Digitisation and Its Asian Discontents: The Internet, Politics and Hacking in China and Indonesia by Jeroen de Kloet
Given its transnational character the Internet is often perceived as a technology that will challenge the frontiers of the nation-state. Asian governments, however, eagerly include the Internet in their policies, thereby inscribing this technology into the narrative of the nation-state. In this article I argue that such uses of the Internet to legitimise governments and their policies deserve as much attention as globalised movements that at times challenge such policies. More empirically grounded research - that moves beyond the utopian/dystopian, online/offline and virtual/real dichotomies - is important to grasp such contradictory uses of the Internet. Studies located outside the U.S. and Europe, the places that dominate Internet studies, will prove of crucial value in rethinking the roles of the Internet in society.
Even though cyberspace can easily be imagined to be quintessentially global where time and space dissolve, "reality" turns out to be different. Cyberspace is predominantly colonised by the West, leaving little space to the Rest. However, this imbalance seems to be gradually changing, given, for example, the more pro-active role of governments in Asia towards information and communication technologies (ICT) when compared to Western governments . After briefly elaborating on the current imbalance of Internet use across the globe in terms of connectivity, this article seeks to discuss the role of the Internet vis-à-vis the Chinese and Indonesian nation-state. In both popular and academic discourse, the Internet is often considered to have a profound impact upon the nation-state. In its utopian version, the Internet is seen as the saviour of democracy; in its dystopian version, it dissolves national boundaries resulting in the crisis of the nation-state.
The inspiring work of Manuel Castells comes close to a dystopian reading of the role of ICT in relation to the nation-state. In Castells' view, "global financial networks are the nerve center of informational capitalism" . Linking this to a crisis of the nation-state, he says: "the main transformation concerns the crisis of the nation-state as a sovereign entity, and the related crisis of political democracy" . Castells is not alone in proclaiming the crisis of the nation-state, nor is he the only one predicting a future for a transnational network society, in which global financial markets coexist alongside global social movements. Both Arjun Appadurai (1996) and Saskia Sassen (2002) come up with similar interpretations. What emerges in such analyses is a future world where the nation-state slowly loses its significance, where global networks take over control, and where the individual prevails above the collective.
In this article I will embark upon a short study of the Chinese and Indonesian governments' position towards the Internet. I will show how the Asian governmental claims inscribed into Internet technology are countered by globalised social movements that, in line with Castell's reasoning, oppose the nation-state. Finally, I will show how Chinese and Indonesian hackers at times challenge their government, while at other times they act pretty much along the same ideological line. Consequently, the Internet is used both to support as well as to counter the frontiers of the nation-state. In the conclusion I argue in favour of a move to studies outside the West - that up to now dominate Internet research. When we pay more attention to the uses of the Internet outside the West, it is crucial to move beyond three dichotomies that remain so pervasive in both journalistic and academic discourse: Online versus offline, virtual versus real and utopian versus dystopian. A move beyond these binaries in studies that are located outside either the U.S. or Europe will prove of additional value if we aim to rethink the implications of the Internet upon the nation-state and its citizens.
Figures and Users
As becomes clear from the statistics presented in Table 1, the World Wide Web is anything but truly encompassing the entire globe.
Million of users Percentage of users World Total 513 8.5 Canada & U.S. 181 57.3 Europe 155 21.3 Latin America 25 4.8 Asia/Pacific/Middle East 149 4.0 Africa 4 0.5
When focusing on Asia itself, there is - of course - a clear division between the "developed" economies - South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan - compared to the "developing" ones, among which China and Indonesia. Table 2 presents the level of connectivity in a selected number of Asian countries.
Million of users Percentage of users Bangladesh 0.07 0.02 China 33.7 2.70 Hong Kong 3.93 54.5 India 5.0 0.49 Indonesia 2.0 0.88 Japan 47.08 37.2 Malaysia 3.7 17.0 Nepal 0.05 0.2 Pakistan 1.2 0.85 Philippines 2.0 2.46 Singapore 1.12 49.3 South Korea 22.2 46.4 Sri Lanka 0.121 0.63 Taiwan 11.6 51.8 Thailand 1.2 1.96 Vietnam 0.1 0.13
In particular, China ranks comparatively high among the developing economies in Asia. As can be expected, the statistics over the past years of Internet use in both China and Indonesia show a rapid growth. For example, the number of users in China has grown over the past 3 years from 1 to 33 million (CNNIC, 2002) .
