affiliated BBSs like Richtalk Forum and Walton
4. Many mainland netizens have tried to engage in meaningful discussions on
the Walton Club regarding democratic development in China, and about how they
can and should use this new technology to pursue rational, fair, tolerant and
reciprocal online discussions.
To understand these phenomena, I believe a holistic examination of the
diffusion of the Internet technology in China and the current social environment
is necessary. The Internet infrastructure is developing quickly in China. During
the first half of 1996, the total number of installed phones in China reached
61.55 million with 5.47 phones for every 100 people. The computer networks in
China have covered more than 2,000 cities (Gonza, 1996). China's total sales of
computer products hit 7 billion US dollars in 1995--an increase of 51% over the
previous year (Xinhua, July 1996). Of the nearly one million computers sold in
1995, 20% were bought by families. There are now three to four computers for
every 100 urban households (Mahende, 1996). About 4.5 million personal computers
are in use in China. More and more people are getting access to the Internet.
Nevertheless, when we flip the coin, we see another picture of the
development of the Internet in China. Less than 20% of urban families in China
have phones which means that most of the people who access the Internet do so at
work where they are controlled by party cells. Network development is also
lagging in many geographic areas of China. According to the information provided
by CSTNet, 12 coastal cities had 77 hosts while 14 inland cities had 30 hosts by
the end of 1996. In addition, compared to the United States and Europe's
computer-rich environment, China is still computer-poor. In order to become a
netizen, the average cost of a computer, a modem, related software and
registration fees is 15,000 yuan (about $1,724) (phone service establishing fee
not included) (Xiao, 1996). This is a huge burden for most urban dwellers who
make an average of $425 a year (Johnson, 1996). This luxury would cost average
Chinese farmer, who earned an average of $190 per person in 1995, around 9
years' wages (Parker, 1996). Given the additional factor of pervasive illiteracy
in both language (Chinese and English) and computer knowledge, it seems that
access to the Internet technology by rural residents is a long way off. Whether
urban and rural dwellers, "most people in China don't know what an on-line
service is, or what it has to do with them," said a head of an Internet service
company (Schoof, 1996). By the end of 1996, 120,000 of China's 1.2 billion
residents were using the Internet (Gonza, 1996). In other words, only about one
in 10,000 Chinese citizens leaped over the great wall onto the information
The point is that those who could potentially gain access are few because
of lack of infrastructure, high fees, literacy, etc.. Naturally, even fewer
netizens could be expected to participate in BBS discussions either because they
are simply not interested in such discussions, are afraid of expressing
themselves on such monitored public space, or because they are not aware at all
of the existence of such public forums. By comparing the per day average number
of messages posted with the total number of netizens in China, the BBS
discussion participation was extremely low.
What may be most intimidating to Chinese netizens wishing to engage in such
discussions is the legal pressure from the government. As part of the
restrictive Internet regulation implemented by the Chinese government, users
were ordered to register with the police and sign a statement promising not to
harm the state or commit a crime (Xinhua, February 1996). Beijing has commonly
used state security law to punish anyone who it feels threatens the rule of the
CCP. These laws generally allows for long prison terms for offenders and so tend
to have a chilling effect on netizens, thus, bringing about an almost complete
"self-censorship." Fear of these regulations is obvious as almost everyone using
these BBSs employs an alias thus making it easy to hurl invectives or engage in
personal attacks without being identified. Nevertheless, a proficient webmaster
can easily trace down any address because all participants of BBS discussions
must register with the BBS before they can send a message. That is possibly one
of the main reasons why so few netizens participated in any hard topic
discussions on those BBSs owned and operated by the state government.
