The recent “Jasmine Revolution” and the effect it has had on autocratic political systems has shown that forces are in place for a new wave of democracy and that these could erupt at any time. These recent events also show that this force has a way of reaching areas situated near each other. The Internet has become a new tool for disseminating information about democracy and this is something that traditional theories on democratization never foresaw. The middle class, new social movements and even opposition parties have all fallen into the background and have been replaced with a new form of mass communication that is more democratic and decentralized.
In the past, when nations in the developing world were planning political revolution, they first had to gain control of presidential offices, TV and radio stations and airports. Of these, TV stations were a crucial factor in determining whether a revolution would succeed. In the process of consolidating their power, TV stations were a tool used by authoritarian political systems to brainwash society. In the now democratized Taiwan, we can still see remnants of such a past. The recent Jasmine Revolution has proved the possibility of a bottom-up way of disseminating information about democracy.
This also shows that the strength of mainstream media in controlling politics is weakening and how the communicative and dissemination forces of new forms of media like Facebook and YouTube are growing. This explains how politicians now have no choice but to use such media, as well as providing a test of whether politicians can get used to the “wilder” side of democracy that these forms of media embody.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) has had no choice but to go online and conduct discussions with netizens, and we have seen President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) publicizing how he has set up a Facebook account. They have done this because they have seen that new media forms are a tipping point for politicians. This shows us the great power new forms of media possess and how traditional methods of securing power are no longer adequate. Those in power are using such media not just to win people over, but because these are the new rules dictated by new media and the way these will gradually become the new battleground for elections.
The few altercations that have happened in China in their own chapter of the Jasmine Revolution only involved small numbers of protesters. However, these incidents caused China’s police and reporters from traditional media outlets to fight and highlighted how new media forms can disseminate information about democracy. This changed the originally pessimistic views of other countries that believed China’s economic development was going to stop the social force of the Jasmine Revolution there. The Jasmine Revolution in China has shown how new media have been spreading like wildfire and how they have proven themselves to be even more unpredictable and harder to control than members of Falun Gong.
Ma claims to have tens of thousands of fans on Facebook, as many as pop stars and other celebrities. However, his “popularity” was recently overshadowed by a YouTube video clip of plainclothes police who surrounded Taiwanese university students during a protest against the visit of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) to Taiwan. This shows how political leaders will be exposed if they fail to truly grasp the “wilder” side of democracy and merely spend money trying to get new media to work for them.
Hsu Yung-ming is an assistant research fellow at the Sun Yat-sen Institute for Social Sciences and Philosophy at Academia Sinica.
TRANSLATED BY DREW CAMERON
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