Goubin YangChina may be a communist state, but the Internet is creating an “unofficial democracy” that’s giving ordinary Chinese citizens the freedom to organize, protest, and shape public opinion in ways they never dreamed possible only 20 years ago.

That’s the theory of Goubin Yang’s new book, The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. Some might argue that the book presents an overly optimistic viewpoint, says Yang, an associate professor in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures at Barnard College. But there’s no denying what’s happening in China, Yang says. He has spent 10 years meticulously following online activism and the forces that fuel it in his home country. He monitored and analyzed how people use online bulletin boards. He collected personal stories. He studied how civic organizations raise awareness for their causes. He even ran a personal blog using an anonymous name to understand how people use them. “I want to make the case that Internet activism really matters in very important ways,” he says. “And it’s not an elite phenomenon. It’s very popular and access is quite broad.”

Despite the state’s efforts to control it, Yang says, the Internet has become an agent of radical social change in China. It’s given people the ability to challenge the authority of the country’s political and economic leaders. It’s touched on issues ranging from the environment to consumer rights to sexual orientation. Meanwhile businesses and various nonprofit organizations have encouraged these online activities, too.

And along the way, China’s citizens are rapidly transforming their lives and their society. “It’s not just about technology,” Yang says. “It’s about human stories.”

One of the first online protests that caught Yang’s attention happened in 2000, when a student at Beijing University was murdered. University officials tried to cover it up, but details were posted on an online bulletin board. For days, thousands of students staged protests.

There are many other examples cited in the book: A woman raised awareness of slave labor by posting an anonymous letter online. A young man who was denied a position with the state government because he carries Hepatitis B eventually got one after sharing his plight via the Internet.

The state’s efforts to constrain challenges like these are well known. But those efforts have only led people to find even more creative ways to subvert authority, Yang argues. Over the last 10 years, “it hasn’t been difficult to stay interested in the topic,” Yang says. “The difficult part is trying to tear myself away from it.”

This tug of war between online activists and the Chinese government will no doubt continue for many years. The government will find new ways to control online activism, and citizens will find new ways around them, Yang says. But he hesitates to predict how that battle will shape the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens. “The outcomes of this struggle,” Yang says, “are open and uncertain.”

-by Amy Miller