vol. 25 no. 4, December, 2020

Book Reviews

Wang, Jing. The other digital China: nonconfrontational activism on the social web. Harvard University Press, 2019. 312 p. ISBN 9780674980921. €36.00.

The author of this book is a wise and courageous woman. Jing Wang is Professor of Chinese Media and Cultural studies and leads the New Media Action Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has many other titles and received different awards for her scholarship, but what matters for this book is the fact that she is the founder of NGO2.0, a nonprofit organization in China, which is specialising in helping Chinese activists to master digital technology and social media for their purposes. She is the secretary general of this organization and leads it from her home in the United States.

It so happens that quite recently I was exposed to several different scholarly texts that seem to be discussing a similar phenomenon, a non-confrontational activism that harneses the possibilities opening up for making change in dominating cultures and power structures without antagonising them. These tactics allow those involved in gently subversive activities not only to achieve many of their goals (albeit slowly and without attracting much attention), but also avoid personal harm in any form. Jing Wang talks about such non-confrontational activism as a specific feature of Chinese culture, but she also expects to discover it in other totalitarian societies, which I can readily confirm as a witness having grown up in a similar social environment. I would add that the literature that came my way has explored a similar phenomenon even on Capitol Hill where women employees and representatives were slowly opening ways for women's issues in an organization dominated by white male culture (Pierce, 2014).

This book becomes interesting for the audience of Information Research because of the lens, through which the author explores this type of activism: the place social media is occupying and potentially can expand to in promoting the causes of the civil society and the place of digital literacy of the grassroots activists in China. The political environment in China, the programmes and projects pursued by its government, the conditions that are tightening or loosening up the ideological constraints for civil participation form an essential context of Chinese society, in which the author runs her NGO and conducts her study. The situation of the grassroots activists, the conditions of their work, including financial support and technological resources, as well as their struggles and aims are conceptualized within the existing power structure and culture. Both sides, the activists and the power structures, interact and affect each other, both are changing under various pressures. The adaptation to the changing circumstances and finding different methods to exploit opening opportunities are essential to small groups or real activists. Jing Wang draws a strict line between the governmental NGOs and the real grassroots NGOs existing in harsh conditions of scarcity of any resources. Her NGO2.0 aims to support the latter.

The book consists of six chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. The introduction and the first chapter explain the nature of the non-confrontational activism and the conditions, under which it operates. In the second chapter the author explains the object of her study; social media use by Chinese NGOs. The data from several surveys of how they have used social media explains their needs for digital literacy addressed by NGO2.0, which was created to help these small organizations in exploiting social media possibilities for promoting themselves, connecting with various partners, and finding funding. She and her associates contribute to understanding of the intertwining of social media and social action (p. 95). She also reflects on the role of a researcher as an activist in this chapter.

The chapters 3, 4, and 5 present a rich qualitative study of various cases. Chapter 3 concentrates on social-media-enabled philanthropy and the potential of different social media platforms for exploiting microcharity opportunities. It also presents the forms of individual activism on social media, the results of NGO2.0 activities enabling the small grassroots organizations to move from the static web to dynamic social media by training digital skills, creation of a philanthropy map as a way to connect the donors and NGOs, and collaboration between NGO2.0 and big ICT players. Chapter 4 looks into the phenomena of the millennials generation, which values entertainment and consumption, but at the same time derives fun and personal meanings from political actions and contribute to civil society goals by playing computer games. Chapter 5 focuses on the rise and development of makers and makerspace movement in China paying special attention to its manifestation in the sphere of digital technology, social media and connections with the tech for good movement and other players in this field.

The final chapter 6 was very interesting for me as Jing Wang discusses the participatory action research and the problems connected to it in general and in Chinese context in particular. This part relates the personal position of the author to methodological principles of action research and critically examines both. The NGO2.0 works as an experiment with collaborative research for social action thus blurring the boundaries between social action and research in principle. Several traditions of participatory action research are traced throughout the chapter, including the Marxist tradition of practice in Mao's revolution and black feminist theories explaining non-resistant nature of Chinese activism.

The conclusion draws all chapters together, but also provides the data evaluating the achievements of NGO2.0 over a decade since its inception. The author has created three indexes for evaluating the impact of NGO2.0 on the Chinese NGOs that collaborated with it and used its services: the transparency, the collaboration and innovation capability index. Each index consists of several concrete indicators that are easy to check through a self-reporting questionnaire. The results show that the experiment is far from failing despite all difficulties that it has met on the way.

The book is worth reading for the qualitative researchers even if they are not interested in China. It not only provides rich longitudinal results acquired through participatory action research, but is also a deep reflection into this specific methodology and makes a good case for it as opposed to other objective non-intrusive qualitative methodologies.


Pierce, R. (2014). Capital feminism: work, politics, and gender in Congress, 1960-1980. (Unpublished doctoral disertation). University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, US.

Elena Maceviciute

University of Borås
October, 2020

How to cite this review

Maceviciute, E. (2020). Review of: Wang, Jing.The other digital China: Nonconfrontational activism on the social web. Harvard University Press, 2019. Information Research, 25(4), review no. R701 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs701.html]

Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.