FOR A DECADE NOW, Emily Parker has been following China’s wangmin — the Chinese translation of “netizens,” short for internet citizens — and how they have been utilizing email, blogging platforms, and social media to transform the country. Some of these trends have been widely reported on in Western media, for instance, the rise of Weibo (a popular microblogging website commonly compared to Twitter), “human flesh searches” as a form of rogue justice (think online mobs armed with ace sleuthing skills and virtual pitchforks), and the new kinds of coded language netizens use online to get around censorship. Parker certainly doesn’t leave out these well trodden but essential stories, offering enough background and vignettes for China novices to catch up on what’s happening, but it is her tracing of the more subtle, psychological effects the internet has had on activists, regular folks, and authorities that makes this book an essential read. With great sensitivity, she shares the disillusionment a blogger feels when he reads the truth online about 1989’s June fourth massacre near Tiananmen Square, narrates stories of netizens overcoming their isolation by finding “comrades” on the web, and paints a picture of an internet populace both gradually recognizing the collective power they wield and gaining an increasing sense of individuality. As Parker relates about a conversation with the author and outspoken critic of Chinese censorship Murong Xuecun:
Murong believed that Weibo was helping Chinese people evolve from “renmin,” the general term for “the people,” to “gongmin,” or citizens. On Weibo, people were starting to wake up. They recognized that the Communist Party had problems, and they liked the abstract concept of democracy, but they had no idea how to realize it. They were recognizing that they were individuals first, Chinese second, and that they had rights.
Of course, it’s naive to think that the limited set of voices relayed here can truly represent all of what’s taking place online in China. Parker is as qualified as anyone to take a stab at trying, and though she does her best to include a handful of conversations with non-activists, even she admits that the story she is telling is primarily about a small group of people, and one shouldn’t come away from reading Now I Know Who My Comrades Are thinking that the Chinese internet is ablaze end to end with netizens daringly fighting censorship and injustice. Rightfully so, the book is subtitled “Voices from the Internet Underground,” for it is the “Overground” of the celebrity gossip–sharing and cat picture–posting majority that is intentionally set aside in this account.
But if one is restricted to a few voices, oh what voices Parker has chosen. In what was no doubt many parts tenacious networking and one part good fortune, she connects with two “rightist” bloggers who in some ways are perfect foils for each other: Michael Anti and He Caitou. (In Chinese politics, “right” roughly corresponds to progressive in the US sense. Leftist voices — generally speaking conservatives who advocate support for today’s Communist Party leaders, lionize earlier ones such as Mao, or both — are not included in this book.) Anti (a pseudonym: his real name is Zhao Jing) is a “democratic” firebrand whose blog was famously shut down by Microsoft in 2005 after he called for a boycott of a Beijing newspaper. By contrast, He Caitou is a “liberal” reformer whose more moderate and playfully commercial approach to blogging has simultaneously earned him respect, snickers, and outright contempt. Anti disdains Chinese social media and the need to chat in code to the public and instead primarily uses Twitter to speak directly to foreigners and countrymen enlightened enough to have jumped the Great Firewall. He Caitou, who worked at Tencent, a Chinese company best known for its web-based and mobile chat services QQ and WeChat, doesn’t bother communicating through Twitter and instead devotes his time speaking to an almost exclusively Chinese audience through Weibo. Through the two of them, a fascinating debate plays out over how best to organize netizens in order to achieve a more open China: rage against the machine or work within the system?
At times, even Parker appears to be amazed by how they seem to have come from central casting — Anti is described as skinny and all sharp angles, while He Caitou is pudgy and balding. But to place Anti and He Caitou at opposite ends of a spectrum does them a disservice. Fortunately, Parker mindfully layers on them the complexities each individual carries. Although He Caitou is technically the moderate between the two, he can be coarser, his humor mean-spirited — for instance the case in which he re-posted what most would see as a racist cartoon about Africans being apes. On the other hand, Parker reveals that the stereotypically firebrand Anti is actually a Protestant who was attracted to Christianity because its rhetoric is so much “softer” than Communist propaganda. Anti’s uplifting, empowering language is part of why he is so popular. And while He Caitou eschews Twitter, he isn’t totally insular. In fact, during his first meeting with Parker he draws a map of internet dissidents around the world. And Anti, though cast initially as an idealistic radical with no patience for compromise (“I don’t give a shit about leftists. They are on the losing side. I don’t want to waste my time.”), can be just as pragmatic as He Caitou. In a passage recounting the especially sensitive time after the Arab Spring when Chinese authorities and censors were on high alert for posts advocating a so-called “Jasmine Revolution” in China, Anti calculatingly reveals his newfound sense of responsibility to remain active:
He was at his friend’s house when he saw a tweet, which he believed was from an overseas dissident, talking about a jasmine gathering in Beijing. […] “I’m a journalist and I know not to call for action,” Anti told me. So he did not retweet the message. And once again, he survived.