What the figures suggest is that till today there are tremendous differences in connectivity, at a global level (between the West and the Non-West), at a regional level (between the "developed" and "developing" economies of Asia), as well as at a national level (in China, for example, the western region is far less connected when compared to the coastal region). Both in popular as well as in academic discourse this is frequently captured under the term "The Digital Divide." In the words of an USAID report, "more and more concern is being shown about the impact of those left on the other side of the digital divide - the division between the information 'haves' and 'have nots'" . The narrative of the digital divide and the underlying aspiration of digital inclusion is anything but typically Western . Indicative are the following words from a book on a Chinese Internet café :"The future brushes past our shoulders in a flying speed. The only choice we have is speed up and speed up. Everyone of us has inevitably become a racer with time."
Here, the Internet is presented as something that is sweeping like a strong wind over the country, leaving no choice but joining the hype. Indeed, figures suggest that China is gradually "bridging" (to use yet another seductive metaphor) the digital divide.
My own experiences over the past ten years support the figures. In particular Haidian District in north-west Beijing is not quite what it used to be in 1992. Restaurants disappeared and small vendors moved elsewhere. Instead, when we walk through the streets of Haidian, it is easy to believe we are indeed witnessing another cultural revolution. We will pass Internet café's (most of them illegal  with hundreds of computers, occupied by the new post-communist generation; we walk through shopping malls packed with computer shops and on the street people will follow us, trying to sell the most recent illegal software. As Barmé and Ye (1997) remark, a bit too exaggerated but still indicative, whereas in the past people greeted one another asking "have you eaten" (ni chifanle ma?), now people ask "are you online?" (ni shangwangle ma?). Many of them are, by now, online - although, "many" here refers mainly to those that will occupy key positions in China's economic, political and cultural future. A study by Guo Liang and Bu Wei shows that to date, the Chinese Internet user can be described as highly educated (more than 50 percent tertiary educated or above), male (60.7 percent), young (average age of 27), single (more than 60 percent), it is a Han Chinese who lives in a big city in East China .
The assertion that, given the higher adaptation speed in the non-West, the difference between Asia and the West seems to be slowly diminishing can be factually true (in terms of connectivity), yet needs to be read with caution. It does not offer insights in the specific uses of the Internet, nor does it say much about the users. The demographic characteristics of the users, and related patterns of in- and exclusion, coupled to specific patterns of usage, deserve further study - without assuming that access to the Internet is indispensable as to become part of our "knowledge society" (see also Loader, 1998) .
As a final note I would like to point to the rhetoric implications of statistics. It surprises me how prominent they figure in journalistic accounts of the Internet. The numbers always evoke the same image: that of a rapidly widening World Wide Web that is truly encompassing the entire globe. The figures resonate well with utopian images of a World Wide Web that is radically changing our world. But figures only make sense when we understand the uses and the users. Consequently, careless use of such numbers might make our interpretations more, rather than less, fuzzy.
Politics and Fights
In 1999 the Chinese Communist Party launched a "government online project" (zhengfu shangwang), that aimed that by the end of 2000, 80 percent of its departments had to be online . Indeed, by now most of the departments are online with sites that are sponsored by Microsoft, IBM and Legend. Some argue that, in particular due to the inclusion of bulletin board systems on some of the sites, the Internet functions as a Trojan horse (Barmé and Ye, 1997). Notions such as increased transparency and democracy may merely serve as ideological veils, the pro-active role of the Chinese nation-state when it comes to the Internet might best be considered as yet another performative attempt to legitimise its power (see also Zhang, 2001). Most interesting here is the belief in and importance attached to the Internet that is reflected in such a policy, a belief that also comes back in the following statement of an official: "we in the government think we missed a lot of the industrial revolution. And we don't want to miss the digital revolution!" (in Hachigian, 2001). Once again technology links up with the project of the nation-state, but now the railways and assembly lines are replaced by bits and bytes.
