Expert Commentary

Political consequences of the Internet’s rise: Beliefs and practices of Chinese netizens

2011 study published in Political Communication on Internet use in China increases political engagement and the development of political opinions.

Internet user (iStock)

Even as China rapidly modernizes, its government continues to tightly monitor the media to ensure that state control remains unchallenged. This task has become more difficult with the rise of the Internet, which can function as an informal media outlet.

According to figures from the official China Internet Network Information Center, the country had more than 380 million Internet users at the end of 2009. Because the country’s population is more than 1.3 billion, the overall rate of access is just 28.8%, but the growth has been swift, up 13.4% from the previous year.

A 2011 study in Political Communication by a researcher from the University of Michigan and Yale Law School, “The Political Consequences of the Rise of the Internet: Political Beliefs and Practices of Chinese Netizens,” looked at attitudes of Internet users in China. The research, based on data from the 2007 ChinaWorld Value Survey of adults 18 to 70 years old, divided the respondents into three groups: traditional media users, netizens (Internet media users) and non-media users.

The study’s main findings include:

  • Nearly 12% of those surveyed categorized themselves as netizens, 72% as traditional media users, and 17% as not using any form of media.
  • The educational levels among netizens were significantly higher, on average, than that of the other two categories. Of netizens, 44% had a college degree or higher, compared to 3% of traditional media users and 0% of non-media users.
  • On a series of questions to track political knowledge and opinions, netizens had 27% fewer “don’t know” responses than traditional media users and non-media users.
  • Based on responses to a political belief survey question, an estimated 33.1% of the sample were politically apathetic, 42% were conformists, and only 24% were politically opinionated.
  • Being a netizen was strongly correlated with being politically opinionated: 60% of netizens were politically opinionated, compared to 8% which were apathetic.
  • Netizens are much more likely than traditional media users and non-media users to “participate in collective action by 66.7% and 211.2%, respectively.”

Overall, the evidence suggests that Chinese netizens tended to be a “politically salient” group compared to users of traditional media and non-media users. The importance of this conclusion becomes clearer when the researcher notes that, according to estimates from Tsinghua University, China’s total spending on “domestic security” reached 514 billion yuan (the equivalent of $76.7 billion) in 2009, only slightly less than its military budget of 532 billion yuan ($79.4 billion).

“If most Chinese people fell into the categories of conformist or apathetic … the cost of maintaining stability would have been much lower,” the study’s author writes. “Given that around 60% of Chinese netizens belong to the politicized group and that they were present in many incidents perceived as causing social instability, it is difficult to deny their importance in China’s political development.”

Tags: democracy, China, technology, social media

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