Barnard Sociology Professor Guobin Yang has spent the past decade studying how Chinese citizens have harnessed social networking and the Internet as tools for civic activism. His latest book, The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online, published in 2009 by Columbia University Press, documents the rise of this phenomenon, drawing on Yang's 10 years of experience monitoring online bulletin boards, conducting case studies and surveys, and collecting personal narratives of those whose lives have been transformed by the Web.
"The main question for me," says Yang, "is how to understand this paradox that China has very tight Internet control, but at the same time very dynamic, lively and sometimes contentious Internet culture and politics. Here in the U.S., the Web is kind of a supplementary tool for social activism. But in China, cyberspace is really where all the action is, so to speak. Some of the most important and influential protest activities in recent years have happened mainly on the Internet."
While online one Saturday morning in early December, Professor Yang decided to sign up for Twitter. Or, more accurately, he registered for one of the various Chinese versions of the massively popular micro-blogging service, which, like Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and other social tech sites, is officially blocked in Yang's home country. He had plans to visit China during winter break to do some research, and figured the Chinese Twitter clone would be a good way to stay in touch with friends and colleagues, and also, "To maybe report on my whereabouts," he cautiously quips during a phone interview. Surprisingly, signing up for the Chinese version was his first foray into using social media. Even though his work as a sociologist is all about how we communicate, Yang doesn't have a standard Twitter account like so many Americans do. "I'm not into social networking," he says. "I find it's too overwhelming."
Still, Professor Yang's deep understanding of how the internet has changed China is fully evident in The Power of the Internet in China. Take Shanxi province's infamous child slave labor scandal of 2007, which Yang describes as a "particularly striking" case of online activism. Local media in North China had initially picked up on the story, Yang says, but apparently not enough to stir area politicians to action. Then, one desperate parent pleaded for help on an Internet bulletin board, triggering a Web-based protest of national proportions and encouraging other parents with missing children to contact mainstream media outlets online. Eventually, Yang says, the central government dispatched an investigation team to the province, and many of the children were rescued.
Yang also cites the Nail House Incident, another monumental case from 2007. Here, a family refused to move from Southwest China's Chongqing municipality after a powerful local developer surrounded their home with construction for a planned shopping center. A blogger named Shuguang Zhou (known in the Chinese blogosphere as Zola Zhou) traveled to the province, interviewed the family, took pictures, and posted it all to his Web site, turning the family's plight into "a huge national event," Yang says, adding that troubled citizens throughout the country now request Zhou's help. "Citizen journalism is a buzzword in China," just like it is in the U.S., Yang says.
Professor Yang came to Barnard in 2005 after spending five years in the University of Hawaii's sociology department. Here, he touches on his book in a course called Contemporary Chinese Culture and Society. During the fall 2009 semester, his class analyzed the parallel developments of Internet activism and Internet control. He explains, "One of my students' favorites topics is Internet development in China, because it's something they can connect to. They're surprised to see that there is this paradoxical situation [in China], so we have some very interesting discussions."
What does Yang find best about teaching at Barnard? "The smart, hard-working students are really the most exciting thing," he says. "Also, being in New York and being partnered with Columbia. It's a very dynamic intellectual environment."
Yang's next project, which he started while writing on the Chinese Internet, focuses on the intersection of China's environmental movement and new media. He spent winter break in China conducting research.