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Journal of Law and Policy

Abstract

Political observers commonly argue that, given the unique characteristics of the Internet, democratization is an inevitability of its widespread use. The critical role that social media played in the wave of demonstrations, protests, and revolutions that swept across the Arab world in 2011 cemented this perception in the minds of many. Yet China defies this simplistic paradigm—China has been stunningly successful at constraining the political power of its Internet. We argue that the political importance of Internet technology has been overstated, particularly with respect to China. As support for this thesis, we cite recent political events in Hong Kong known as the “Umbrella Revolution,” arguing that the failure of these protests to spark wider unrest in the remainder of China—or even among the greater Hong Kong population—belies the simplistic notion that the Internet is a technological blueprint for political transformation irrespective of a society’s particular socio-economic, political, and historical characteristics. The ability of the Internet to mobilize civil disobedience is extremely limited and easily contained but for circumstances where the population is already highly mobilized.

Prior to the Hong Kong protests, the international community had yet to witness a Chinese society boasting an advanced use of Internet technology engaging in large-scale public protest. As such, the protests provided an opportunity to test this Internet-democratization thesis in a Chinese context. We argue that the failure of the Hong Kong protests to galvanize wider dissent, even within this unique pocket of China afforded legal and technological advantages not available elsewhere in the country, suggests that different results should not be expected in the rest of China and that the popular Internet-democratization thesis is an unwarranted assumption. The thesis cannot be overgeneralized irrespective of cultural conditions. Some societies are very good at pacifying the democratizing potential of the Internet. The failure of the Hong Kong protests shows this.