What hobbles online activism in non-democracies? It’s more than just repression

Post developed by Katie Brown and Yuen Yuen Ang.

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What hobbles online activism in autocracies? The intuitive answer: repression. In a recent article titled “Authoritarian Restraints on Online Activism Revisited: Why ‘I-Paid-A-Bribe’ Worked in India but Failed in China” in Comparative Politics, Center for Political Studies (CPS) faculty associate, assistant professor of political science, and Center for Chinese Studies faculty associate Yuen Yuen Ang looks beyond repression — she brings attention to the deeper organizational problems rooted in authoritarian rule.

In 2008, social activists in India created www.ipaidabribe.com (IPAB), a crowd-sourcing website that collects anonymous reports of bribe extraction. By 2014, more than three million users visited India’s IPAB site, with over 20,000 bribe reports filed. Major news outlets covered IPAB. And IPAB soon spread to 17 other countries, including China in 2011.

But, whereas IPAB flourished in India, within two months, all of China’s IPAB sites disappeared. Why?

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Given that China is an authoritarian state, the assumption is that censorship and repression killed the sites. As asserted in the New York Times:

“They [IPAB sites] are threatening enough that when a rash of similar sites popped up in China last summer, the government stamped them out within a couple of weeks.”

Ang’s research, however, finds a more nuanced and complex story. Chinese authorities did not in fact stamp out the sites resolutely, but instead wavered between approval and suppression. More importantly, even before the final shut-down, the IPAB sites had already begun to crack from internal organizational problems. Chinese netizens used the sites to vent, exact personal revenge, and even extract profit and bribes from posting reports.

These problems are rooted in prolonged restrictions that deprive China’s civil society the opportunity to learn the norms of constructive participation and to professionalize. Anonymity on the Internet exacerbates the challenges of self-governance.

Thus, Ang cautions against sanguine views about the revolutionary power of online activism in checking corruption and authoritarian power. The challenge of civic empowerment runs deeper than escaping the shackles of repression. As she concludes,

“Authoritarian rule provides an inhospitable environment for nurturing online citizenship in the full sense of the word, involving not only the exercise of rights and free speech, but also accountability, responsibilities, and trust.”

Commentaries on Ang’s article have appeared on the websites of Personal Democracy Media, ipaidabribe.com, and cnpolitics.org.

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