A Do-Over With Chinese Characteristics

By Hua Hsu
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Robert Scoble/Flickr

"...with Chinese characteristics" is such a fetching suffix. It's usually invoked to qualify the Chinese approach to socialism, and it seems expressive in two ways, depending on your sense of things. On one hand: it expresses an awareness of context and suggests that one-size-fits-all approaches to governance ignore cultural, geographical, historical, etc specificity. It's customized means in the hopes of agreed upon ends. On the other hand: this easily descends toward an undesirable, occasionally paranoid kind of exceptionalism, and in China's case, the attempts to engineer outcomes that rival the West while disavowing the Western approach to things (however you want to interpret that) has delivered us to arguments about how the previously-unfree simply can't handle too much too soon.

In the case of the Internet, China seems like an example of what might have been, a do-over of sorts, and the actions/reactions of central monitoring bureaus and Chinese "netizens" offer an interesting mirror for our own habits. Hereabouts in the United States, online culture evolved in a meandering, diffuse sort of way, and the idea of figuring things out on the fly, with little regard for decorum, remains a resonant metaphor. Agenda-shaping American bloggers notwithstanding, it's probable that more of us experience online culture the way G. of GrandGood described it in a rather frank post the other day:

Back in May, a few years ago in RSS time, President Obama noted a warning about the vast amounts of information that students are exposed to via the networks and associated technological tools: "With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations -- none of which I know how to work -- information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation". What does this mean to a person who consumes media primarily via the interwebs? Does it mean anything at all? Or, as others have argued, are the forms of consumption online just enhanced forms of our methods of consumption offline? Yes, as the President says, always accessible media "bombards us with all kinds of content and exposes us to all kinds of arguments, some of which don't rank all that high on the truth meter." But does this mean us consumers are thinking less critically? Does this mean that if I choose to spend my time reading about the relatively unknown Chucky Smash instead of Pakistan's military spy servce that I am a victim of accessibility? Am I distracted?

In case you're wondering who Chucky Smash is, start here. But I digress. What G. describes is the kind of info-inundation many of us face everyday--I think there's a TV commercial that pokes fun at our need to master sundry areas of Google-able trivia.

What if the kind of "distraction" described above could be courted or managed? This notion came up last week in China, when browsers discovered that heretofore forbidden porn sites were now available for their pleasure, viewing or otherwise. I was drawn to this particularly paranoid quote from the Beijing-based blogger, "Anti":

Maybe they are thinking that if Internet users have some porn to look at, then they won't pay so much attention to political matters.

Not a wholly unreasonable idea here. And one that conforms, roughly, to our sense of "netizen" activism in China, where any trickle of information (or leak---ha) might recalibrate the local sense of us and them. Meanwhile: a reminder of how Twitter, social networking and blogs (check out this recent Zhang Wen self-interview) might be wielded, against their intended uses, to serve loftier ends somewhere else.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/07/a-do-over-with-chinese-characteristics/60539/