Citizen Action in the Time of the Network


  • Nishant Shah

  • This paper draws on fieldwork supported by the Asia Scholarship Foundation's generous fellowship which allowed me to spend time and work in China. The support of friends and colleagues at the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Society, Taiwan, and the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Shanghai University, has been invaluable in the process. The experiences and data from that fieldwork, however, found a framework during conversations within the Hivos Knowledge Programme. The provocations offered by Kees Biekart and Alan Fowler through the Civic Exploration workshops at the Institute of Social Studies, The Netherlands have helped give further shape and foundation to the work. Much of the material cited in this paper is from sources in Mandarin Chinese and would have remained inaccessible to me without the generous help of Xia ChenYue who located and helped translate the material.


The recent rise of ‘digital activism’ has promoted a questioning of the existing relationships between state, markets, civil society and citizen action by developing new and networked ways of thinking. The network society has become the default context within which these acts of digital activism are located and understood. This contribution proposes that the newness in ‘Activisms 2010+’ is the imperative that the digital technologies put upon these events should be rendered intelligible, legible and accessible within the digital paradigm. There is a demand that local events, contextual histories and material practices should be made understandable and accountable to the global rhetoric of ‘spectacle’ that neglects, overrides and makes invisible acts that do not have the possibility of a spectacle. Through a case study of the ‘Shanzhai Spring Festival Gala’ in China, this article hopes to illustrate the need for a new conceptual framework and vocabulary to account for the new conditions of citizen action and the potentials for political change and intervention therein. It further suggests that the discourse around digital activism stop focusing on the new in terms of processes, spectacles and objects, and instead look at the new in conditions that make citizen action possible.