Politicised youth: from physical to cyberactivism

High youth voter turn-out in Scotland’s recent Referendum acts as a counterargument to those asserting that political apathy is the inevitable future for youth in the developed world. Paula Williamson asks: how is the current  generation of newly politicised youth presenting their views in a way that feels meaningful to them?

Democracy can be a wily beast, taking many forms and appearing in some unlikely places. This holds even more true when youth are involved. Young people around the world are increasingly utilising technology in innovative ways to engage and actively shape political discourse. China is a particularly strong example of this shift.

China’s rapid economic and social liberalization coupled with growing materialism in the 80s and 90s has also raised concerns about decreasing social concern among youth. However, China’s historical “opening up” in the 80s and 90s also paved the way for the introduction of the Internet. Technologically savvy youth in China are now using Internet technology as a powerful democratic force that is gradually but perceptibly changing the way the Chinese public interacts with the state.

©Peter Morgan/Creative Commons License

©Peter Morgan/Creative Commons License

In 2012, a contemporary of mine suggested a dissertation subject that stumped the Faculty. Her research topic was on Chinese political engagement through microblogging. All but one of member of the Faculty had a firm idea of what blogging entailed, let alone microblogging.

Yet, one cannot attempt to understand public thought and public discourse in contemporary China without exploring the role of the Internet. The exponential growth of the Internet has caught many, including many venerable China experts, by surprise. Yet its profound impact on Chinese society is undeniable. Formally, all publications, including Internet, are controlled by the state’s Central Propaganda Bureau. Yet in actuality the Internet has offered unprecedented open spaces for China’s youth to engage in political dialogue and even, to a limited extent, influence government policy.

Rough estimations of China’s Internet use suggest that over 650 million people are now, in 2015, using the internet. The bulk of China’s digital consumption comes from those aged 35 and under. This population group makes up 73% of China’s total online population and account for more than 80% of the total online hours in China.

“No aspect of contemporary Chinese life has the potential to be as politically transformative as the Internet.”(US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2011).

A poll of 1,000 Twitter users in China found that of the top twenty reasons why people access the site, almost a third of them are political: “to know the truth and open the horizon”; “no censor here, this is the taste of freedom that I enjoy”; “it allows me to keep my independent citizen conscious”; “feel that as a party member I should learn more about this world”; “it is an inevitable choice for a journalism student”.

Through microblogging sites like Twitter or the Chinese site Weibo, the public has become actively engaged in ensuring official accountability and the rule of law for the first time in contemporary China. Environmental activists have been naming and shaming polluting factories online. In another case, authorities dropped slander charges against a journalist when he put his case to the public through the Internet and received overwhelming support. Traditionally authorities have remained aloof from the masses, yet cases like this one are no longer unheard of.

The Internet, like all publications, falls under the remit of what was formally called the Central Propaganda Bureau, now referred to as the Central Publicity Department. Despite its role managing public discourse, this arm of the government is a highly secret institution, its address and phone numbers are classified and its presence does not appear on official government organograms. Yet, it is a mighty megalith with offices throughout China at the provincial, municipal, and county level.

©Adam Valvasori/Creative Commons License

©Adam Valvasori/Creative Commons License

Still, the spread of internet access and IT literacy has posed a significant challenge to the Bureau. The sheer mass of online activity is becoming increasingly difficult for state censors to monitor. Moreover, China’s youth have been coming up with tactics for evading state censorship and these tactics are rapidly evolving. For example, a web based linguistic counter-culture has emerged where a series of metonyms are used to circumvent state censors in what has been described as the Chinese people’s “cat and mouse game” with the state.

And, a new generation of Internet firewall circumventing software has also been born in China, particularly during the state’s crackdown of the spiritual movement Falun Gong. The impact of such software has spread beyond China and it has been suggested that they played a notable role during the Arab Spring in allowing protestors to circumvent state censors and organize themselves through Facebook and other social media.

The rise of computer literacy, the spread of cyber cafes and now the introduction of a new generation of cheap Chinese made smartphones is swiftly breaking down barriers to Internet access for the Chinese people. In some ways, the Internet is fast becoming a true movement of the people in China. Moreover, it is a movement that has been forged by socially conscience, politically engaged young people with the technological know-how to circumvent state censorship.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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