At the end of February 2012, the number of mobile subscribers topped 1 billion in China, an average of around four out of every five people, and this number never stops increasing. What are the consequences of such popularity of a communication technology in China, the largest authoritarian state in the world? Among many things, the ubiquity of mobile phones in China, as in other authoritarian states, dramatically changes the way people experience and cope with everyday communication activities, offering unprecedented opportunities for them to expose discontent, air grievances, and coordinate online/offline collective resistance—in short, nourishing changes in political culture and power structure.
My study explores how people appropriate and use their mobile phones to initiate, organize, and mobilize collective resistance and popular protests in contemporary China. Specifically, my presentation will focus on mobile phone rumor as an emerging form of public resistance at the grassroots level in contemporary China. By focusing on several concrete case studies with 80+ in-depth interviews, my study observes that the low-cost and user-friendly mobile device lowers the average protest threshold, creating an opportunity for people, especially those without complicated communication skills, to organize or participate in resistance. The mutual visibility of meta-communication through mobile network greatly increases both credibility of information and sense of security for participation. Additionally, the synchronous mobile communication accumulates rumor discourse into resistance in a very short time. As a kind of contentious politics, rumor communication via mobile phones shows the opposition to government censorship and control of communications, and most important, the resistance against the use of the accusation of “rumor” by authorities to stifle any different voices.
Finally, I will highlight that both the Party-state mass media and the Internet in China tend to focus our gaze too much on “public” communications flows and their related public sphere, ignoring invisible but relevant interpersonal communication as well as the fact that the motivation and actions of human beingsare rooted in the experiences of everyday life.
Jun Liu just finished his Ph.D. study at University of Copenhagen and is currentlya visiting researcher in Stanford University. His research interest covers the relationship between media, contemporary culture, and political and social change in China with particular attention to the importance of new media andcommunications technologies including the Internet and mobile phones. He has a Ph.D. in Chinese studies. He has articles published and forthcoming in several academic journals, including Modern Asian Studies and the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.