The Internet As Unfinished Public Sphere

An interview with associate professor Hu Yong of Peking University, School of Journalism and Communication by Li Guosheng for the Tianya Forum

(Tianya's Open-air Teahouse; Hu Yong's blog)

[in translation]

Q: How are you, teacher Hu?  I am interested in the turning points of your life.  For example, you began in the media industry, then you worked for a foreign corporation, then you returned to media and now you are in the education field.  Can you tell us about the reasons behind these turning points?

A: I majored in foreign languages at school, but I have always wanted to be a journalist.  Therefore, I became a graduate students at the Journalism Department of the School of Social Sciences.  At the time, reportage was a very popular form of journalism.  Although it is still controversial whether reportage is literature or journalism, it did have a unique social influence at the time.  Reportage was a powerful style of writing which influenced me at the time.  There were two main strands.  One of which was Liu Binyan who hit straight at reality on behalf the people.  Later came Su Xiaokong's panoramic descriptions of China in order to come to a certain judgment about a phenomenon.  I was strongly attracted by this sort of thing.  So I left foreign language study and went into journalism.

At the time, I felt that I could affect many things, I could affect society and I could affect many people through doing this.  Today, people may think that I was naive.  But whether it was due to the atmosphere at the time or my personal quest, I was certainly moved by this and chose to go into media.  After 1989, the whole country went through a huge change and my personal career went through a huge change as well.  I basically could not do what I wanted to do.  I worked in a news organization for two years and it was not particularly meaningful.  Basically, I kept visiting the various ministries and departments.  I felt that this was not relevant to my original vision for journalism.  So I went to work for a foreign corporation.

Several years later, I discovered that I did not like this kind of white-collar work even though the salary was quite good.  But I did not feel that it was my path to climb from an ordinary white-collar worker to a senior white-collar worker to a senior manager within a foreign corporation.

It was 1995 by then.  I saw that there was a change in the media space.  <Southern Weekend> started to make an appearance, and magazines such as <Lifeweek> began to show up outside of the system.  There was a chance that the media would step out of the system of party publications.  When we were studying journalism, we expected to go to work for <People's Daily> and Xinhua agency after we get our degrees, because those were the important places where we could realize our dreams.  If you didn't not go to places like those, you had nowhere else to go.  All the media organizations were under this system.  But by the early 1990's, another system emerged where we could realize our ideals.  I went to work at <Lifeweek>.

In 2008, I went through another career change.  I left the media organization and went to Peking University.  My ideals now are actually very simple.  First, I want to teach well.  Secondly, I want to read books.  Thirdly, I want to write books.  I want to distill my accumulated observations and write a few more books that I want to write.

Q: The book that you translated, <Digital Living>, was the book that initiated the Internet to many people.  This year, you published <Hubbub of Noises>.  In the years between, do you feel that the changes on the Internet have been like what you first envisioned?

A: At this year's forum for Chinese entrepreneurs, there was a small forum just to discuss the Internet.  At the meeting, I said something that I felt represented what I thought at the time.  I was among the earliest people in China to advocate the Internet.  When the Internet first came around, we placed a great deal of hope on it because it could promote many things in China as well as give meaning.  Over the years, I felt that we seemed to have opened Pandora's box where many of the things that flew out were bad.  But the box leaves you with hope.  I thought that many of the things were different from our initial ideals, and many of the things we expected did not materialize.  We felt that many of the things would not have negative influence, but they turn out to be very negative.  But I am personally still full of hope.  It is a matter of time before this hope will fly out because it cannot perpetually stay inside Pandora's box.

Q: But the Internet also changed things that could not be changed before.  For example, the Sun Zhigang incident caused a huge change in society.  Do you think that the positive force of the Internet can produce even bigger qualitative changes in the future?

A: My speech at the forum for Chinese entrepreneurs was at the beginning of the year.  At the time, the big Internet story was the Sexy Photo Gate.  Nobody knew that the Internet would have such a big impact in 2008.

There were two important events on the Chinese Internet this year.  The first one was that the number of Chinese netizens surpassed the number of American netizens.  The second one was the guest appearance of Hu Jintao at the Strong Nation Forum.  This act has a great deal of value.  Apart from anything else, from the viewpoint of the administrative system, when the highest leader of the administrative system takes such an action, what do you think the people who works underneath him would do?  Besides, Hu Jintao treated the netizens as his equals, at least during this exchange.

