This meta-review has been published by Chinese Journal of Communication. See the link HERE. THe following would be some highlights of the books I found highly interesting to share.
"Although Castells depicts the states as either oppressive or corrupt (under the influence of financial capital) in most instances, he rightly points out that "the outcome of the conflict (between the state and civil society, added by author) depends on the interplay between political interests in the country and geopolitical interests related to the country" (p. 97). When social activism reaches its most radical level as regime-overthrowing revolutions, states respond with most radical measures such as switching off the Internet in Egypt or extreme violence in Tunisia. However, the effects of such state responses vary across countries depending on the particular state's internal politics and its position in geopolitics. This analysis makes it clear that states are not independent powers and they have to exist in relation to global powers. Social activism, therefore, does not exist in relation to just a single government but to a network of powers."
"Hoofd makes a compelling etymological analysis (pp. 6-8), showing that activism was originally coined by Rudolf Eucken as the ideology of energetic action to overcome the non-spiritual nature of human kind. This ideology was later applied to economic theories by Walter Eucken (son of Rudolf), who is deemed as “the predecessor of current neo-liberalism” (p. 7). According to Walter’s theory, the active attitude to life is essential for economies to counter depression. “Activism was an economic strategy originally employed for the benefit of the nation-state in which its citizens could supposedly enjoy the largest amount of ‘spiritual freedom’ through actively encouraged but closely monitored economic competition” (p. 7). The collusion between activism and neo-liberalism highlights the entangled relationship among civil society, state, and global capitalism. Hoofd suggests that social activism, despite its confrontational appearance, may have deep ideological connections with the network of powers."
"A few chapters in Ford’s book highlight the problematic role of international NGOs and other global forces. Financial aid can lead to financial dependence, which allows international organizations’ peace-building programme to dictate the limits of local activists’ engagement in the peace movement in post-conflict Timor-Leste (Dibley, 2013). Appealing to international norms of human rights helps sexuality right activists in Malaysia to establish an alternative source of authority but invites heavy state sanction (Lee, 2013). Conflicts within the agendas of multiple international forces are made explicit in framing sex work as work vs. sex workers as victims of human trafficking in Cambodia (Sandy, 2013). Illustrating the entangled relationship between local and global politics, an important case is that a reprimand by the US Department of State on the Cambodian government was reported as an achievement of the Cambodian sex worker rights campaign. "
Some of my ideas
A network approach to examining social activism, I think, is appropriate, especially after knowing of the ideological connection between activism and capitalism that Hoofd argues. Instead of treating activism and capitalism as two separate processes, we should examine how social activism emerges, evolves, and diminishes in relation to the network of powers.
Instead of seeing social activism single-directionally determined by neo-liberal capitalism, I would like to borrow the concept of “seduction” (Baudrillard, 1990) to describe the relationship between the two. I hereby use one example to illustrate the seducing relationship: Google is a company that makes profits based on searching through free and open content provided by Internet users and this profit-driven practice coincides with many activist appeals for freedom of expression or freedom of information flow. When Google exploits these causes and activists behind them, activists also try to demand moral or material support from Google to fulfill their goals, such as fighting against the state. It is hard to say who is in control and who is winning over whom. It is indeed a complicity suggested by Hoofd but the complicity goes both ways. What makes our research on social activism exciting is to make visible the rules, charms, snares, and lures involved in such seduction.
Our special issue on "Youth, ICTs and Civic Engagement in Asia" is published in International Communication Gazette!!! Thanks to my co-editor and project head Emmanuel Lallana, and dear collaborators Clarissa David, Mohammad Sahid Ullah, P. Vigneswara Ilavarasan, and Joanne Lim! Speical thanks to the editor, manager, and proofreader of this journal too. They are all so professional that this issue gets published smoothly and timely. Highly recommend my colleagues to submit to this journal!
You can download the entire issue HERE!
A table of content is found here.
