We live in the information age: affordable multi-media computers, broadband Internet access, and advanced mobile communication tools are changing political, social, and economic practices around the globe. These developments have also swept the People’s Republic of China, new geopolitical superpower and now the second-largest economy in the world, with a population of 1.3 billion. By the end of 2011, China had more Internet users than Western Europe had citizens. What are new information and communication technologies (ICTs) doing to China – and, what is China doing to new ICTs?
Communication scholars often interpret ICTs as harbingers of a cosmopolitan age where the flow of diverse information will educate and empower users. The Chinese case defies these expectations. While communication in digital China is certainly diversifying, the information age has not ended authoritarian one-party rule, nor has it led to the peaceful, pluralist digital public sphere that liberal scholars have envisioned. Two observations in particular challenge what we may call the liberal, cosmopolitan vision of ICTs. First, the Chinese Communist Party and the government successfully use sophisticated censorship and propaganda mechanisms to steer public opinion towards officially sanctioned discourse. This strategy appears to strengthen rather than weaken the Chinese state. Second, online political discourse in digital China turns out to be clustered around a small number of recurring themes, and the most notable of these is nationalism.
A central topic within (online) Chinese nationalist discourse is that of Sino-Japanese history, extending to the present day. Japan’s 2005 bid for a seat on the UN Security Council, for instance, incited rage in Chinese online forums, with activists organizing protests that started on-screen but went on to spill into the streets. Digital Nationalism will investigate the dynamics behind such nationalist sentiment through two case studies. It will examine (1) stable, long-term networks on the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, and (2) currently emerging, short-term networks on the ongoing Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute. Combining quantitative and qualitative methods, it will address this central research question: How do networked actors use ICTs to shape nationalist discourse in China, vis-à-vis Japan as foreign Other?
Digital Nationalism takes current theories of political communication and ICT that implicitly or explicitly claim global applicability, and confronts them with the realities of the world’s largest national web, which happens to be subject to highly effective control by the state. It critically re-examines the liberating, cosmopolitan potential of the Internet, by exploring how ICTs can become vehicles for nationalism in the service of various actors – from dissident netizens to state-employed chat-room moderators and webpage designers – and how such actors construct a sense of community at the expense of diversity and intercultural tolerance.
Digital Nationalism will make a critical contribution to our understanding of nationalism in the information age, and of public discourse in an emerging Great Power. More broadly, it shows how the humanities and area studies are essential to understanding contemporary issues in a “glocalizing” world, as complex as they are urgent. With the introduction of ICTs, states around the globe devise new, often culturally distinct strategies of managing their societies, which go beyond legislation and increasingly focus on shaping ideas and values. For academics, policy makers, civil servants, and educators, sensitivity to these practices is crucial in and of itself; and particularly so in an age when non-Western states challenge Western ways of conducting world politics.
This research project is generously funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.