When we move further down South to Indonesia we can trace a similar enthusiasm for and belief in the liberating potentials of the Internet. Here, the Internet is inscribed into the ideologies of democratisation, reformasi and development, core notions of the Post-Suharto regime. The Internet is envisioned to link Indonesia to the outside world and thus grant it a share of that sweet cake called global capitalism. The Internet is interpreted by both academics and politicians as a vehicle to combat the Asian crisis as well as a tool to build up a new political system. The Internet is perceived to have the power to fight against Indonesia's KKN culture: collusion, corruption and nepotism. In the words of academic Partowidagdo, "ICT has a potential role in Indonesia's reformation (...) Indonesia needs to learn from the experiences of other countries in applying ICT to achieve good governance and maximise public participation" (Partowidagdo, 2001).
Thus, the Internet is believed to serve as a political vehicle for both the Chinese and the Indonesian government. What about the uses, both local and global, of the Internet that oppose the same nation-state? The story that dominates the Western media when it comes to the Internet in China runs like a mantra around issues of censorship: the government forces Internet cafés to close down; another 100 sites are banned or cyber-activists are arrested for promoting democracy or the beliefs of the Falungong - the quasi-religious sect led by the Chinese guru Li Hongzhi based in the U.S. The Internet plays indeed a crucial role for the latter transnational social/religious movement, and serves as a salient example of Castells' thesis on the important role of social movements in our globalised network society. Another example of the politically subversive role of the Internet comes from Indonesia. The fall of Suharto's New Order regime was said to be backed up by an e-mail list providing the intellectual elite of Indonesia with the right ammunition to counter the propaganda machine of Suharto. That list, titled the Apakabar list, was moderated by an American from Maryland in the United States. Authors claim that the list, on which Bahasa Indonesia was the main language, played a crucial role in the fall of the regime (Harsono, 1996; Sen and Hill, 2000).
It is tempting to celebrate such cases of political revolt against rather repressive regimes - although I must add that the label repressive remains far too generalising as it ignores the complex factional politics in both countries. But to single out such transnational cyberpolitics from below also presents a rather skewed view on what is happening on the Internet. As I have shown, political regimes are as eager as social and religious movements to use the Internet to strengthen their position.
Interestingly, whereas the governments of China and Indonesia ascribe such a utopian, positive role to the Internet - and their voices very much resemble the policies of development organisations such as the World Bank that considers access to the Internet as an important tool for change and development - the writings of social scientists like Manuel Castells, as mentioned in the introduction, carry a more dystopian tone. Both the utopian as well as the dystopian view on the relation between the Internet and the nation-state and its citizens remain by and large theoretical fictions that ask for further grounding in sound empirical data.
I do not want to show how the Internet serves the state more than the people. My point here is fairly straightforward: parallel to the emergence of transnational networks that at times challenge and subvert political regimes are the uses of the Internet by these same regimes to legitimise and consolidate their power. The Internet does not seem to eliminate national borders and geographical distance. Not only the state itself, also the use of the Internet by its citizens are a case in point. In a comparative study between mailings of Chinese and Americans on the plane incident of 1 April 2001 (a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter had collided), Randy Kluver shows how fierce feelings of nationalism fuelled both camps. "In a time of international crisis, the Internet did little to alleviate tensions" . It makes the author conclude that "the technological optimism which sees in the Internet the end of nationalism and parochialism is grounded not only in a romantic understanding of human motivation, but also an unrealistic understanding of how the Internet functions as a medium for human interaction" . However, the Internet might do little to alleviate tensions, it does offer a new means to release nationalist longings, thereby serving as a sort of safety valve.
The transnational network society of Castells, and in particular his idea of the weakening of the nation-state, has to be rethought. There is a need for more contextualised, empirically grounded and culturally sensitive analyses in which we - for example - acknowledge the power of the Internet both to reinforce and at the same time to threaten the project of the nation-state. Only when we allow ourselves to think in such paradoxes can we grasp the complex workings of technology in society.
