The ban was the CPC's response to complaints by parents that the next generation would spend all its time hooked on video games, which would stunt its development. As a result, Chinese gamers are only legally permitted to play popular games in alternative formats on their home computer, or at internet cafes, which are hugely popular with Chinese youths.
This explains Activision's buisness strategy in China: make a game free to access, but charge real money for purchasing virtual items and upgrades within the game. Since the structure of China's video games market accentuates the collective, communal aspects of gaming, there is a potentially lucrative market for conspicuous consumption in cyberspace - and the more people playing the game, the stronger the reinforcement effects at work. This demand has in turn helped to fuel the growth of a strange cottage industry to supply it - I will return to this point later.
There are deeper forces underlying the home consoles ban than parents' moral panic. Specifically, the pervasive influence of a Canadian sociologist in the upper echelons of the CPC in the '80s and '90s, and his own brand of technological determinism, which seemed well-suited to explaining China's development.
The origins of China's computer industry can be found in the 1956 Twelve-Year Plan for the Development of Sciences and Technology. Initial developments in this field - like China's first operational computer, pictured below in 1959 - relied heavily on Soviet funding and technical expertise.
After the Sino-Soviet split, the Soviets left and China's computing industry, along with various other hi-tech fields, had to find its way through "self-reliance."
|DJS-2, one of China's earliest electronic digital computers|
By the end of the 1970s the Cultural Revolution was finished and, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China was preparing to undergo another social transformation in Chairman Mao's wake. Mass meetings were held in the universities to determine who ought to be there on academic merit. Here is a picture of one such "recruitment meeting" in 1977:
Reforms were enacted in every sector of the economy in order to dismantle (or at least, dilute) the emphasis on state micro-control of industry, the focus on heavy industry at the expense of other sectors, and the instability engendered by fear of periodic mass political campaigns and purges. All the while, Deng intended that the reforms would more safely secure, not diminish, the Party's monopoly on political power.
|Lucian W. Pye|
According to the renowned Sinologist Lucian W. Pye, the answer lies in certain continuities in Chinese political culture. In a fascinating article entitled 'On Chinese Pragmatism in the 1980s', Pye contests the commonplace that the Chinese are, politically, a uniquely pragmatic people who were forced to applaude utopianism under Mao but who, in the post-Mao era, have reverted to their default setting of "exceptional flexibility."
Instead, he argues that both periods of change - after 1949 and after 1978 - were facilitated by a particular kind of "Chinese pragmatism"; his premise is that there is no such thing as value-free, neutral pragmatism in politics, because pragmatic government entails taking the consensual features of a culture as given, including cultural assumptions about politics.
In sum, what matters is what works - but what works in the present and forseeable future; by itself, the fact that something did or did not work is no guide to current policy. Thus, Pye argues, if China made more successful economic decisions in the 1980s, it had less to do with learning the lessons of past failures than it did with more accurately perceiving the social and technological forces transforming the global economy.
|Democracy Wall: pilgrimage site for sceptics|
"Chinese pragmatism will be constantly vulnerable to the intrusion of ideological constraints, not just from its political opponents but even more from its own need to ensure that legitimacy depends not solely upon practical accomplishments. The suppression of the "democracy movement"...should not be read as a sign of the persisting power of "leftist" Maoists. The most pragmatic of the pragmatists knows that authority in China continues to need the support of a substantial dose of ideological faith, and hence there have to be severe limits on scepticism."
In 1980, a sociologist named Alvin Toffler wrote a book called The Third Wave, in which he argued that societies at or near the cutting-edge of technology need not fear being haunted by their past failures, because the future was going to be qualitatively different - and it was just around the corner.
Here is a picture of Toffler at the 1939 World's Fair in New York.
This meant that Toffler rejected "technocracy" as a feasible solution to society's ills. As he explained in an interview, any attempt to organise an entire society using a giant centralised computer - as the Soviets had tried to - was doomed to fail, because the very presence of the computer would induce people to change their behaviour, and seek to "game" the system (in his words, it "complexified" reality):
"That takes us to the computer. The early assumptions were that the giant brain was going to solve our problem for us, that it was going to get all this information together and that therefore life would be simplified. What it overlooked was the fact that computers also complexify reality. And of course this was a great disappointment to the Soviets because they were going to centrally plan their thing with a big computer."
Significantly, future-shock was a kind of affliction that Pye argued Chinese culture had built-in safeguards against: "To a significant degree Chinese culture is spared the tensions, which can be psychologically debilitating, that are common in cultures with more universalistic norms and in which behaviour in different situations has to be made to appear consistent with absolute principles."
I have found an utterly weird and wonderful documentary film from 1972 that attempts to reduce the message of Future Shock to its essentials, presented - why not? - by Orson Welles.
The Third Wave picks up where Future Shock left off. The title refers to Toffler's theory that three great "waves", powered by huge leaps forward in technological possibilities, shaped three unique civilisations - these were the transitions from hunter-gatherer to settled agricultural society, from agriculture to industry, and from "industrialism" to an emergent "information society."
