It was my great honor to be invited to make a spotlight presentation for the Chinese Internet Research Conference held at Hong Kong Polytech University this year! Thanks to David Herold, the organizers, and the steering committee for the flattering and daunting task! I still vividly remember that in 2007, I was also very fortunate to be given the top student paper when CIRC was held in Texas A&M hosted by Randy Kluver. Now seven years later, I ask myself what better I can offer to the community. I am not sure whether I have become a better researcher but at least, I am no longer alone. This time I have two fabulous collaborators, Dai Jia and Yang Tian, both from Tsinghua University. Their diligent working attitude and generous support have been the most critical reason why the paper is all possible.
I opened the presentation with an example of China's current first lady, Peng Liyuan. While the international society sees Peng as the first ever Chinese first lady who can rival Obama's Michelle, many Chinese know Peng as a popular star. She has appeared in the first ever Spring Festival Gala and since then, her songs have been hits in China. Some media reports praise her for enhancing the national image by smiling and posing to the cameras. And for many Chinese, the fact that we know her, or her voice, so well has brought a sense of familiarity to the new leadership. Both the internal and external roles Peng has played in China's political life have every thing to do with her life of being a popular singer.
I continued saying that this is definitely not just a Chinese case. The blurring boundary between popular culture and politics has been witnessed around the world. This observation has brought some scholars a great deal of uneasiness. Popular culture turns people from rational citizens to passive spectators, who watch their favorite stars preform but make no actions themselves. They may also become fanatic followers, who blindly do whatever their idols ask them to do. The fascination with celebrities makes citizens pay more attention to superficial qualities such as how one looks or how one speaks, and ignore the substantial criteria of being a politician such as experience, policy ideas, and visions.
However, this worry is nothing new. As early as in the Ancient years in China, poets (popular singers at that time) already used poems (popular songs at that time) to mock and criticize the emperors and their empires. I argue that what we should worry about isn't whether popular culture is good or bad for politics (because politics is never simply good or bad). What we should worry about is why we still know so little about popular culture and politics, the endless seeking for pleasure, the strong desire for emotions, the structures of feeling! I argue that it is because our theoretical perspectives to examine politics are limited. One idealistic perspective sees everyday politics as deviant cases from the ideal model of democracy, such as rational debate indicated in Habermasian public sphere. Another realistic but a bit cynical perspective sees politics as power competition. It is all about exchange of interests (e.g., Bourdieu's theory of capitals). It is my argument that we should look at politics as performance. If we take this perspective, our focus is no longer on what is right and what is wrong. Politics is a matter of aesthetics and taste. We should ask, what is preferred, what is enjoyed, what is appreciated. We also would not see politics as a battle between the powerful and the powerless. How does the powerful repress the powerless, how does the powerless fight against the powerful. Instead, we talk about a relationship of performers vs. audiences. The dynamics of this relationship is much more subtle and complicated than simply being a competition among powers. Think about it: A show is not a show without audiences.
If we see politics as performance, we may ask why celebrities want to perform politics. An obvious reason is to say celebrities use these political issues to keep their names in news. But why news? Why not the list of parliament members? It is because the importance of mediation is unprecedented nowadays. Although popular culture has always been a part of political communication, what marks our age is the extreme importance of mediation. We now have celebrities who are famous for being famous. They have no distinctive background, they have no outstanding achievement, they are not even pretty. Think about Furong Jiejie. What has made them so well known is the repeated exposure in media coverage.
I concluded the theoretical part of this presentation with a research agenda, dictated by the perspective of politics as performance. I ask:
Although there is another methodological point I made about network analysis, I hope readers can stop at the theoretical points and think about how a perspective of politics as performance could inform our inquiry about Chinese Internet. A digital copy of the presentation is not posted in response to the conference audiences' concern of leaking privacy information of the celebrities and their followers. You are always welcome to write to me for the slides!
This afternoon, sitting on the small deck of Gecko, surrounded by the warm and humid air, hidden in the mild noise, I got myself ready for the long-delayed conversation. Three law professors, Lawrence Lessig, Cass Sunstein, and Yochai Benkler, are together to talk about blogs...through their writings. :)
Here is my record of this conversation. Lessig is L, Sunstein is S, Benkler is B and me is me.
S: Blogs are an unlikely venue for Habermasian public sphere because of fragmentation and polarization.
L: Whether blogs democratize should be examined within the constraint of their codes / architecture.
S: Alright. The codes for blogs are like-minded groups that are isolated from each other.
B: No. It is not true. The architecture of blogs is the power law distribution in general and the long tail distribution within like-minded groups.
Me: What is the power law distribution?
B: You guys should read Science and Nature. It means that most people still visit a few superstar websites. So fragmentation is not a problem.
Me: Even though people go to the same websites such as google.com, they could selectively choose information that echo their opinions. At the level of individual exposure, it is still fragmented.
S: I agree.
