SOCIAL IMAGINARIES OF THE INTERNET IN CHINA

Haiqing Yu

Abstract


Chinese Internet studies is a fast growing area. Broadly speaking, an underlining dichotomy between control and resistance, or between the “evil” and “control-freak” Chinese government and the “good” and rebellious netizens, has been central in many works in Chinese Internet studies. Others invoke an enthusiastic and celebratory perspective, focusing on the development of civil society and uptakes in media marketization and globalization and their democratic potentials. Still some others voice guided optimism about the Internet development and diffusion in China, and argue that the dichotomy between control and rebellion, centralization and decentralization, or state and society may not be sufficient to portray the unruly, diversified, stratified, Balkanized activities online. A more nuanced analysis of the Chinese Internet reveals that many different groupings, associations and movements, individual and collective creative expressions, diversified ways of entertainment, communication and consumption, and even the dominating state and market power are all flexible and mutable. None is static; they all respond and adapt to the influences of technologies, institutions, social practices of both the online and the offline, and even the regional and global techno-geopolitics.

It is time that we looked closely at how ordinary Chinese people (not political, economic and intellectual elites, or technological geeks) view their Internet in relation to themselves as individual human beings and an imagined community, rather than how we interpret their activities and experiences online. It is also time that we viewed the Internet as a lived space and experience that intersects, infiltrates, absorbs, and at the same time defies boundaries between the online and offline world, legitimate and illegitimate cultures. The Internet surely has boundaries if it is viewed as a technological and material device, machine, or design. At the same time, the Internet does not respect any boundary especially when it is viewed as an immaterial, abstract existence or way of life. Hence the concept of social imaginary is apt in capturing the largely unstructured and inarticulate understanding of the unlimited and indefinite nature of the Internet.


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