And yet despite their shared goals, mutual respect for each other, and various overlapping traits, the two do convey strongly divergent views on how to bring about change in China. He Caitou is castigated by netizens for acting as a de facto censor as an employee at Tencent, proactively deleting the content of users who broach sensitive topics (e.g., pornography, Falun Gong, calls for political reform, etc.) in order to remain safe from the government hammer, but he justifies his actions in the way that foreign companies like Google or Microsoft did when entering the Chinese market: what good will it do anyone if his internet company gets shut down? Better to provide some service, even a less than ideal one, rather than nothing. Anti meanwhile sees the gradual reform espoused by liberals like He Caitou — justice as being an achievable end product through the use of new tools like the internet — as a mere sideshow to the work that truly needs to be done. For him, anything less than a new democratic system where justice is a built-in fundamental component is bound to fail and be co-opted and overrun by government interests — a belief that was sadly reinforced during the 2013 summer crackdown on bloggers, some of whom were even once encouraged and supported by the government.
Their strategies and tactics also differ. In some ways, He Caitou could perhaps even be seen as the more quixotic of the two, with his unwavering faith in individuals and sense of equality. He disparages Weibo for having two classes of citizens — verified celebrities whose posts are publicized on the site and everyone else — and even joins an internet company where he does away with such distinctions. “All tweets are equal. All people are equal,” he proudly declares. By contrast, Anti believes that change can be more effectively wrought by a smaller core of dedicated leaders. As he admits, he isn’t interested in rallying the Chinese masses, and his prizing of Twitter’s exclusive, unfettered Chinese community, and its connection to the outside world, speaks to this notion. For Anti, revolution will come from leaders who have the requisite vision and stomach for pain that ordinary netizens may not.
Parker tries to avoid favoring one or the other, for the most part objectively presenting each blogger’s viewpoint, but in the presentation of any two-sided debate of this kind, it’s near impossible to be perfectly neutral. And in the case of Anti vs. He Caitou, one can’t help but get the sense that Parker gravitates more toward Anti’s conventionally heroic line of thinking. It’s clear that Parker has a special connection to Anti. He was her primary entrée into the Chinese blogger community and the many tender moments they spend together over the course of a decade of interviews and friendship described in the book — Anti describing to Parker how he cried the first time he learned about June 4, the two paddling a kayak in Beijing, him teasing Parker’s decision to order mapo tofu without meat — flesh him out with greater humanity than we witness in He Caitou. In actuality, He Caitou is just as likable as Anti, if not more, since his less moralizing take on the world gives him some of the funniest lines in the book. (“‘I do not need any sex life,’ he told me. ‘Because netizens fuck me every day. They say, Fuck you. You cooperate with the Great Firewall. You delete my words.’”) However, the criticisms of He Caitou’s collaborateur nature stay with us despite her efforts to humanize him to the same degree that she does for Anti. Parker portrays He Caitou’s blunt self-awareness with a certain admiration. But it backfires on him in one particularly damning passage, when he compares his role in censoring his fellow compatriots’ speech to that of being a guard in Auschwitz. Though she makes clear that He Caitou isn’t trying to trivialize the Holocaust by comparing it to internet censorship, and that his metaphor instead aimed to express his angst of having to follow unjust orders, the emotional impact of the analogy is impossible to erase.
Perhaps Parker could have done more to mitigate this indelible image, which, combined with the other criticisms of He Caitou, may cause those reading in a less engaged manner to inadvertently dismiss his viewpoint. If so, that would be most regrettable, as He Caitou’s argument in favor of navigating within the system deserves to be treated with as much consideration as Anti’s. Indeed, in many ways, picking your battles and living to fight another day is a more realistic option today for most Chinese netizens than agitating for wholesale replacement and suffering potentially devastating consequences. Even Anti notes in a message to journalists thinking of becoming activists that our individual situations dictate what sort of efforts we can make on behalf of greater freedom. As he tells enterprising reporters who are thinking of sacrificing their livelihoods to join the cause, “We cannot starve to death” — a reminder that even for a man who personally declares himself unwilling to compromise, sometimes concern for one’s fellow comrades trumps all.