Jing Wang. The Other Digital China: Nonconfrontational Activism on the Social Web. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2019. 320 pp.
Review by Jacob Pagano
19 August 2020
In 2011, journalist Deng Fei discovered that schools in Guizhou Province lacked canteens. Fei launched a crowdfunded charity, Free Lunch for Children, on the popular blog Weibo, and used the funds to serve meals to poor students. The Chinese government took notice of the campaign and soon created a policy mirroring Deng’s to provide nutritional support to tens of millions of children. Such initiatives in China over the past decade or so—and particularly, the networks of social changemakers that are reimagining the boundary between social media and activism, and between the state and society—are the subject of this book.
Despite a tightening of state controls since the ascent of Xi Jinping in 2012 and in particular stringent policing of Internet speech, Wang makes the case for a growing movement of digital activism in China today: free agents, NGOs, entrepreneurs, university students, maker projects, and tech companies are harnessing information and communication technologies to drive social change. Jing terms this “Activism 2.0,” describing it as “social actions that are triggered through peer-to-peer networking between weak ties and mobilized via viral communications to build viral support communities at scale” (p. 3). Such activism, whether it is calling for more female representation in local government or seeking better work conditions for migrant laborers, avoids mention of structural reform and instead seeks incremental change, drawing on the precept of yinren or “silent forbearance” (p. 64). “Learning the art of restraint and following the centuries-old logic of finding the middle ground” (p. 35), according to Wang, has enabled these organizations and changemakers to address issues of poverty alleviation, environmental justice, feminist advocacy, and LGBTQ rights, among others.
Wang proposes that the conceptual model of “non-confrontational activism" be given proper recognition in Chinese studies, arguing that “if this category of activism is brought to light and the simple binarism of domination versus resistance counteracted, we can begin to highlight the question of the agency of change makers in authoritarian countries” (p. 6). As an activist-scholar herself (and founder of NGO2.0, www.ngo20.org), Wang argues that the Chinese state is moving from “social management” towards “social governance.” As a result, she believes, greater opportunities will arise for civil society to become more autonomous and generative of change. While the state inexorably defines the limits of society’s autonomy, that boundary can nonetheless be interpreted and negotiated by actors ready to exploit its indeterminacy. Her argument here finds its closest parallel in Sebastian Veg’s Minjian: The Rise of China’s Grassroots Intellectuals, in which Veg explores how Chinese intellectual-activists have been most successful in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests by becoming embedded in the disenfranchised communities they serve and focusing on discrete issues. Wang is also in implicit conversation with Xueguang Zhou’s study of the tension surrounding decentralization in China’s political system, for her project makes clear that opportunities for local problem solving Zhou outlines are precisely where activists make their mark.
In her penultimate chapter, Wang considers the uses of participatory action research (PAR), a method that places emphasis on experiential knowledge and community collaboration. As Wang concedes, practicing PAR in an illiberal space is beset by challenges, and PAR is not immune to critique (some may point to its history of being utilized for neoliberal projects, including by the World Bank). Nevertheless, Wang seeks to adapt PAR within the parameters of the Chinese context, and her firsthand experience training social actors has illuminated “a space for action and activism in countries where the neoliberal tradition is weak” (p. 223). Others wishing to understand and participate in future social change in China will find this book an invaluable roadmap, though some might yearn for more analysis of why nonconfrontational activism will remain impactful in the face of recent policies international observers have scrutinized.