Yifan Xu reports for Policy Innovations on a survey of Chinese Internet users.
Is the Internet spreading and intensifying nationalism among the Chinese public? A nationwide opinion survey conducted in 2008 by the Research Center of Contemporary China sheds some light on the issue. Respondents were asked to indicate their level of agreement with nationalistic statements such as "the world would be a better place if people from other countries were more like the Chinese," and nationalist policies such as "China should limit the import of foreign products in order to protect its national economy."
The results show that Chinese netizens with higher education and income levels are less likely to be nationalistic and are less supportive of protectionist policies. In particular, for the statement "the world would be a better place if people from other countries were more like the Chinese," using the Internet decreases the probability of agreement by 10.7 percent; expressing oneself online reduces the probability of agreement by 10.3 percent; and using government websites reduces the probability of agreement by 17.6 percent.
This suggests that the old cyber-libertarian dream of the Internet serving as a catalyst for political reform may still have some elements of truth. At least the Chinese Communist Party must think so, given its extensive censorship of the Internet.
When Google withdrew its business from China in early 2010, Chinese netizens made a few sarcastic comments comparing the CCP's Internet censorship with the "closing door" policy of the Qing Dynasty—just like the Qing governors struggled to maintain the great Chinese Empire, the CCP is trying to create a "great Chinese Intranet." The CCP's logic is simple: the Internet makes possible negative information and news about the Party, which was previously unavailable from the traditional mass media.
In recent years, Chinese political dissidents have been actively using the Internet to reach out to ordinary people as well as foreign populations. For instance, while human rights activist Hu Jia was under house arrest, he remained active via emails and blogs, and posted a series of video diaries on YouTube. The Internet is in fact thick with opinions from nationalists and anti-nationalists alike.
The most interesting survey finding is that people who have used the Internet to access a government website—to get information, make a comment, or lodge a complaint—are even less likely to be nationalistic. This could be a spillover effect from dissatisfaction with the government.
The August 2010 Zhouqu landslide provides an interesting contrast. Generally speaking, disastrous events cause a nationalistic surge. In the 2008 survey, following the Wenchuan earthquake, respondents were more likely to agree with nationalistic statement. Yet the Zhouqu landslide has led to wide criticism of the government online. Netizens accused the government of working harder to promote a positive image of itself than to mount an effective rescue effort.
As New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof observed in 2002, nationalism in China is a double-edged sword: "it has potential not just for conferring legitimacy on the government but also for taking it away." Armed with personal computers, critical netizens are able to quickly spread anti-nationalist discourse and protests in a decentralized fashion. Should that happen in China, the cyber-libertarian dream may materialize.
[PHOTO CREDIT: March oh! (CC).]