In recent years, China has been methodically putting in place a series of
filters and "fire walls" that are effectively limiting the Internet's potential
threat to Beijing's information monopoly. In September of 1996, the government
announced that it had successfully blocked some 100 sites from abroad, including
those of major Western newspapers, human-rights organizations, Chinese and
Tibetan activists (Clough, 1996). In light of this kind of political
environment, it is not difficult to understand why the discussion rules of state
owned BBSs are so politically restrictive. The webmasters' ever ready and swift
censorship of "troublesome" political messages on these BBSs is simply the
logical extension of the government's censorship of sensitive web sites. Such
censorship could bring further harm to netizen's interest and courage for
involving in hard topic discussions.
Nevertheless, even with restrictive net regulations and unfavorable BBS
rules limiting discussions, many netizens still show great interest in hard
topic discussions whenever possible. That is why the foreign based Discussion
Forum (from which the government cannot trace down people's identity) has
attracted many more participants than all the discussion groups on those
domestically based BBSs. To some extent, the high participation on Walton
reflects, in one sense, that Chinese netizens ARE interested in hard topic
discussions, but such discussions on domestically based BBSs have been
suppressed and self-censored.
Providing economic information services for business and industry has
certainly been emphasized by China's network developers while scholarly
communication on the Internet is mainly limited to technical schools for
purposes of scientific research. Setting up BBSs is just a by-product of the
major effort to utilizing this new technology in order to advance China's
economy. BBSs were never meant to be taken seriously by the general public, and
certainly never meant to be used as tool in criticizing the CCP, whose image is
likened by the CCP to people's savior.
At any rate, BBSs have opened up a new channel for Chinese people to
express themselves. This is a channel both similar to and different from "wall
paper"--a traditional "mass" medium. Wall paper has been used from the 1950s
until today even though it has been outlawed. One of the major characteristics
of this medium during and before the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) was that
ordinary citizens used it to engage in "class struggles." To be more specific,
it was used to expose other people's privacy, trump up charges, defame character
and hurl insults and threats at those whom the poster does not like. Posters
would almost always use a name something like "A Red Guard," "A group of
revolutionary soldiers," or no name at all. After wall papers were outlawed at
the beginning of the 1980s, they have been occasionally used but much less
frequently. During the 1989 student movement, wall paper was, again, extensively
used by students and ordinary citizens but to expose the social injustice and
the ugliness of official profiting, to exchange political ideas, and to promote
political reform and democratic development. Again, postings were almost always
Wall paper, for whatever reason, has been used primarily as a fighting
machine. The same discourse and discussion approaches you saw in wall papers
years ago, you see today on BBSs. Wall paper and BBSs are similar in the sense
that both allow publishers to post their messages anonymously and both are used
as a fighting machines. To appropriate a comment made in an article in China's
Liberation Army Daily, the Internet "is enabling many people to take part in
fighting without even having to step out of the door (1996)." What is different
is that, today, BBS extends wall paper's function of political arena to make
itself a supermarket of diversified ideas and interests. As a result of the
Internet, people have the capability of engaging in political discussions though
such discussions are discouraged and relatively few people are actually engaging
in them. Even so, Chinese can still participate in other discussions they are
interested in such as looking for a boyfriend or girlfriend, finding information
of how to buy a computer, or discussing the issue of whether or not Madonna is a
Since 1989, the CCP's political suppression has tightened. As a result,
people who used to seek democracy are now seeking financial prosperity. From
enterprises to individuals, long-term planning is replaced by short-term
profit-making. Even government's investment on the Internet remains limited to
domains such as commerce and marketing in an attempt to yield near-term returns.
A strong atmosphere of nihilism pervades the whole Chinese society. Popular
writer Wang Suo's many soaps like Stories in An Editorial Room, and Die Right
After I Enjoy Myself To The Full, that have been widely welcomed by the general
public, negate all traditional values such as democracy, social justice,
righteousness and integrity. Such social environment in this particular
historical period may partially explain why netizens are more cynical, and less
serious and sincere in their BBS discussions, especially in the very few hard
topic discussions than they were in previous wall paper discussions. They tend
to trample traditional values and show little respect to those who promote them
in online discussions. Unlike wall paper, BBSs can disseminate viciousness much
more easily, more broadly and more quickly than wall paper ever could. As a
result, more people are hurt more easily and eventually. These abuses are
causing some netizens to think twice about whether or not the unlimited and
unrestricted freedom of current Internet technology is actually a virtue.
