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Wenjing Guo,Internet entre État-parti et société civile en Chine (The Internet between the Party-State and Civil Society in China),

Paris, L’Harmattan, 2015, 329 pp.
Nicole Khouri
Translated by N. Jayaram
p. 65-66

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1Wenjing Guo belongs to the so-called post-1980 generation, that of young Internet users on whom she focused a PhD thesis in socio-anthropology defended in October 2014: Internet à Canton (Chine), Dynamiques sociales et politiques (Internet in Guangzhou, China: Social and Political Dynamics), University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne,and upon which this work is based.

2The book is composed of two parts, one mainly devoted on the Internet in China (1994-2014) and the other to Internet usage based on three case studies undertaken in Guangzhou: a group of homosexuals formed around a “model mother” whose blog brought together thousands of Internet users, a residents’ group mobilised against the construction of a waste incinerator, and an association of Internet users defending Cantonese language and culture: the tangible and intangible heritage of the city and the province. These two parts contain valuable methodological considerations. An overly short six-page conclusion follows.

3Part 1 offers a synthesis of existing work and traces the Internet’s evolution in China between 1994 and 2008, the latter year marking the passage from a regime marked by the government’s sole responsibility for control to a governance logic by which entrepreneurs and Internet users are vested with responsibility for observing the norms laid down by the Party-state. This new governance also sought to ensure the participation of cadres and Party officials through the creation of blogs, in order to paint a benevolent image of the leadership. It took shape in the context of the “Harmonious Society” slogan put forward in 2002, evolving by 2008 towards the elaboration of a social reform. Like some other cities, Guangzhou constituted a pioneering laboratory where the notion of gongyi (public interest, public welfare) entails the commitment of ordinary people in resolving social problems. But 2008 also marked a turning point in the hardening of Internet censorship because of the rapid spread of news about incidents and mobilisations linked to ethnic confrontations (Tibet and Xinjiang), farmers’ protests, or even major scandals (“bean curd schools,” contaminated milk powder…).

4The period between 2009 and 2014, the subject of the author’s synthesis, saw the emergence of the incubator Yi Fu, founded in 2006 and analysed as an exemplary case of the market’s insertion into social matters, largely borrowing from global models of venture philanthropyand corporate social responsibility.It led to a logic that, choosing among local grass roots initiatives, brings “acceptable” ones into a process of institutionalisation via fiscalisation and professionalisation through performance. Both Internet users and “social organisations” were asked by the government to take part in managing society online and offline.

5Part 2 of the book focuses on the subsequent 2010-2012 period, looking at three groups of Internet users, “ordinary” actors belonging mainly to the post-1980 generation, invested in social and political relations reconstituted on the terrain of activism, both before and during the institutionalisation of struggles. A socio-anthropological approach guides the author’s analysis here.

6“Mama Shang” lies at the root of the first group studied. In 2008, the mother of a homosexual created a blog, a space for global communication that helped numerous homosexuals and lesbians to act individually and/or collectively. Then came the founding of PFLAG (Federation of Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays), which, finding no acceptance in the existing framework of legitimate social organisations, joined associations engaged in anti-AIDS campaigns that enjoyed the backing of the government and international funding. In 2012, there was a robust debate between the mother and the co-founder, who enlarged the battlefronts over discrimination against homosexuals to include the right to marriage and made contact with similar causes linked to gender issues such as the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) network. “Mama Shang” considered this enlargement risky, as the blog had to preserve its apolitical appearance, a private and familial dimension protecting it from political attacks.

