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Google, Avatar and the Rise of a Consumer Citizenry in China

Memorial flowers left at Google's China headquarters (image source: The Shanghaist)

On The China Beat, Ying Zhu and Bruce Robinson give a fascinating take on two major cultural controversies in China so far this year: the showdown between Google and the Chinese government, and the pulling of Avatar from Chinese theater chains. In their article, Zhu and Robinson identify the Chinese citizenry as an increasingly empowered force in shaping their society. They cite this to explain the different outcomes between Google and Avatar when both faced opposition from the state:

The Chinese state and local economic interests have worked in unison in dismissing Google’s request for an open and uncensored Internet system…In the case of Avatar, the public triumphed in their resolve to keep Avatar on screen partly because they had the backing of Chinese theater chains that wanted to maximize their profits from screening Avatar… Google, however, does not have local partners analogues to theater chains whose financial interest contributed to the victory of the Chinese Avatar fans.

The full article compares these two events at much greater length, while ultimately pointing to an emerging class of citizens in China as the critical factor in determining the outcome of these and future controversies. Empowered both by their conspicuous consumption and their ability to exchange opinions on the web with increasing freedom, these critical masses are bringing a new age of “lifestyle politics” to China.

This strain of “lifestyle politics” can be seen in at least two dGenerate titles. Jian Yi’s Super Girls shows teenage girls thriving in a subculture of identity empowerment around the Chinese version of American Idol (whose online voting, incidentally, triggered the largest democratic election in Chinese history). Cui Zi’en’s Queer China, Comrade China chronicles the many tactics taken by the LGBT community to gain acceptance within the Chinese public.

The mobilization of the Chinese “netizenry” is something to keep an eye on, especially with new developments constantly unfolding. This week, Google has begun offering uncensored search results through its new Hong Kong-based China operations. And an online network of journalists, lawyers, academics and activists have demanded a provincial governor’s resignation over his open suppression of an investigation of a scandal involving his office.


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