Internet 5, China 1

Jason Ragsdale, written for Intro to Media Studies, The New School

During the course of our semester I became fascinated with a number of concepts, but two in particular really made an impression. I know that for the sake of this project we should narrow down to one concept, but as they each weave their way amongst each other, creating a larger media narrative, I find it difficult to separate these particulars. I’d like to take this chance to look at the interconnectedness of community and identity in media and that of contra/flows. In a complimentary course this semester called Interdisciplinary Media and Contemporary Society, I researched Chinese net.artists for a final project that heavily informed my readings on both of these class sections, and I’d like to take this opportunity to expand on some of the research I found on China and media, and how it, appropriately, wove its way into this class.

I’ll start by saying I previously endeavored to prove that Chinese artists were using the web to create and exhibit artworks to express either discontent with Chinese autocracy and/or to critique the encroaching global (read western) ideal of democracy. I felt confident I’d find plenty of content to support my claims. That wasn’t the case in terms of, at least. On the other hand, I did find plenty of artists working in other traditional media, some with pointed political commentary. Although I hadn’t yet been introduced to the concepts in our class, I discovered a number of transnational artists who were creating diasporic art (ie themes of nationality, eastern mysticism, or simply painting Chinese script) from cities as distant as Paris, London and New York. But more importantly, I discovered a large population of common Internet users informally creating user-generated content, all of it supporting the notion of transnational identity and community building, all the while contributing to global informational flow.

I’m still struggling with the term contra-flow, as introduced in Thussu’s essay collection. I fully endorse the fact that the United States dominates the production and export of media, especially regarding the Internet’s predilection for English and the predominance of U.S.-based websites (as well as servers and hardware and software developers), but I’ve generally idealized the Internet as the last possibly democratic media frontier wherein any person, regardless of her global positioning, could be a part of a larger sphere of influence armed simply with a PC and web connection. I’ve always thought of flow—like the ocean tides—as being multidirectional. So as the moon rises or settles, we witness the inward and outward flow of water; likewise across multiple time zones as people globally connect and participate in the mobility of data on the web, they increase and decrease flow across the Internet. It’s an arguably cloying analogy, but I’ve yet to find a comparable term for ‘participatory’ that could ably improve upon the term ‘flow.’

Your Freedom

Your Freedom

Now I’d like to introduce a few of the things I found and how they relate to these concepts. First of all, China is connecting to the web rapidly! More and more people are moving into Chinese cities and connecting to the web via cable and DSL, and .CN domain name sites are registering at exponential rates. This alone demonstrates what Thussu and Rantanen might call flow on its way towards contra-flow; that is to say this boom in web development affords Chinese the opportunity to increase intra- and inter-national flows, and the former could be seen as increased national flow while the latter could be construed as global contra-flow. Either way, it cannot be divorced from what’s commonly referred to as the Great Firewall of China, the web surveillance project that monitors and censors the Internet nationally. Metaphorically you could look at this censorship as a dam in the global flow of information.  As if to specifically counter this dam, or rather to circumvent blocked flow, I discovered a free downloaded web-app called Your Freedom. According to a Wikipedia entry titled Internet censorship in People’s Republic of China, “Your Freedom is confirmed to be working from China and also offers encryption features for the transmitted traffic.” Your Freedom is essentially a ghost IP provider that allows users to access censored websites by assigning the censored user’s IP address an unblocked IP. That Chinese users would be using the application would show a greater desire to be a part of the global flow. Indeed, you could even surmise that users invested membership in a global flow in forming their identities.

One of the significant players in China’s growing web industry is NetEase. Probably its greatest attraction is an online multiplayer game called Fantasy Westward Journey. It is a highly profitable, popular game where “gamers often [play] casual games to connect with friends and flirt with others” (Brightman 2008). This is important because it alone shows a national identity formed on a mediated, flowing network amongst Chinese nationals. In fact, there’s nothing to suggest that Chinese transnationals aren’t also joining games to reconnect either with old friends or to make new ones. Either way it’s making a statement that the Chinese government has noted. In 2005, a government office attempted to regulate the amount of time gamers could play online. Concerned that gamers were showing signs of addiction, an “anti-fatigue system” wherein scoring and/or playing itself ceased, was offered as an antidote to a growing social trend (Koo 2007).  One could look at this as a form of intra-national contra-flow in which China as a authority, observing free-flowing data amongst its populace, attempts to inhibit said practice. I would say that, in terms of actual semantics, this is the most appropriate use of the suffix ‘contra,’ if not the clearest example of an actual opposing force of media use.