Hacking and Carding
The global hacker community provides another salient example to illustrate the paradoxical workings of the Internet in relation to the nation-state. Wenas is an Indonesian hacker who was arrested in July 2001 in Singapore for breaking into a database. Wenas is part of the antihackerlink-group, a group of hackers that operates outside the corporate system (and thus refuses to help companies securing their systems) . Hacking is not new in Indonesia; in the early 1990s Portugese hackers named TOXYN infiltrated a number of Indonesian government Web sites to fight against the occupation of East Timor. Indonesian hackers replied in turn by infiltrating in Portugese servers that hosted the East Timor movement . It shows again, like the earlier mentioned cyberwar over the plane incident in China, how the Internet facilitates nationalist fights and that hackers can act up very much in line with the government, despite their rebellious image. Another salient example of the political use of the Internet appeared in May 2001 when a group of Muslim hackers - named Cyberjihad - cracked the Web site of the Indonesian police to force them to free a militant Muslim leader . Here, the hackers act against the nation-state. All examples underline that the cosy and warm virtual communities of Howard Rheingold are at most naïve and romantic cyber utopias.
What damage was done in the U.S./China hacker war of April and May 2001 that raged over the World Wide Web following the plane incident? Often the attacks were rather playful, like replacing the American flag by a Chinese one on the U.S. government Web sites. But U.S. government sites were also blocked, a computer system in California was successfully attacked from Guangzhou and some say that the Code Red Worm and Lion Worm viruses came from China as a response to the plane incident. In China, sina.com - one of the most popular portals - was attacked and out of service, and the Xinhua news agency Web site, as well as sites from local governments, were successfully attacked (in The Happy Hacker, 2001). According to the hacker (heike) Gao Jianfei, the U.S. hackers' attitude is indicative of the U.S. itself (in Delio, 2001) :"I am very angry. As a Chinese, I will not let anyone do this to my country. (...) This is a sign of American imperialism. Every Chinese who has any sense would not just sit there and watch this happen. And those of us who are capable of doing anything should do all we can."
Now the war has cooled down, but Gao Jianfei warns the world (in Delio, 2001):"We stopped hacking activities against the Americans, but in the future we will rise up against anyone who dares to threaten our sovereignty."
Hacktivism can easily take a fervent nationalistic or religious face. And hacktivism does not always involve global struggles that resemble The West versus the Rest. There have been similar cyberwars between China and Indonesia, China and Taiwan and China and Japan. Furthermore, hackers' interests are not necessarily framed by nationalism, they also fight against global capitalism by attacking big multinationals or they hack their own government. In October 2001 a hacker was detained in China after replacing the content of government Web sites with pornography.
Back to Indonesia and the new species of the electronic underground: the carder. There is now a widespread theft of credit card numbers in Indonesia, with which carders buy all sorts of items on the Internet. For example a Harley Davidson, that was indeed shipped and - after bribery of the officials - delivered to the carder. Or dozens of laptops, to be sold on the black market. Actually, in order to attract customers, many Warnets - Internet cafés - give away files with a list of credit card numbers as a special service. Carders, like hackers, take on a sort of electronic Robin Hood image, for example Hasan who says :"I only choose those people who are truly rich. I'm not comfortable using the money of poor people. I also don't want to use credit cards belonging to Indonesians. Those are a carder's ethics."
The Cyberjihad hackers as well as the carders from Indonesia, like their Chinese colleagues, frame their activities firmly into the narrative of the nation-state. This at times turns against the country itself: Indonesia was banned for some time from e-Bay auctions after a carder had manipulated sellers under a false identity and card number, thereby upsetting - albeit in a symbolic way - virtual global capitalism (Lim, 2001). His act was not applauded in Indonesia, it was seen as yet another confirmation of the popular saying Internet = Indonesia terkenal negatif terus (Internet = Indonesia always known for the negative) .
What my short and incomplete overview of the electronic underground of China and Indonesia shows is how ICT is used both to subvert as well as to support the nation-state . It serves as yet another warning against universal claims of what the Internet means; it shows that caution is needed if we are to celebrate the subversive potentials of the Internet; and finally, it shows that rather than being located outside reality, the Internet can and should be conceived as one of its constitutive forces (cf. Miller and Slater, 2000). The Internet both displays and constructs reality.