7The second group studied is one of Internet users and proprietors living in a condominium, Jardinaqua, situated near Panyu, who mobilised against the construction of a nearby waste incinerator, which was scheduled to open in 2009. For these urban middle class youths, the Internet played a crucial role in researching technical and scientific information regarding pollution caused by such units. Faced with local entities, a coalition of interests among officials and a state enterprise tasked with the work, they experimented with a sort of grassroots democracy that strengthened their group identity. National and international reverberations from this mobilisation obliged the Panyu authorities to suspend the project during the preparations for the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou. A small group devoted to the environmental cause founded the “Green Family” in 2010, focusing on the issue of recyclable waste. Some activists regrouped a year later in Eco City, which was more responsive to their concerns over effectiveness and expansion of the struggle to other citizen and philanthropic fronts. They saw themselves as awakeners of conscience, consultants, and mediators for cooperation between the authorities and citizens. Eco City typifies an NGO that marries personal conviction and responsibility with the idea of gongyi put forward by the government in its “Harmonious Society” version. The experience of Alon – a pseudonym used by the author – exemplifies a social actor who maintains the tension between basic freedom of expression and control by public authorities, equally agile in avoiding the trap of benevolent activism when taking on a professional form inside new “social organisations.”

8The third group analysed consists of micro groups of Internet users or activists who came together over the G106 site (2008) and Lingliai (2010). Their actions were reminiscent of those of the Cantonese Association established in 2004, and through the website of which (the Cantonese diaspora obliging!) all sorts of action proposals were put online on a global scale and acted upon to stem the decline of Cantonese language in the face of the imposition of Mandarin in national education. Guangzhou’s urban renewal programme and the demolition of its old quarters begun about a decade earlier, along with a proposal by the Guangdong Provincial People’s Consultative Conference in 2010 to reduce the amount of Cantonese broadcasting on television, revived the debates both online and in the local press, leading to a number of protests for the defence of Cantonese language and culture. Conserve what, for whom, and how? From 2008-09, young educated urbanites organised guided visits to areas earmarked for demolition, held Cantonese language classes, produced documentaries and organised photo exhibitions, recorded the memoirs of the last inhabitants, and presented evaluation dossiers on urban planning. These actions linked to their rehabilitation projects for old quarters helped with their application for NGO status. They were in step with the national and international ecotourism market, and with NGOs gaining government authorisation and enjoined by UNESCO to preserve tangible and intangible heritage. And what of the quarters’ inhabitants, left in the lurch and considered to be only aspiring to a higher payoff in order to vacate?

9Through these three micro-groups the author has deliberately implicated the Internet in social relations, and the nature of her investigation is situated on a point farthest from an analysis built on a cross-section of opinions or themes raised by and on the Internet.

10This book’s interest resides entirely in the way it never sees Internet users or actors as effects of situations, even though the behaviour of those in authority strongly determines their conduct. It is by taking into account their aims and demands and the proposals of those taking part in collective action, as well as their expectations, that the socio-anthropological approach restores the voice of a civil society that is being experienced through what everyone lives and says at the crossroads of professional, affective, and activist relations.

11Given this triple dimension, these young urbanites’ activism fully qualifies as the kind of new social movements in post-modern societies analysed by Alain Touraine.

12The Chinese young post-1980 generation has made massive use of the Internet and social networks, which have boosted their visibility and the expression of their rights, indignation, and mobilisations for a civil society in its infancy. They have experimented with a space of virtual autonomy, however limited, fully aware of the relative effectiveness of the Chinese government’s control methods in respect of information circulation, and have aligned themselves more strongly with a world whose so-called global norms (cultural and financial) are a source of inspiration as well as of disquiet.

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Bibliographical reference

Nicole Khouri, « Wenjing Guo,Internet entre État-parti et société civile en Chine (The Internet between the Party-State and Civil Society in China), », China Perspectives, 2016/1 | 2016, 65-66.

Electronic reference

Nicole Khouri, « Wenjing Guo,Internet entre État-parti et société civile en Chine (The Internet between the Party-State and Civil Society in China), », China Perspectives [Online], 2016/1 | 2016, Online since 01 March 2016, connection on 22 July 2018. URL :

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About the author

Nicole Khouri

Nicole Khouri is a sociologist and associate researcher at IMAF (Institute of African Worlds), UMR 8171, Paris, and at CEsA (Centre for Studies on Africa, Asia and Latin America), University of Lisbon, Portugal (

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