James Lewis is Director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at CSIS, Washington, DC. This is the third of a five-part series on Asia in the age of cyber threats. Part 1 here; part 2 here.
While we should avoid overstating the internet's effect in places like Egypt or Tunisia, the internet can greatly expand participation in the political process and amplify political trends in ways that are difficult for authoritarian regimes to manage. This helps explain China's neuralgic reaction to the 'Jasmine Revolution' and the way in which the growing but uneven power of China's 'netizens' affects political stability in that country.
Netizens are not hackers; they are individuals who express themselves in chatrooms, online publications and blogs and, unlike hackers, they do not illicitly access computer networks. Their influence affects policies and, perhaps, political stability in China. The more skilled among them – and this number is in the tens of thousands – can easily evade the Great Firewall. The ebb and flow of Chinese politics means that, at some times and on some topics, the more extreme voices will be suppressed but, at other times, will be tolerated or even encouraged.
China's netizens can affect relations among Asian states in destabilising ways not directed or desired by its government. The internet can be an outlet for nationalist sentiment that, in its most extreme form, can increase the risk of conflict, as governments feel the need to respond to the domestic political pressure generated by internet activities. This is a new factor in Asian relations and carries unpredictable consequences for regional stability.
Although it has created its own 'Fifty Cent Army' of patriotic bloggers who post positive comments about Chinese policies, the central leadership in Beijing does not control all online actors in China and it is not clear that it could control them if it wished to, despite strenuous efforts to keep internet freedom in check. The internet has introduced new forces into Chinese politics that lie outside the Party's control.
It is important not to overestimate the political influence of China's netizens. Their effect can be evanescent, with protests springing up quickly and then dying down. Their activity is best seen as a barometer of public attitudes, though there is also the possibility that these new political actors could complicate efforts to predict or manage national responses during a crisis by injecting intense pressure into policy debates.
China's decision to encourage the expression of nationalist sentiment during the 2001 Hainan Island EP-3 episode and then stifle it when its intensity began to foreclose policy options and threaten unwanted escalation is a good example of the problem of controlling popular sentiment once ignited. The existence of netizens and social media means that this kind of challenge will be magnified and accelerated in future crises.