I have argued in favour of a more contextualised, culturally sensitive analysis in which we should allow ourselves to acknowledge both the power of the Internet to reinforce the project of the nation-state, as well as to account for the threats it poses to the same nation-state. By thinking in such paradoxes we may be better equipped to grasp the complex workings of technology in society. A contextualised analysis allows us to understand the specific uses, such as governments using the Internet to reach the citizen; or Chinese hackers challenging both the U.S. and local authorities; or carders upsetting cyber auctions. If I speak of culturally sensitive, I do not wish to imply that we ought to focus solely on the specific, on the particular, as this would run the danger that we end up essentializing and exoticizing culture.
To further grasp the subtleties of the Internet in society there is a pressing need to explore its uses in Africa, Asia and Latin America. For the most part, the domain of Internet studies is very much dominated by the U.S., to be followed by Europe. Studies beyond the West might provide further understanding of the societal roles of the Internet, for example in processes of globalisation and (religious) nationalism. Most available studies that focus on the non-West are framed in terms of access, relevant content and development. However valuable such studies are, a wider range of topics deserve a place on the research agenda as to avoid reification of the distinction between the "developed West" and the "developing Rest."
As a starting point for future research I would like to suggest a move beyond the following dichotomies that frame up to now so many Internet studies (see also: Miller and Slater, 2000; Slama, 2001):
- Online versus Offline
Only when we study how the Internet is integrated into practices of everyday life will we be able to grasp its significance. In Indonesian Internet cafés, chatting is the most popular activity. The chat is most successfully performed when the prospect of an in-real-life (IRL) meeting is there (Slama, 2001). "Honest" identity performances are appreciated more than forging one's identity - and American "postmodern" academics such as Sherry Turkle and Judith Butler might be slightly disappointed here.
Indicative for the importance of the context in which people surf the Internet is the difference between Indonesian and Chinese internet cafés. Whereas in Indonesia most cafés offer maximum privacy to the users by fencing off each computer - thus offering them the opportunity to chat freely and visit porn sites - in China such cafés are extremely rare. Like most other countries, in Chinese Internet cafés the computers are positioned in rows, offering limited privacy. Hence, for those who access the Internet in Internet cafés, surfing the World Wide Web in China is a very different experience than surfing it in Indonesia (see Figures 1 and 2).
Figure 1: Feiyu Internet Café in Beijing, China (September 2001, picture by the author)
Consequently, we should move beyond a simple dichotomy online - offline, both in theory as well as in our methods. The settings in which the Internet is used deserve as much attention as the Internet itself.
Figure 2: Internet Café in Yogyakarta, Indonesia (September 2001, picture by the author)
- Virtual versus Real
But when we acknowledge that the Internet is not so much located outside reality as one of its constitutive forces, we are bound to give up the distinction between the virtual versus the real. I am in general highly suspicious of redefining existing terms - that is, I doubt whether it is sufficient to say that virtual is as real as reality, neither does Castells' academic lingo as "real virtuality" bring us very far. We need to search for better terms, or use the current ones more carefully, as to analyse how people engage with the Internet in their everyday life. A mediated life through the Internet is not the same as life when we walk on the streets of, say, Beijing - but both are part of our everyday reality. To label one as virtual and the other as real both dismisses the reality of our imagination as it does ignore the imaginations of reality. It is important that, if we insist on using these terms, we do so with the utmost care and precision.
- Utopian versus Dystopian
New technologies spark off futuristic fantasies that are merely reflections - or better, projections - of desires and fears that are very much located in the contemporary. Civilisation and the modernistic project of (technological) progress certainly has its discontents, as Freud reminds us, and the eager projection of these upon technology might help explain the dystopian interpretations of the impact of the Internet. Just as the utopian accounts of the future role of the Internet - that it will make the world a better place to live in - are fed by a belief in progress and, thus, civilisation. If we are to analyse the impact of the Internet upon society, we'd better try to be highly critical of any topia.
It is important, I think, to read critical against the u/dys/topian claims that are being made, to avoid separating the world into real or virtual, into online or offline. It helps to acknowledge both the nationalistic forces mediated through the Internet, as well as the global or transnational social movements that at times counter such forces. To grasp contemporary processes of digitisation by tracing both its contents and its discontents might bring us a little closer to what is at stake. And a move to places outside the West will prove of crucial value if we aim to embark upon such an attempt to rethink the role of the Internet in society.