Here is Toffler's introduction to a CBWT documentary on The Third Wave from 1983, the year its first Chinese translation appeared (starting at around 2:50):
The Third Wave was a bestseller in the PRC and its "social wave-front analysis" was widely studied and referenced in debates about the direction of post-Mao reform amongst intellectuals and Party elites. In High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng's China, Jing Wang examines its significance:
Toffler's optimistic message is that computers will render mass assembly-line production and non-renewable energy sources obsolete, and decentralise control over the means of production. Working from home in "electronic cottages", we will be able to reduce the pollution caused by unnecessary mobility and the alienation of rootless communities:
This is why Toffler's stadial theory of change caught on in China - since the 1980s it has been a land of extreme contrasts between persistently under-capitalised agriculture and futuristic high-end science (in Toffler's parlance, a country of polarised "wave-ratios"). And the CPC has been intent on avoiding the conventional route to modernisation - mass urbanisation - because it fears that, given China's population density, this would lead to mass dissatisfaction with the status quo and threaten its hold on power (Toffler saw the second-wave as an era of concentration, "the time of the great incarcerations").
The proliferation of computers and, subsequently, internet access was not just about levelling skills or personal empowerment - it was itself a means of securing the necessary public support to do this. Following Pye's reasoning, the Party's arch-modernisers wanted to demonstrate to their fellow nationals in a bold way that the world was undergoing this quantum leap - and so the practice of Communism must change also, without any logical inconsistency.
The insightfulness of Pye's analysis of "Chinese pragmatism" - his injunction that pragmatic politics and ideological coherence should be thought of as existing in tension but not necessarily opposition - becomes abundantly clear when we examine the fierce struggles within the PRC over ideological reform in the 1980s.
One of the central figures in the modernising "liberal" wing of the CPC frequently used Toffler's books as points of reference in Party debates. He was the Premier, Zhao Ziyang.
Zhao became the patron of reformist elites in China and established think-tanks to give intellectual heft to proposals for modernisation. Writing in 1986, Denis F. Simon saw the overriding priority of Zhao and his acolytes as being to rapidly catch-up to the West:
One of the main propaganda tools of these think-tanks was a Shanghai-based journal called The World Economic Herald. In their detailed article on China's technocratic movement, Li Cheng and Lynn T. White describe the pivotal role played by writers for the Herald:
|The televised arrest warrant for Fang Lizhi, 1989|
|Apple II computer in|
has noted, the paradox of arguing for less democracy in order to safeguard the process of democratisation was not lost on Chinese democrats at the time:
Another intellectual faction, known as the humanist Marxists, believed that the source of China's protest activity was the Party's "alienation" of its own supporters by its seemingly unprincipled u-turns, and its unconvincing attempt to blame a few individuals for its own catastrophic failings. At a CPC work conference in 1979, Wang Ruoshui, a spokesman for this tendency, argued that, "the fact that the masses dare not criticise the party is very harmful to the party and very dangerous."
Bill Brugger has drawn attention to "similarities between the diagnosis of radicals in China in the mid 1960s and humanist Marxists in the 1980s." Specifically, he argues that the two groups believed that the chief obstacle to achieving their respective visions of an ideal society (an offline and an online version of the Paris Commune) was resistance from an entrenched bureaucratic "New Class":
|Hu Yaobang dedication at the|
Monument to the People's Heroes
Whilst the ideological war waged on, the social pressures that had brought about Hu Yaobang's downfall had not gone away, and in 1989 they returned to haunt his successor. The student protest in Tiananmen Square had begun when a memorial service to Hu (who had died in 1987) turned into a collective demand that the Party exonerate him posthumously of all charges of being a "counter-revolutionary."
For weeks, a precarious stalemate ensued in what passed for dialogue between the government and the protesters. The demonstration became a crucial test of will for the rival Party factions - Zhao wrote in his memoirs that "The World Economic Herald honestly and correctly reported the events in Beijing, and was sympathetic to the fate of Yaobang" and, consequently, "On April 26, Shanghai CPC Secretary Jiang Zemin sacked its Chief Editor Qin Benli."
|The first internet connection in China, 1994|
He envisaged the rise of stricter parenting techniques, more responsibility demanded of children from an early age, and a less child-centred society overall.
The spread of computers into homes across China (see the graph for internet access below) has helped in some small way to diminish the probem of youth unemployment - but not as Toffler had predicted.
"Gold farmers" are workers, predominantly young men, who are usually contracted to work in a micro-enterprise - a "gaming workshop" (youxi gongzuoshi). The work involves playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, in 12-hour shifts for 6-7 days a week and collecting virtual "currency", avatars and other upgrades, which are sold for real money to cash-rich and time-poor gamers, mostly in developed countries.
According to a report in the New York Times, those engaged in gold farming do so at considerable risk:
Here is a talk by the documentary-maker Ge Jin on what he learned about gold farming whilst filming a documentary about it (some previews of which are available on YouTube).
The most important point Ge Jin makes is that, contrary to many of the bold predictions of technological determinists and futurologists, rather than leading to a revolutionary decentralisation of power in society, the new computer technologies seem to have merely replicated the hierarchy of power and control that exists in the real world, and transposed it onto a virtual space.
Richard Heeks, Professor of Development Informatics at the University of Manchester, makes a similar point in his study of gold farming:
It may yet have the potential to improve society insofar as it holds up a mirror and people can object to what they see. For example, he observes acutely that the torrent of criticism of Chinese gold farmers by other gamers on the grounds that they are contaminating an otherwise idealised "level playing-field" has the potential to become a critique of the very society that will not permit such an idealised space to exist. But just as there are no guarantees that the leap will be made, neither is there any reason to suppose "electronic cottages" make it any more likely.
What if, contrary to the moral outcry that accompanied the home consoles ban in 2000, video games are in fact highly effective tools for preparing young people to make their way in the real world but, contrary to the internet utopians, reality is sustained rather than transformed as a result?