CCTV's News Investigation is one of the best practices of journalism in China. Recently they broadcasted an episode on the self-governance of villagers (村民自治). Two very interesting terms emerged from the interview: sea-election vs. sea-fishing (海选 vs. 海捞). I found it extremely difficult to translate the two terms. But I can explain. 海选 means one person one vote and emphasizes the right of electing officials (village-level only). 海捞, as the quote below defined, means that the elected official was selected from a wide range of possible candidates (literally it means being fished out of sea). It emphasizes the accessibility of candidacy. One significant aspect with the basic level democracy (基层民主) is that it allows a procedure of sea-fishing (海捞). The cost of being a candidate at the village level is much lower than that at the higher level (such as county, city, province, and nation), which allows almost any villagers to be able to enter into the game.
Chen Yongxi: After the election was done, the head of county came to us several times. He told us that a reporter from American Newsweek Magazine came to interview us. The vice director was Chen Zhong and he said you are like being fished out of the sea, so let's call you "sea-fishing". Then Head Fei said this word is not elegant. Not elegant. So I said how about "sea-election". He thought it is good so we decided to use this word.
Other grass-root understandings of democracy and politics are also enlightening. The following are two examples.
Zhang Xiaogan: I personally think that election must have a procedure. The procedure is democracy. Democracy is trouble. So election is a troublesome thing. I personally think so. Because procedure itself is democracy. No procedure no democracy.
Xu Qian: Things like the democratic awareness, the democratic ability, the idea of the rule of law, and the level of ruling by law, they all need to be improved in practices. It is like a person. If you don't let him walk, how can he learn how to walk? He must get skilled by practicing the skill of walk.
The word that strikes my nerve recently is legitimacy. The first time this kind of thing happened to me was when I read Althaus writing that representation is to present again. Legitimacy and representation are two great examples of concepts that we think we know what they mean but when pressing for accurate definitions, they evade into the light of eternity.
From a normative perspective, the legitimacy of a political system is defined as the consistency with the ideal model. If you are a supporter of deliberative democracy, legitimacy means the political system conforms to the principles of deliberative democracy, i.e., it should be open, fair and reason-centered. However, when we ask the question why we should want deliberative democracy, one of the reasons the theorists offered is that it grants legitimacy to the decisions generated by such a system. Here, legitimacy becomes an empirical concept, which can be measured and may vary in degree.
From an empirical perspective, legitimacy is defined as an observable object that varies in degree. How to measure it often determines the way it is defined. If it is measured through self-reports of individuals, such as agreeing to be ruled, legitimacy is a perception of the rightness (worthiness in Habermasian term) of the political system. Then it does not distinguish between the different ideals individuals hold about the political system, whether the system should be a deliberative one or not. If it is measured by the performance of the political system, such as economic growth and national security, legitimacy is defined as consequences or effects. Many governments such as the ones in China and Singapore take advantage of this utilitarian approach to justify their ruling. The two ways of measurement are definitely intervened with each other. If the government can successfully persuade the ruled that legitimacy should build upon the effectiveness of governance, then we expect to see the perception of the rightness becomes a covariate of the performance of the political system.
What become really interesting, then, are the sources of the perceived legitimacy.
My co-author, Dalei Jie, and I recently finished our report on Political Elites, New Media and Youth: A Comparative Study of China vs. Taiwan, funded by UPenn GAPSA-Provost Interdisciplinary Research Award 2008. When we wrote the presentation slides together, Dalei added a final sentence that shocked me first. Later on I realized that it is exactly what I wanted to but did not dare to say.
"What is bad for democracy might not be bad for the cross-strait relationship."
The story goes like this: We found that youth from both China and Taiwan have mixed feeling about the cross-strait relationship. Chinese young people have strong sense of nationalism but feel unsatisfied by the political situations in both areas. They tend to be confused and opt for practical goals such as making money. Taiwan young people grew up with a clear local identification but do not completely deny the fact of being Chinese. They tend to dis-trust their political leaders and also, opt for practical goals such as living a happy life. But the symptoms of these mentalities are indifference to politics and lack of activeness in advocating a solution. Political apathy is considered as bad for democracy. However, it functions as a factor that stabilizes the cross-strait relationship in this case.
Here is an example of civic participation as a norm.
The Civic Potential of Video Games
The logic is: as long as games are promoting civic participation, they are not something evil. I am not saying this logic is anything wrong. Just realize that it might not be applicable in any cases.
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.