About the Author
Jeroen de Kloet is an Assistant Professor in Communication Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
Research for this article has been carried out as part of the project "Internet, Education and Development" by the International Institute of Infonomics (www.infonomics.nl). I am grateful to Myriam Diocaretz, Jan Bierhoff, Hans Koolmees and Jamal Shahin for their valuable comments. Both Patricia Spyer and Martin Slama have encouraged me a lot to include Indonesia in this study. The critical reading of Chow Yiufai has pushed me to sharpen the argument, whereas both Giselinde Kuipers and Rishab Ghosh have stimulated me to keep on writing.
4. Since NUA does not provide percentages over the distinguished regions, population statistics are used (www.prb.org) to calculate these. It goes without saying that the percentages are at most indicative for the continental differences, rather than presenting accurate figures.
5. Statistics on connectivity are remarkably fuzzy, for example, whereas NUA lists two million users for Indonesia in July 2000, the ITU says at that time 400,000 Indonesians were connected. Like in Table 1, the figures at most hint at differences, more than that they accurately reflect connectivity. The figures listed in this table are the most recent ones (ranging from 2000 to 2002), which also affects the comparability.
6. The CNNIC (China Internet Network Information Center) is supported by the Chinese government. Their figures have recently been questioned and were considered to be overtly optimistic. It was suggested that the numbers were used by the government to paint a picture of rapid progress.
8. To conceptualize differences in connectivity under one sweeping term "the digital divide" involves a rigid and problematic dichotomization of figures of connectivity. First, it indirectly suggests that one's desired state of existence should include ICT, once again imposing specific, technologized "Western" realities upon the "non-West." Second, by conceptualising access to the Internet in such sweeping terms, one too easily falls into the trap of technological determinism - "in which technologies emerge as if from nowhere and then proceed to transform the society in which they are diffused" (Henwood et al., 2000, p. 8). Third, the narrative of continued growth of the Internet, with its underlying trickle-down rationale, can be and has been questioned (Haywood, 1998; Thomas and Wyatt 2000).
10. When an illegal café burned down in mid-June 2002, more than 20 customers were killed in the fire. The government subsequently seized the opportunity to close down illegal Internet cafés throughout the country.
12. The focus on "knowledge" and "information" when it comes to the Internet reveals a utilitarian view that runs the danger of ignoring other, equally important, uses. As Jones (1999: p. 2) remarks, "The Internet is not an information highway; it is in reality only peripherally about information.(...) The Internet is a social space, a milieu, made up of, and made possible by, communication." Pornography, for example, remains very much an understudied topic in Internet research, whereas it has been one of the most important forms of content that has very much steered the development of the Internet.
13. Zhang, 2001, p. 14; Despite the proactive role of the Chinese Communist Party, President Jiang Zemin declared he still had trouble operating the computer: "As an electrical engineer it is not a problem for me to surf the Net, but I have to admit that it is quite difficult for me to work with the mouse" (New York Times 10 August 2001).
19. The word heike is not only a monophone but also has its Chinese connotations; Hei stands for black, Ke for visitor, so a black visitor. Ke is also used in the literary genre Xiake: novels that celebrate heroism with chivalric swordsmen fighting injustice, often set in an imaginary past. The linguistic reference underlines the romantic and chivalrous connotations of the Chinese translation of hacker.
22. Examples of Chinese hacker sites that deserve further study are www.hackersabc.com; www.cnhacker.com, www.cnlanker.net, www.chinahacker.net; Indonesian hacker sites include www.tuxedo.org, www.k-elektronik.org, and http://steven.haryan.to/hacker-howto.id.html.
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Paper received 17 July 2002; accepted 14 August 2002.
Copyright ©2002, First Monday
Copyright ©2002, Jeroen de Kloet
Digitisation and Its Asian Discontents: The Internet, Politics and Hacking in China and Indonesia by Jeroen de Kloet
First Monday, volume 7, number 9 (September 2002),
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.