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Can the Internet Bring Democracy to China?

Interviewee: Xiao Qiang, Director, China Internet Project
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer, CFR.org
May 18, 2009

China has the largest number of Internet users in the world--300 million, or roughly the population of the United States. China's blossoming online political dialogue, some of which includes the country's political leaders, has prompted questions about whether the Internet could lead to a political revolution. At the same time, however, Beijing continues to employ various forms of online censorship and surveillance. Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, says the Chinese Communist Party seems increasingly inclined to try to use the Internet as a tool to gauge public opinion on local issues. At the same time, he says, it seems bent on strongly policing online dialogue to keep a handle on public opinion.

Xiao says strong Internet voices are emerging in favor of democratic reforms in China. He notes that this strain of opinion can at time conflict with nationalistic voices in the country, such as those that emerged in response to last year's pro-Tibet rallies, which have also been amplified by the Internet. But Xiao says nationalistic and reform-oriented voices also overlap. "The same people who are very nationalistic" on issues like Tibet can be "very vocal to support political reform," he says. Xiao says the "jury is still out" on what China's experience with the Internet says about the medium as a democratizing factor. He stresses, however, that the Internet has proved to be a liberal force for the Chinese society, and could, in the long run, lead to a less repressive government in the country.

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