In the development of the Internet in China over more than ten years' time, there have been actually two forces.  We might call the first force the top-down Internet.  The Chinese government invested a huge amount of money on the Internet, but we still cannot compare with the developed countries.  We can see it better by comparing with India.  The reach of the Internet and the reach of mobile telephony in India is farther behind us because the Chinese government invested a lot of money and effort into constructing the infrastructure.  Without the government laying down the Internet, where would the prosperity of today be?  Of course, on one hand, the government is also expecting that the Internet will lead to economic development.  But on the other hand, the government is also hoping that they can politically control all the bad things that the Internet brings about.  Therefore, apart from the investment on the infrastructure, the government invested a lot of money and manpower on the firewall.  The presence of the government is very clear in the top-down Internet.  But there is another force, which is the bottom-up Internet.  There is a quantitative relationship because there is a vast difference between having one thousand netizens versus having 100 million netizens.  When so many netizens interact on the Internet, many unthinkable things happen.

These two forces have shaped the Internet in their own ways.  They sometimes conflict with each other.  Other times, they coalesce with each other.  In 2008, the upper and lower levels of the Internet have begun to be connected.  Hu Jinatao visited the People's Daily website and said "the Internet has become the amplifier for the dissemination of culture ideas and information and public opinion."  He elevated the Internet to a very high.  Those words represent the awareness of the leaders of China about the Internet.  Hu recognizes the importance of the Internet.  He wants to use the Internet and he must connect with the netizens.  When the two forces in China made contact in 2008, the result was that everybody must reach the consensus that the Internet belongs to everybody.

Q: In your book <Hubbub of Noises>, you introduced the concept of the public sphere.   You said that the public sphere must fear two things: the intrusion of political power and the intrusion of commerce.

A. Our public sphere is in such difficulty because we are under double pressure.  There is the pressure from the political powers and then there is the pressure from the businesses.  It is hard for us to develop the public sphere.

Let us look first at the impact of commercialization on the Internet.  The Internet is able to reach this stage with a lot of help from commercialization during the early stages.  The Internet was promoted earlier through the commercial angle.  Without the businesses, the Internet would not have developed so rapidly in China.  But the government and the businesses do not share the same ideas.  If the government were the only ones trying to promote the Internet, things would not have this far.  During the early stages of the Internet, the positive effects of the businesses were far bigger than the negative effects.  But things are opposite now because the commercialization is eroding many things in the media and the Internet.

Q: The notion of networking communities has been very hot over the last two years.  Then there is a commercial model known as "word-of-mouth marketing"  What do you think?

A: I have seen many users doing this.  For example, the state enterprises are spreading all sorts of misleading information.  I think this is terrible.  The private enterprises are also doing this.  All the companies are using the confusion in information for their own gain.  Our ability to process information do not seem to have increased too much as more information becomes available.  Therefore many public relations firms are exploiting these weaknesses.  Of course, there are even worse things than that.

Q: What do you mean by even worse things?

A: The worse things are what is normally referred to as the "fifty cent gangs."  They are similar to the so-called "word-of-mouth marketing" from the public relations companies.  They are all trying to mislead netizens and make gains for themselves.  They are more pernicious because they affect the future of China.  A civilization that lacks debates on important matters is a civilization that is heading towards totalitarianism and extinction.  The two outcomes are particularly scary.  We should be holding debates on the various important issues in China.  But you will find today that such debates cannot be held.

The reason why the "fifty cent gangs" emerge is that we have a major problem with our educational system over the past several decades.  Our education has successfully concealed many things in our history.  Our previous education was an utter failure.  The several generations of education eventually created fertile soil for the existence of the "fifty cent gangs."

We don't have anything more to say.  It comes back to the issue of education.  No matter how hard education is or how much time it takes, we have to do this.

Q: How would you rate the Internet as a force of enlightenment?  Do you think it will accomplish the unfinished missions of the May 4th movement and the late 1980's?

A: I think that it is overly optimistic to turn the mission of enlightenment over to a technical tool such as the Internet.  We never expected that a new technology will change reality.  We have attempted to bring in new technologies to reorganize reality in China.  Back then, Zheng Guofan and them failed.  They erected munitions factories and they built warships.  They were routed during the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895.  It was then that people realized that the problem was with the system.  That was when Kong Youwei and Liang Qichao started their Constitutional Reform.  This was part of the evolutionary process in modern China.  When Kong and Liang failed, people said that the problem was culture and not the system.  Then came May 4th and the New Culture movement.

Although it is too optimistic to hope that enlightenment can be attained through the Internet technology, the Internet is a catalyst that can trigger many things.  But we will have to slowly modify the things that the Internet triggers.  Nothing ever happens in one step.  We can only do this gradually one day at a time.

Q: You mentioned that at a deeper level, there is a big  problem with our education system.  Do you think that the government will change things on their own?  What can the Internet do in terms of education?

A:  The education problem is complicated because we can discuss it from various aspects.  But it is not enough to rely solely on the government to change things.  The government is unlikely to change the education system, including the contents, because this system suits their needs and interests.

I think that the education purpose of the Internet is to continuously give various kinds of lessons to the Chinese people.  Such education is impossible in an era without the Internet.

