by Chibli Mallat & Jason Gelbort
Controlling the information available to citizens is vital to the preservation of political power, and it is one of the essential means by which authoritarian regimes sustain political monopoly. However, with the advent of the Internet, the world of communications has undergone a revolution, creating new possibilities that challenge government control over channels of information, and, by extension, public opinion. Many have asserted that the Internet is uniquely immune to government control. As such, it has been widely posited that Internet technology will precipitate the demise of the authoritarian state. The recent revolutions that set the Arab world aflame, known as the Arab Spring, seem to support this assertion. The Arab Spring has engendered a widespread sense of inevitability that Internet technology, such as social media, will empower opposition movements worldwide. Indeed, the Internet is now broadly hailed as an unstoppable democratizing force for the world.
Yet for anyone who cares to look, China defies this simplistic paradigm. China has been stunningly successful in neutralizing the political power of its Internet. The protests calling for universal suffrage that erupted on the streets of Hong Kong this autumn tell us something important about the political potency of the Internet with respect to China. The failure of the “Umbrella Revolution” to spark wider protests in the rest of China — or even among the greater Hong Kong population — belies the simplistic notion that China is a political tinderbox waiting to be ignited by the correct dose of Internet liberalization and online activism. If the protests in Hong Kong could not galvanize wider dissent even within this unique pocket of China afforded all the legal and technological advantages available, how then can different results ever be expected in the rest of China? Prior to the Hong Kong protests, the international community had yet to witness a Chinese society boasting an advanced use of Internet technology and social media engaging in large-scale public protest. As such, the protests provided a unique opportunity to test the popular meme that the viral nature of social media, once properly activated, is a juggernaut force for political transformation. The Hong Kong protests were a test of this supposition — one that failed.
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