Fantasy Westward Journey

Fantasy Westward Journey

Similarly, I discovered that blogging is a popular web activity amongst the Chinese, and that, again, Chinese authorities are concerned with its proliferation as a means of undermining central authority. Furthermore, controlling the explosion of blogs—another possible expression of contra-flow—is a concern. “Officials are also bowing to the realization that the Internet is impossible to control fully. Weblogs offer myriad new outlets for experimental writing. Online bulletin boards allow budding authors and artists to show their work, access international cultural news and critique one another” (Liu 2004). Two women became national obsessions for posting about their sexuality, confronting China’s rules regarding censorship of any material deemed pornographic (Shangyao 2004). Their actions spoke about a shifting feminist identity emerging from a staunchly patriarchal society, an arguable contra-flow itself. But the interesting thing about Chinese citizens blogging is not so much the government’s attempts to regulate or interfere, but with the blogger’s goals. Many of them are creating or examining a personal or national identity by communicating with each other and by performing this communication globally via the web.

Finally, I came across the most fascinating item accidentally. Under a headline, “China 2008: Nationalism, Internet Culture, and Identity” on China Digital Times, I found the most compelling YouTube video; one that at once defies my assumptions about Chinese trans/national identity and supports the concepts of flow and contra-flow. The video is essentially a remix of available news footage of sensational moments in Chinese media history—the Tiananmen Square standoff, violent clashes with Tibetan protesters—that supports a defiantly pro-China stance. Aside from its obvious propagandistic techniques, it’s notable for the fact that it appears on YouTube, a famously censored website in China. Its existence at once supports a global flow—China the nation being supported on a website it censors—and condemns it—the comments are peppered with Chinese nationalists expressing outrage against China’s negative international reputation. The repartee between commenters is itself a representation of a community building identity based upon the precepts of (exchanged) flow. On top of that, the presentation is clearly influenced by propagandist cinema and art; a sign of (western) flow well received. The video seems to perfectly encapsulate everything about media, community, identity, flow and contra-flow. And as long as the video stays up, identities will continue shaping under the current of media flow.


Anonymous.  2008! China Stand Up Video. 6 min 16 sec. YouTube, April 17, 2008.

Beach, Sophie. Dispatches from the Chinese Bloggers Conference. China Digital Times, November 19, 2008.

China Internet Network Information Center. CNNIC Released the 19th Statistical Survey Report on Internet Development in China. China Internet Network Information Center.

Koo, Shang. The China Angle: Rumors And Regulations. Gamasutra, April 17, 2007.

Leung, Jenny. China 2008: Nationalism, Internet Culture, and Identity. China Digital Times, December 4, 2008.

Liu, Melinda. The avant-garde art goes too far? China Daily, August 2, 2004., Inc. Fantasy Westward Journey. NetEase.

Rantanen, Terhi. 2007. Flows and contra-flows in transitional societies. In Media on the Move: Global flow and contra-flow, ed. Daya Kishan Thussu, 165-181. New York: Routledge.

Shangyao, Cai. Nonconformism or debauchery? Shanghai Star, April 8, 2004.

Thussu, Daya Kishan. 2007. Mapping global media flow and contra-flow. In Media on the Move: Global flow and contra-flow, ed. Daya Kishan Thussu, 11-32. New York: Routledge.

Yang, Mayfair Mei-Hui. 2002. Mass Media and Transnational Subjectivity in Shanghai: Notes on (Re)Cosmopolitanism in a Chinese Metropolis. In Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain, ed. Faye D. Ginsburg, Lila Abu-Lughod and Brian Larkin, 189-210. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Your Freedom.

Wikipedia. Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China. Wikipedia.

Wikipedia. Online gaming in China. Wikipedia.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s