Let us take the case of Yang Jia, in which seven people paid with their lives.  We learned so much.  Before Yang Jia acted out, we must ask the following questions based upon the law enforcement record of the Shanghai police.

1. Do citizens who can walk freely on the city streets of China have to carry identification on their persons?

2. Can the police intercept any pedestrian on the street, and then take him down to the police station because he did not cooperate with the inspection?

3. At the police station, can the police spend several hours to "patiently educate" a citizen who has been traveling regularly all over China?

4. Yang Jia who is aware of his rights and the law tried many times through letters and emails to complain to the Shanghai city public security bureau and the Zhabei public security bureau's superintendent department.  But are the police capable of rectifying their own mistakes?

After Yang Jia committed the murder, we must call out louder about how the Shanghai prosecutors handled the case:

1. We have to change the way in which the interrogation of criminal suspects by the investigative agency is kept secret and unmonitored, because the rights of small citizens have to go up against the powerful state authorities;

2. We must establish a system where the lawyer of a criminal suspect must be present during interrogations, so that the lawyer can monitor, prevent and witness forceful coercion;

3. We must relieve the family members of the criminal suspects from the duty to assist in the police investigation, in order to prevent family members from having to testify against each other;

4. We must remove the belief that prosecutors, judges and lawyers are one big family, and guarantee that the lawyers are independent legal workers who protect the rights of citizens;

Without the proper legal procedures, the law can only be tools that are used to torment the people.  If you don't believe this, you can imagine how the lawyers act in these situations:

* When you bring the appointment letter from the family to see the suspect, you are told that the suspect does not want a lawyer as indicated by his signed note; when you bring the verdict document from the first trial and you ask to meet with the defendant in order to prepare for an appeal, you are told that the defendant does not wish to file an appeal as indicated by his signed note.

* Criminal defendants frequently reverse their testimony in court.  Frequently, they claim that they were beaten by the police during the investigative phase.  At the time, the judge will follow the law and ask the defendant: "Do you have any proof that the police beat you in order to extract a confession?"  The defendant then shows the wounds on his body right there in court.  The judge then asks whether there is any evidence that the wounds were caused by the police.  The defendant is of course outraged and wants to go after the policeman who assaulted him.  The judge then asks the public prosecutor: "Is there any evidence in the files about the police using force during the interrogation?"  The public prosecutor does not even have to think before saying that the interrogation was in full accordance with the law and that there was no evidence of the police using force to extract a confession.  The judge then instructs the defendant: "Defendant, you must show the evidence that you were subjected to forceful coercion during the investigative phase.  If not, you cannot bring this subject up.  Even if you do, we can still reject it under the law."

The Yang Jia case taught us something very important: the authorities must be trustworthy.  The people harbor distrust about the judiciary, including its ability and ethics.  Not many people are really unscrupulous as to think that Yang Jia was justified in killing people.  People were objecting to the inability of the judiciary to disclose the motives of Yang Jia, to reveal the true facts of the case and to prosecute the case in accordance with the law.  When the authorities lose the trust of the public, how will the core values of "fairness" and "justice" of society be realized?

Q: Tianya and the Society Entrepreneur Ecology are jointly promoting an Internet platform for environmental protection, but public participation and enthusiasm are not high.  At the same time, the Internet hot stories are usually unimportant over the long term because they dissipate in a few days.  How do you view this phenomenon?

A: In China, civil consciousness has been emasculated by the government.  When something is not being used for a long time, it will degenerate.  Our citizens have been feudal subjects for a long time.  When it comes to something that affects the interests of everybody, nobody will actually try to push the case.  Conversely, this is what the government hopes because this is how it can be sustained.

For this kind of problem, the commercial forces and the government are cooperating to some extent.  The businesses hope that everybody becomes consumers and they don't want people to have too much personal consciousness.  To this extent, the commercial forces have the same expectations as the government.

Therefore I say that our people are not citizens.  The nurturing of civic awareness will depend on the next the stage of the Internet.  I still feel that the Internet is only in the first stage when people went from a state of total silence to a hubbub where everybody wants to speak their minds as quickly as possible.  Although nobody can hear anyone else, it is at least better than the blanket silence before.  At the time, many people were happy simply to speak, even if it was not their own ideas and just something that they picked up from others.  I think that the Internet needs to go from the stage of speaking to the stage of organization.  Pure hubbub has no value.  After the hubbub phase, we have to reach some consensus on at least some of the larger issues, because there can be no action without some consensus.

We can have some discussion at this stage and hope that we will form some kind of consensus at the next stage.  These consensus will lead to some action.  During the action phase, the examples that you give are less likely to occur.  We can see some hints of the actions now.  I don't feel that it won't be like the civic action after the earthquake.  The reaction to the earthquake was unsual, because everybody thought that they had a sacred duty and it would be wrong to do nothing.  Therefore, the sudden explosion of civil volunteers could not be sustained for long.

