Although the internet as a technology of freedom arguably played a major role in the Arab Spring of 2010, in China today the internet is more a technology of control.

By the Center staff

Ever since the emergence of the internet, its economic and political implications have captured the imagination of the academia and the press. While people easily agree about its revolutionary economic impact, judgments diverge about the internet and politics.

There are two basic camps: the first argues that the internet will promote citizens’ participation in the political process and empower internet users politically. Scholars such as Howard Rheingold, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, and Murray Turoff belong in this camp. They believe that the internet can encourage civic engagement and facilitate participatory democracy.

Those in the second camp are less optimistic, contending that the powerful will use the internet to suppress political expression. The internet, they think, will not radically change social relations and democratize communication. Rather, the powerful will stifle the democratic potential of the internet.

Which camp one chooses depends at least in part on where you live.

While the democratizing potential of the internet has been largely realized in developed countries in the West, that is not the case in China, where rather than a technology of freedom, the internet has become a technology of control.

Overview: the internet in China

In China, the internet has witnessed exponential growth in its user base.

According to data released by the China Internet Network Information Center in August, the country has a total of 751 million internet users, and the overall penetration rate sits at 54.3 percent.

Among all users, 724 million access the internet through their smartphones– an incredible 96.3 percent. With a huge number of mobile applications, users can enjoy entertainment content, buy things, and make payments, all through their smartphones and without a lot of hassle.

Apart from the increasing penetration rate, the economic potential of the internet in China has also materialized. Major digital companies such as Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent have been in the spotlight for their fast growth. Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, is listed in the New York Stock Exchange with a market value of over $460 billion. Baidu, the dominant search engine in China, commands a market value of close to $83 billion, with billions of searches per day. Tencent, the company behind the popular social media platform WeChat that has a total of 800 million active users, dominates China’s social media landscape.

These, and other internet companies, have played a critical role in China’s internet economy, and shaped the way in which people search for information, conduct e-commerce, and interact online with each other. They are the success stories. However…

The internet and Chinese politics

While much of the media coverage has been on the growth of the internet economy, less scrutinized is the political dimension of the internet in China. With China, it is not safe to presume that the internet promotes political participation among citizens and brings about political change.

In the past, the Chinese government was quick to delete online postings of political dissent, and it was successful in blocking access to foreign websites deemed ideologically confrontational to its one-party rule.  For example, some of the most commonly-used sites in the West, such as Google,, and many others cannot be accessed from within China; attempts to visit them result in a blank page, “page not found,” or other forms of lockout.

The Chinese government has extended this type of content censorship — a kind of Foucauldian surveillance on individuals through modern technology — in the era of social media and mobile apps.

When users post content on social media platforms like WeChat, and when the government deems that content inappropriate or destructive — it is soon removed or otherwise made inaccessible.

More recently, the Chinese government has created a new set of rules to regulate people’s political speech on social media and mobile apps. For instance, people who set up online groups or subscription accounts through mobile apps are subject to prosecution if they publish politically offensive content.

While the democratizing potential of the internet has been largely realized in developed countries in the West, that is not the case in China, where rather than a technology of freedom, the internet has become a technology of control.


As a result, instead of a democratizing force against the government, in China the internet has become an effective tool for the government to continue its political censorship and strengthen the current political structure. The overwhelming control that the Chinese government has over the internet has neutered the internet’s subversive potential.

Once heralded as an economically and politically transforming power worldwide, China has only seen half of the internet’s potential come to fruition.

There is a paradoxical dichotomy between the economic and political aspects of the Chinese internet. On one hand, the internet economy is advanced, with superb infrastructure, online payment schemes and offline delivery systems to support it.

On the other hand, the political side of the internet is under tight government control. The party-state continually shapes the internet’s political imperatives, offering no hope that the internet will promote civic engagement and enable participatory democracy. Unlike in the west or with the “Arab Spring” of 2010, in China the government has adapted the internet to the political environment, rather than allowing a new political medium to be born.

In The One-Dimensional Man, political theorist Herbert Marcuse wrote, “political power asserts itself through its power over the machine process and over the technical organization of apparatus.” Marcuse was talking about the mechanical development of human history, before the digital age, but his judgment was true then, and it is valid today in China.

It is both illuminating and bittersweet to reflect on Marcuse’s assessment of modern technology– it serves to “institute new, more effective, and more pleasant forms of social control.”

See all columns from the Center.

October 11, 2017