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Julian Gewirtz

Carpe Coin: Crowdfunding Could Change Chinese Politics

(AFP/Getty Images)
(AFP/Getty Images)

Crowdfunding, which allows web users to contribute small sums of money to fund collective projects like concerts and films, is taking off in China — and just how far it will go is more than a business question. By allowing netizens to vote with their renminbi, online crowdfunding could become an economic activity with political effects, bringing closer two separate spheres that rarely overlap in China. As a result, in the future, crowdfunding platforms could do more than make music; they may also help bring political changes to the country.

There’s no question crowdfunding is becoming a big commercial factor in China. Websites like DemoHour and Musikid already allow Chinese citizens to hold real-world events that might once have been economically unfeasible. These sites aren’t just for indie concerts — they also allow users to find projects that excite them and fund anything from refurbishing a Tibetan hostel, to producing an avant-garde film about gay life in Beijing, to developing a portable air-quality measuring device, with perks for donors if the project hits its goal. The Wall Street Journal reported on Jan. 6 that crowdfunding is “gradually catching on” there, while an October 2013 World Bank report predicts that the Chinese market could grow as large as $50 billion by 2025.

Crowdfunding proponents not only see nice profits ahead, but also argue that the innovation allows for new creative ventures. Some may be so creative that they border on the political. The Chinese Internet is already filled with examples of Chinese netizens repurposing seemingly innocuous new media, from Weibo (China’s Twitter) to online games, to express sensitive political views critical of the ruling Communist Party. For example, in 2009, the “grass mud horse” meme, which played on three common characters that were difficult to censor but were heteronyms for a Chinese profanity, went viral, with users of video sharing and microblogging sites appropriating the meme to lambast censorship of online political speech.

Creative netizens could also exploit crowdfunding platforms in unexpected ways. For example, if another earthquake strikes southern China, entrepreneurial citizens could use crowdfunding platforms to organize relief efforts independent of the government. Or residents of neighborhoods where developers are knocking down Beijing’s courtyard homes to build sleek skyscrapers could attempt to band together and raise money to protect their communities.

Some of what’s out there is already pushing boundaries. For example, an unemployed Chinese journalist, Yin Yusheng, announced in October 2013 that he intended to use crowdfunding to pay his salary while he worked independently on investigative reports. Cases like this may test the prospects of edgier crowdfunding projects.

Crowdfunding could also gradually tilt the Chinese Zeitgeist in the direction of greater democratic expectations. In a country where most people have never participated in a free election, crowdfunding echoes the democratic process: It allows a large group of individuals to express preferences, then view data aggregating all individual responses, which ultimately determines whether a proposed project comes to fruition.

Currently, Chinese political elections, when they happen, are confined to selecting local government leaders. Voting also occurs online, but mostly to select among pre-screened choices like talent contestants on popular television show Voice of China or “grassroots heroes” nominated by state media. But crowdfunding is different. It allows anyone to create a project that can be voted up or down; no one authority vets the slate. Projects that resonate with users can be over-voted: For example, many of DemoHour’s most popular projects have raised 500 percent or more of their original targets. These platforms thus create additional space for collective association not found in other votes. Users not only vote with their renminbi, but their decisions bring projects to life, then allow those who have contributed to meet offline, connecting netizens to a community of interest, and even a cause.

These developments are not likely to please the Communist Party. Starting in September 2013, Chinese authorities have clamped down on the Internet, criminalizing some online speech and harassing or jailing some of the most popular microbloggers who comment on political matters, which the government defines broadly. In spite of these disturbing and ongoing crackdowns, the Internet has undoubtedly changed China. It’s allowed individuals to give their viewpoints a voice, and showed people with minority opinions that they are not alone. Sometimes, the party stifles online political speech, but other times, authorities allow it. The presence of a new tool like crowdfunding has the potential to continue this ultimately positive dynamic, expanding its reach further into citizens’ lives.

Of course, the party will act swiftly against crowdfunding proposals that challenge Communist authority directly. But that doesn’t mean the government will necessarily shut down the whole industry, which may come to involve huge sums of money. Crowdfunding platforms are not just a way to share “cute cats” — they are a locus of monetary transactions and a frontier of the digital economy, with commercial uses possibly inseparable from their political potential. The World Bank hasdescribed crowdfunding as a crucial future source of innovation and job creation in developing countries, one that could help them “leapfrog developed countries.”

Decades ago, observers predicted that freer commerce in China would inevitably lead to political change. At the turn of the century, China-watchers made similar predictions about the rise of the Internet there. In both cases, observers were wrong, or at least they were right too early. But by combining the forces of commerce and the web, crowdfunding could help edge China toward political changes.

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Julian Gewirtz

Julian B. Gewirtz is a Rhodes scholar studying modern China at Oxford University.