Paradise, Panopticon, or Laboratory? A Tale of the Internet in China

Part of the Philosophy of Engineering and Technology book series (POET, volume 27)


Reviewing how the Internet has penetrated and developed in China, Dazhou Wang and Kaixi Wang focus their analysis on how society and the Internet have developed side-by-side. These authors present the Internet as a laboratory, in which social, corporate and governmental actors operate in various ways and engage in power dynamics leading to social change. Wang and Wang highlight the presence of e-influences, dissident voices which have given rise to the diversity necessary for social change, allowing for public opinion to be formed among those surfing the Internet.

The right of association, which had been restricted in China, was achieved with the Internet, thanks in large part to Weibo, a microblogging service which encouraged political participation, and led the central government to outline strategies for dealing with the Internet, such as the dissemination of explanations of matters of public interest. This rendered politics more transparent by helping to explain those matters to the general public.

The government, however, fearing threats to social stability, set up the Great Firewall, a system of control and surveillance which blocks certain websites and filters keywords which web surfers key into search engines. Business entities, required to set up security systems to prevent the illegal transmission of information, carry out their own censorship so that web surfers, being aware of the censorship they are likely to suffer online, practice a kind of self-censorship.

In the light of the dynamics resulting from the spread of the web, going along with Latour, these authors see the Internet as a laboratory in which social actors, far from having defined and unchanging properties, experiment with its possibilities. With the emergence of personal media, civic participation has triggered mass mobilization in support of specific causes. This, combined with the increase in governmental transparency, contributes to greater freedom and to strengthening the rights to information and publication.

Wang and Wang suggest that there is not one “Internet”, but several “internets”. This goes against the idea of “universal association” and the conception of the Internet as an automatic conduit for democracy. The authors stress the dynamics of the interaction between the state, society and the Internet, in a process in which all those involved tested the suitability of different behaviours. Their main argument seems to be that social change is not a feature of networks and is not inherent in their architecture, but depends rather on political choices: they lacks, in effect, a political framework which might encourage further exploration of their nature as a laboratory.


Collective Action State Council Internet Service Provider Microblogging Service Weibo User 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Castells, M. 2001. The internet galaxy: Reflections on the internet, business, and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Chen, W. 2010. On the developing process of internet regulation from government in China. Today’s Mass-media 10: 112–114.Google Scholar
  3. Cheung, S. 2009. The economic system of China. Beijing: China Citic Press.Google Scholar
  4. Criado, I.J., R. Sandoval-Almazan, and R.J. Gil-Garcia. 2013. Government innovation through social media. Government Information Quarterly 30: 319–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Feenberg, A. 2014. Great refusal or long march: How to think about the internet. Journal of Engineering Studies 6(2): 146–155.Google Scholar
  6. Feng, G.Ch., and S.Z. Guo. 2013. Tracing the route of China’s Internet censorship: An empirical study. Telematics and Informatics 30(4): 335–345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Howe, J. 2008. Crowdsourcing: Why the power of the crowd is driving the future of business. New York: Crown Business.Google Scholar
  8. Kim, W.S., and A. Douai. 2012. Google vs. China’s “Great Firewall”: Ethical implications for free speech and sovereignty. Technology in Society 34: 174–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. King, G., J. Pan, and M.E. Roberts. 2013. How censorship in China allows government criticism but silences collective expression. American Political Science Review 107(2): 1–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Latour, B. 1983. Give me a laboratory and I will raise the world. In Science observed, ed. K. Knorr, and M. Mulkay, 141–170. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  11. ———. 2004. Politics of nature: How to bring the sciences into democracy. Boston: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Lessig, L. 1999. Code and other laws of cyberspace. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  13. Li Q., and Q. Liu (ed.). 2014. The internet and transitional China. Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press.Google Scholar
  14. Li, Q., Q. Liu, and Y. Chen. 2013. The influence of internet on society and its construction. Social Science of Beijing 1: 4–7.Google Scholar
  15. Liu, Y. 2014. Minerva in action: The power dimension of contemporary cognitive activity. Chengdu: Southwest Jiaotong University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Liu, J., and W. Jin. 1998. Awakening after thousand years: Information and knowledge economy. Beijing: Social Sciences Literature Press.Google Scholar
  17. Martin, B.R. 1995. Foresight in science and technology. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 7(2): 139–168.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Minzner, C. 2011. Countries at the crossroads: A survey of democratic governance (2011: China). Washington, DC: Freedom House.Google Scholar
  19. Mou, Y., D. Atkin, H.L. Fu, A.C. Lin, and Y.T. Lau. 2013. The influence of online forum and SNS use on online political discussion in China: Assessing “spirals of trust”. Telematics and Informatics 30(4): 359–369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Sullivan, J. 2014. China’s Weibo: Is faster different? New Media & Society 16(1): 24–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Wang, S.S., and J.H. Hong. 2010. Discourse behind the forbidden realm: Internet surveillance and its implications on China’s blogosphere. Telematics and Informatics 27: 67–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Wang, L.Y., W.N. Qu, and X.H. Sun. 2013. An analysis of microblogging behavior on Sina Weibo: Personality, network size and demographics. In Cross-cultural design: Methods, practice, and case studies, CCD/HCII 2013, Part I, LNCS 8023, ed. P.L.P. Rau, 486–492. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar
  23. Winner, L. 2014. A future for philosophy of technology – Yes, but on which planet? Journal of Engineering Studies 6(2): 141–145.Google Scholar
  24. Xiong, X.B., G. Zhou, Y.Z. Huang, H.Y. Chen, and K. Xu. 2013. Dynamic evolution of collective emotions in social networks: A case study of Sina Weibo. Science China-Information Science 56: 1–18.Google Scholar
  25. Xu, K. 2007. Executive force of the government. Beijing: Xinhua Press.Google Scholar
  26. Yang, Q.H., and Y. Liu. 2014. What’s on the other side of the Great Firewall? Chinese web users’ motivations for bypassing the internet censorship. Computers in Human Behavior 37: 249–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Yu, G.M. 2009. Media revolution: From Panopticon to onlooking prison. People’s Tribune 16: 23–25.Google Scholar
  28. Zheng, Y. 2008. Technological empowerment: The internet, state, and society in China. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Zheng, L. 2013. Social media in Chinese government: Drivers, challenges and capabilities. Government Information Quarterly 30: 369–376.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Zhu, T., D. Phipps, A. Pridgen, J.R. Crandall, and D.S. Wallach. 2013. The velocity of censorship: High-fidelity detection of microblog post deletions. Paper for the 22nd USENIX Security Symposium in Washington, DC., August 2013. Accessed 5 Dec 2014.
  31. Zuboff, S. 1988. In the age of the smart machine: The future of work and power. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Humanities and Social SciencesUniversity of Chinese Academy of SciencesBeijingPeople’s Republic of China

Personalised recommendations