So what are the hints of the next phase of the Internet?  For example, the citizens of Xiamen going out for a "stroll" or the taxi drivers of Guangzhou going for "tea."  The PX project will not be carried out in Xiamen.  I read in <Beijing News> recently that the taxi industry association is thinking about revising the regulations.  It is not expected that there will be many changes and any change will probably be minor.  But without the "tea" session, would there be any change at all?

Q: Jürgen Habermas studied the public sphere and your book spend a lot of space explaining it.  Can you tell us about the section on the Internet and the public sphere?

A: Habermas wrote his book on the public sphere in the 1960's, and it became a hot term in the academic field.  Later Habermas went through a big change and he no longer referred to the public sphere.  Later he went on to communicative rationality.  The reason is very simple.  When post-modernism came around, nobody talked about its premises.  Everything became relativism.  For example, religion might have been the basis from which people can discuss.  But today, religion is not longer such a basis.  There are all sorts of religions and many people are not even religious at all.  So that terminology no longer works.

Some people have said before that Habermas is a liberal and others say that he is a conservative.  But there are many factions within liberalism and conservatism.  The factions are fighting amongst themselves, and they don't share the same set of terminology.  This is a fragmented age.  When we discuss problems today, it is like a chicken talking to a duck.  You can't convince me and I can't convince you because we have different foundational structures.  For example, the "public" in "public sphere" implies different things to different people.  We cannot even tell the difference between "public" and "private."

Habermas is not a post-modernist.  He does not think modernism is finished yet.  This caused him to find a common foundation for disparate things.  He went back and forth and thought that communication could be a foundation.  Furthermore, soemtimes there may not be interests involved in communication.  Since man is a social animal, there must be social communication.  He believes that communication must follow certain principles or else communication will break down.  He was interested in effective principles and realistic principles.  All his works trie to say that we must find a foundation for human society or else we become like loose sand particles.  When everything solid has faded away, what would human society be?  From this, he found communication and he raised it to a very high level.

I ran into the economist Luo Xiaopeng.  He thought that since the reforms began, especially after 1992, the economists have achieved an hegemony in speech -- an imperialism of economics, as it were.  Nobody listens to those people in the field of humanities.  Everybody knows that people in philosophy have no speech rights, whereas the economists are effective with what they say.  Xiaopeng thought that Ronald Coase's theories cannot explain many of the things in China.  I was very appreciative and understanding.  I think that Habermas is much more significant for China than Coase.  Habermas still firmly believes in the values of modernism such as freedom and democracy.

I say that our China has never gone through a post-modernist stage, even though many people make a living off post-modernism.  How much can it explain about China?  Nobody seriously discuss the modernist ideas in China.  Whenever we discuss freedom, people will say things that make you laugh to death.  Some might say that there is no absolute freedom in the world.  Or someone else might say that our traditional Confucian philosophy also has democracy and republicanism.  You just cannot hold a discussion.

The most basic direction of Habermas' public sphere is that the public sphere will ultimately produce a deliberative democracy which some also call a negotiated democracy.  The public express themselves fully in the public sphere and reach a consensus, influence policy and take action.  This sort of thing is definitely missing in China.  We do not even have the most basic communicative rationality right now.  On the Internet, this is very clear.  What are we most familiar with?  First, they give you a label and slot you into a group.  Then we have the residual poison from the Cultural Revolution so that whenever you say something, they won't consider whether it is reasonable or not.  Instead, they start guessing your ulterior motive or whom you are speaking for.  They will instinctively take a dim view of things.

At my blog, I was writing about Google a couple of days ago.  I thought that the search engines have become commercial products and therefore they are not as valuable as before.  We should be able to discuss this sort of thing.  But as soon as I said that, someone immediately asked whether I had accepted money from Baidu?  They will attribute these types of things on you in very ugly ways.  So on the next day, I wrote a blog post critical of Baidu.  This becomes something of a joke.  But there was no way to conduct a discussion.

Therefore I don't think that we are talking too much about Habermas in China.  We are not talking enough about Habermas and we ought to talk more about communicative rationality.  When communicative rationality cannot be established, it will just be more hubbub of noises.

The original research of Habermas for the public sphere began with a coffee shop which is a discussion space.  I personally don't think that the Internet resembles a coffee shop.  Instead it looks more like a supermarket, where people with different needs come to get whatever they want.  It is not realistic to achieve the ideal speech space in the short term.  The communicative rationality of Habermas cannot be realized on the Internet.  But I don't think that just because it cannot realized, then his theory should be declared useless.  At least, the most basic premises of Habermas' public sphere still exist.

Q: Do you think that the Internet is an unfinished public sphere?

A: I think it can be said.