The liberating potential of the web?: the ambivalent power of the internet in Chinese democratisation
AffiliationMelbourne School of Government
Document TypeMasters Research thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2017 Junyue Tan
To what extent does the internet contribute to democratisation in China? This thesis tests competing answers to this question. It does so by critically bridging the views that frame the internet as a revolutionary force (or an inherently liberating power) and the views that dismiss its potential to democratise authoritarian states. The study contributes to the academic discourse on the liberating potential of the internet. Specifically, does the internet act as a revolutionary power which can guarantee a transition to democracy in China or bring about fundamental, unprecedented democratic processes? And if it does not, then, how does the internet promote and, at the same time, hamper democratisation in China? To better understand such mechanisms, it is necessary to examine the dynamic power competition between the government and the people over ideological control/independence. For its main case study, the thesis examines how the proliferation of the internet in China triggers fears of the government about the so-called Westernisation. This concern has emerged since 2011 and reached a peak in 2014. Being embedded in the Chinese context and analysed from its historical evolution, this concern about Westernisation suggests that the government is in fact worrying about its legitimacy and control over ideology. Focussing on this case study and using a methodology of comparative historical analysis, the thesis argues that the role of the internet in fostering democracy in China is not revolutionary but essentially an ambivalent one. Firstly, since Chinese democratisation began in the 1980s before the proliferation of cyberspace, the internet is not a necessary condition for the occurrence of democratisation in China and therefore should not be regarded as a revolutionary power. In addition, the thesis finds that the liberating potential of the internet is limited to its facilitation of existing democratic processes. Moreover, even with this progress, the internet can also be used to delay such democratic developments, as we can see with the Chinese government’s effective counter policies. This means that the internet is not only unlikely to cause a transition to a democratic system in China, but also that its liberating potential is severely limited – if not an actual barrier to democratisation.
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