The findings of this study provides further evidence in support of Ammu
Joseph's conclusion in his Indian new media study: "[T]echnology per se appears
to be a not very important factor, and far from being a determinant, compared
with political will and social purpose" in democratic development. Economic
development and democracy may not be incompatible, as is the case in Western
developed countries, but the fact is that they are in China, as they are in many
other Third World countries. For a Third World country like China, which places
the increase of the GNP and per capita income as their exclusive goals of
development, and which attempts to impede the "invasion" of Western democratic
ideas by monitoring every public utterance in cyberspace, the role the Internet
as a tool in developing democracy is limited.
Even if a democratizing tendency does emerge on the Internet -- as there
are tentative signs of -- there are problems with the majority of citizens
getting access to the technology. Unlike Western countries, China has a huge
rural population, 80% of which are farmers. Most, if not all farmers tend to be
under-privileged with respect to economic status, education, and access to
advanced technologies. In the case of India, the proliferation of the Internet
technology has, in no way, altered the existing pattern of access to the media
and/or information in favor of the majority of the population. The Internet is
still accessible only to the already privileged classes and caters almost
exclusively to their information and entertainment needs and desires. The
information gap between the haves and the have-nots is unlikely to narrow, and
may even widen, in the near future (Joseph, 1996: 67). With a major portion of
the population left out of this new technology, using the Internet to develop
democracy in China is unrealistic. Democracy involves participation, and
participation, in turn, cries for information. For participation to be an
effective force in the public arena, participants must not only have the
necessary information but must also be able to express their points of view
freely through communications systems.
This paper concludes then, that the Internet does not carry an inherently
democratizing force that is irresistible, and is, therefore, not necessarily an
agent of democracy. "Mass media can serve democracy only when those who manage
them feel a passionate responsibility to create it and maintain it (Bogart,
1996)." Although I believe that recent trends in the politics, society and
media in China do not bode well for the promotion of real and meaningful
democracy through new Internet technology in the near future, I do not negate
the empowerment potential of the Internet. The Internet has created a virtual
classroom that is otherwise unavailable for Chinese people whereby they can
begin to learn what democracy means to them through their daily exchanges of
ideas and information. As more and more Chinese people join the Internet
cyber-family, as necessary political, economic, social and cultural climate is
slowly but consistently cultivated through the virtual classroom, and as the
post-Deng era continues, I believe that the Internet can be expected to play a
more important role in paving the way for China to become a real modernized
country with both abundant materials and enjoyable democracy.
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URL of the BBSs studied:
y BOL Teahouse from Beijing
y Deep Feeling on the Net from ShenzhenNet--http://bbs.szptt.net.cn./
y Free Market from Bamin Netcity--http://netcity.fz.fj.cn/chat/bamifrm.htm
y Richtalk Forum from Stone Richsight--http://www.srsnet.com/richtalk
y Walton Club from Walton
 Wang Dan was the vice commander of the Tiananmen Student Movement
Headquarters in 1989. He was jailed after the crackdown of the movement until
1994, when he was released and immediately detained for 16 months. He was
sentenced to another 16 years of imprisonment in early November of 1996 mainly
for his radical articles published abroad and his speeches published in news
reports written by foreign correspondents.
 The CCP's Four Basic Principles are: stick to the leadership of the CCP;
stick to Marxism, Leninism and Maoism; stick to the socialist road; and stick to
the proletarian dictatorship.
 GB stands for Guo Biao (national standard), the Chinese simplified
character system used in mainland China.
 URL: http://www.cnc.ac.cn/chinawebsite1.html