Me: But selective exposure itself has to be examined rather than being assumed. The first step of assuming preference for the like-mind might be wrong.
B: I agree. You have to provide empirical data.
Me: How does the long tail distribution help to prevent polarization?
B: It means no superstars can totally dominate a small world. Many low end sites are still connected to each other if you look at a smaller scale cluster.
Me: OK. So it prevents domination or centralization in small clusters. But how does it prevent fragmentation and polarization?
B: Well, it is actually that there is no fragmentation so there is no polarization.
L: The distributions you talked about could be changed, do you know? The codes that determine the dynamics are open to changes.
B: Oh yes. That is why we should pay close attention to how policy regulates the codes.
L: Yes, the constraints of law take advantage of codes to make cyberspace more regulatable. The government can interfere with the formation of the two distributions you mentioned.
B: But so far the government has a harder time to control cyberspace than mass media.
L: Are you sure? The government enjoys controls that they cannot have before. For example, it can even censor private communication.
Me: Probably we should not only use mass media as the benchmark. Other communication modes such as interpersonal comm. should be used as reference point, too.
Two pieces of facts caught my interest these days.
Fact 1: The recently revived Speaker's Corner in Hong Lim Park attracted two protesters on September 1st, its first day when restrictions were officially eased. Media reported that there were more audience than actors.
Fact 2: Advisory Council on the Impact of New Media on Society released a consultation paper on August 29th, urging the Government to interact with Singaporeans via new media.
When I watched news on Fact 1, I cannot stop thinking of Fact 2 and say, come on, because we have the Internet. Our speaker's corner nowadays is the cyberspace.
Here is a commentary on the consultation paper.
TODAYonline:Can Radical Also Be Right?
In other words, if the Government wants to engage citizens in the new
media as the report envisions, it cannot always set the agenda. This is
quite radical, given that the Government’s prerogative to set the
agenda has remained one of the fundamentals in Singapore since
The quote above is very interesting because it triggers my mental link between e-engagement and radical democracy. Radical democracy, according to Cohen & Fung, embraces two ideas: Participation and Deliberation. The news author is right to say e-engagement is radical because he realizes that e-engagement gives citizens direct roles in policy-making. The officials will have to respond to citizens' concerns rather than setting the agenda for them.
However, the author more or less used radical as a negative word considering that he doubted the co-existence of radical and right. Cohen & Fung's definition implies that radical democracy definitely can be right because it is based on deliberation. So I think the real concern here is not whether e-engagement is radical or not. It is the problem of the tension between participation and deliberation. How does a public decision-making procedure become widely participatory and highly deliberate at the same time? Especially when the Government disagrees with its citizens on what is considered as deliberate. And when the citizens disagree with each other.
Nanjing, a medium-size city besides the Yangzi River, recently opened up an online public forum to elicit inputs from citizens on the city's development. This kind of "government-initiated consultation" is nothing new.
When I was an intern reporter for the city newspaper in 1999, I was invited to audit in a public hearing about the raise of taxi fares. We had a representative of taxi drivers, a representative of citizens, a representative of taxi companies and several government officials. The discussion was heated but very polite. The citizen representative listed many concerns to object the raise. The driver had his own arguments. The officials were always referred to with respect and they acted more like a judge rather than a participant whose interest is affected by the discussion. Another instance also happened during my intern. I was notified that a secret meeting would be held between two local real estate companies which had serious business conflicts. The two companies were the largest in the local market and their conflicts threw significant threats to the city's renovation plan. Governmental officials were present again as a judge to settle the thing. This secret meeting was more confrontal than the previous one. I was forced out when they found out that I am a reporter.
The results of the two consultations are quite different. I wrote a story about the taxi fare meeting and soon, the policy was made public: Taxi fares were raised but at a lower rate than the one proposed by drivers and taxi companies. I was not able to write anything about the second meeting because I did not know what they settled on. But in both cases, the city government functioned as a mediator between different parties in the civil society. The mediation in the first case lends legitimacy to the policy-making by showing that the procedure, at lest, looks fair. The second case was not open to the public probably because there was not a policy change that the government has to defend in front of the citizens.
The two cases fit nicely to the concept of Authoritarian Deliberation proposed by Min Jiang from UNC-Charlotte. In her presentation for the 6th Chinese Internet Research Conference, she made an excellent point that deliberation does not have to exist under a premise of liberal democracy. Instead, an authoritarian country like China has already incorporated the deliberation mechanism into their governance.
But what is new in the current case is that the public forum is hosted in a private website which has no official affiliation with the city hall. The call for advices is directed to a large group of citizens rather than a few representatives. The responses are directly from individual citizens rather than being re-presented by some of them. However, the officials still have the final say. As one of the respondents said,
This way of listening to advices is great. But I hope there will be a good end of it. The advices can be put into effect in operation.
I am an Associate Professor at Department of Communication and New Media, National University of Singapore.