How China tends its bonsai cyberspace

4 min read
Miniature penzai trees at Suzhou’s Humble Administrator’s Garden. (Image credit: Bigstock/AntIvan)

Some like to think of the Chinese internet as a garden.

The former deputy head of the Chinese government’s propaganda department and ex-internet czar Lu Wei, was prone to metaphor. In a 2013 speech addressed to the 13th Chinese Online Media Forum, he referred to Chinese cyberspace as a “spiritual garden which worships virtue and the good” and “castigate[s] the false, the bad, and the ugly.”

The grand gardens of ancient China aspired to the same purity. Recently, I visited a penzai (or bonsai) garden in Suzhou, the idyllic city an hour’s train ride from Shanghai, known as the “Venice of the East.” Penzai, a Chinese art form that uses cultivation techniques to produce miniature trees, is founded on a belief in order, harmony, and man-made perfection: If you pruned, trimmed, and grafted the tree in the right way, you could control the direction of its growth.

Behind the walls of their homes, Suzhou’s wealthy built elaborate landscapes filled with artificial mountains and lakes. Throughout the 13th century, Suzhou gardeners were instructed to “hide the vulgar” and “include the splendid” such that no rock formation was out of place, and each grotto was an ideal imitation of nature.

Just as Suzhou’s tranquil oases were particularly beloved during the chaos of the Ming Dynasty wars, in our age of internet trolls, fake news, and cyberterrorism, Lu’s rhetoric of contrived order has some allure: Build a Great Firewall. Keep them out. The wilderness outside the Great Firewall is a chaotic mess; this plot of idyllic greenery within displays orderly perfection.

Inside the wall is an enclosed ecosystem, operating by its own rules, opaque to the rest of the world. Most people living outside the country know and care little about it.

And yet, within the walls of this garden, nearly 700 million Chinese netizens are interacting on a handful of platforms, churning out data at an unprecedented rate: algorithmic fuel and fodder for technologies that we haven’t even begun to understand. The rise of American internet monoliths Google, Amazon, and Facebook may have revolutionized consumption, triggered revolutions, and tampered with elections, but China’s own trio of tech giants—Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent—will inevitably shape both the Chinese and global cyberspace in more unpredictable and maybe even bigger ways.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, a city at the fence of the garden, I have always occupied the position of both insider and outsider—at times stepping into the weeds, and at other times taking a step back to observe from afar. From this position, I see nuance and contradiction.

Those who do pay attention to China from outside understand Chinese cyberspace through one of two narratives. Either it’s the story of a China rising (“ripe for innovation, the country is a goldmine of shiny new gems for aspiring venture capitalists to monetize”) or else China as authoritarian wasteland (“the Big Bad authorities and its oppressed citizens are heading towards a Black Mirror-worthy doomsday”). Both conventional narratives speak in cold numbers or sweeping generalities—if it’s not all market penetration and IPOs, then it’s all cyber-sovereignty and control. Both emphasize the monolithic and reducible while overlooking the particular and the personal. They suck the humanity and fun out of it all.

The internet, journalist Virginia Heffernan claims, is a source of magic—“grander originality, more expansive community, and shrewder gameplay.” The Chinese internet, although highly regulated, is equally dynamic. In the last decade, it has become a greenhouse of fascinating new outgrowths: rural farmers livestream their stock to earn extra cash, middle-aged women transform into dating site moguls, aspiring writers are launched into fame via serialized online novels, genetic testing services function as glorified astrology tests.

How and should these internet “plants” be pruned? In the United States, their proliferation has been fueled by all kinds of cheap and artificial fertilizers, threatening the entire garden ecosystem. Among many Chinese people, particularly the older generation who lived through the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, there is a deep-seated desire for order and stability; many would like that stability to apply to the burgeoning online world. In contrast to American chaos, many Chinese users believe that somebody must do the pruning, even if it’s an army of heavy-handed gardeners who brutally and efficiently wipe out invasive weeds and budding flowers alike.

And then there is the trickier, aesthetic question of creative constraints: Do plants actually gain vigor by surviving the pruning process? Has the Chinese internet industry developed unique strengths in response to the constraints imposed on them?

Some say it allows for creativity to burgeon. For example, according to Kai-Fu Lee, China’s “market-driven” startup culture—in contrast to Silicon Valley’s internet environment—has yielded resilient fruit such as tech companies Didi, Meituan, and Jinri Toutiao. Whereas Silicon Valley entrepreneurs grew out of a kind of “wide-eyed techno-optimism, the belief that every person can change the world through innovative thinking,” pragmatic Chinese entrepreneurs are mostly driven not by fame or glory or to change the world but instead by the core motivation of getting rich.
In a country where the mission is most often rigidly dictated by those in power, Chinese tech startups do not have the luxury of lofty thinking—starting with an idealistic goal and building a company around that. Instead, their approach is driven by profit: create any product, adopt any model, and then go into a business that will make money. Will this method yield a spiritual garden or a cultural wasteland?

I don’t know. But what I do know is this: Plants, particularly those at the margins, don’t always grow as you’d expect; sometimes a branch sprouts one direction, at times the other. Just as I am intrigued by bonsai gardens, I am fascinated by the margins of the Chinese internet. What strange plants are growing within the walled garden and what will they become?