Tue, Feb 26, 2019 - Page 8 News List

China slowdown fueling discontent

By Joseph Tse-Hei Lee 李榭熙

Uniting people around a common cause, social media also confirms the state’s suspicion of the Internet’s liberalizing tendencies. The immense popularity of WeChat provides a powerful avenue for citizens to organize themselves and debate ideas and issues related to their sociopolitical rights.

WeChat allows users to form and launch group discussions that easily bypass the online surveillance of state authorities. When public security personnel censor these WeChat discussion groups, some activists move their networks to overseas apps designed to circulate encrypted information.

However, despite its vitality, the virtual space remains vulnerable to the state’s aggressive censorship. The different security and propaganda agencies of the Chinese communist state counter moves by social, political and religious activists with more restrictive regulatory measures.

Local bureaus of public security command popular activists to remove critical postings during sensitive periods, such as the annual June Fourth anniversary, or to shut down their Sina Weibo public accounts completely.

The CCP’s top leadership airs its resentment against innovative use of social media in its official prohibitions against the criticism of Xi’s domestic and foreign policies by its own party members.

As the Chinese state tightens its control over cyberspace, online struggles favoring rights recognition and opposing discrimination highlight their performative and contentious nature. Rituals of virtual activism include online anonymity as well as adherence to shared symbols and imageries highly visible among netizens. These rising grievances among netizens point to a people rife with frustrations and insecurities.

Citizens embrace non-disruptive tactics to elude immediate repression — and implicitly tell the Chinese state to keep out of private affairs — while challenging the pervasive narratives of state control and suppression. Their virtual, alternative discourse awakens and empowers others as it legitimizes protests against ideological hegemony and reimagines communal space.

We are witnessing a distinct moment in Chinese history. China’s manipulation of authoritarian rule and a market-oriented economy in state-led capitalism are a major source of domestic unrest. A rising and prosperous China that denies its citizens what they desire, such as healthcare, job security, interethnic and religious tolerance, gender equality and equal opportunity for all to advance by personal efforts is a China pushing frustrated sectors to organize themselves for collective action.

If the state cannot tolerate the pressures and outcomes of its appeal, it is bound to trap itself in a perpetual cycle of discontent and distrust.

Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York City.

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