Chinese Women and the Cyberspace

Author:   Khun Eng Kuah-Pearce
Publisher:   Amsterdam University Press
Reviewer:   Abhay Chawla
Designation:   Researcher

Chinese Women and the Cyberspace, Edited by Khun Eng Kuah-Pearce, Amsterdam University Press, 2008, ISBN-13: 978-9053567517

Reviewed by Abhay Chawla*

Cyberspace originated from "cybernetics" a word introduced by Norbert Wiener for his pioneering work in electronic communication and control science(wiki). Oxford Dictionaries defines cyberspace as the notional environment in which communication over computer  networks occurs.  Webopedia,com elaborates; like physical space, cyberspace contains  objects  (files, mail messages,graphics, etc.) and different modes of transportation and delivery. Unlike real space, though, exploring cyberspace does not require any physical movement other than pressing keys on a keyboard or moving a mouse.

Consisting of twelve chapters divided into two sections the first of its kind book on oriental women in cyberspace covers aspects of Chinese women both in Mainland China and outside with regards to the significant current socio-economic and political environment and how these women explore and negotiate the cyber-highway for their needs. While the first section deals with work, leisure, politics and identity, the second discusses love, sex and marriage. The book broadly covers both rural and urban settings as well as most areas under the rubric of cyberspace engagement.

Most of the early research on cyberspace has been either done in the western context or by western scholars. The east especially the two most populous countries, India and China are now playing catch. This book has research papers from an international symposium in 2004 on the theme: ‘Log on: Chinese women and the cyber-networks’ that was organized under the Centre for Anthropological Research at the University of Hong Kong. Published in 2008 it could be deemed outdated vis a vis the pace with which web technology has moved yet it is topical with much relevance to the Indian context.

The Internet has become an important gadget for the young and educated. The importance of Internet can be understood from the fact that in June 2007, China had 162 million Internet users, representing a penetration rate of 12.3 per cent (Xinhua 2007a). As in 2007, more than 70 percent of these Internet users were under 30 years old, and 58.3 per cent of them were male The two largest age groups for users were eighteen to 24, with 35.2 per cent, and 25 to 30, with 19.7 per cent. There is a gender divide in terms of the usage of Internet yet it seems that is being bridged. Internet has been both a boon and a bane for the Chinese women who have been informants for the studies on which these research papers contained in this book have been written on.


Internet is the most unregulated communication network in today’s world, presenting immense challenges to national and international regulation and enforcement. Legislation controlling the usage of the Internet is still very immature in the global community. Nevertheless many governments have set up regulations and conducted crackdown campaigns against unlawful activities conducted via the Internet. In the chapter On Sale Package, Chinese Female Bodies as Commodoties in Cyberspace, Leung Maggi W H writes about how sharing of sex tour experiences is only one of the many diverse Internet usages that relate to the trading of female bodies and their images online.  She charts the reach of Internet pornography, online prostitution and other forms of female-trading (e.g., mail-order brides) with emphasis on the situation of Chinese women in the national context and global market. She explains how the new communication and information technologies has brought about a global revolution in the access to, and exchange of, information on practically all branches of the economy and how the sex industry has been eager and effective in adopting every new IT technology to enhance their business.

Inspite of the above the cyberspace allows Chinese women to meet men whom they cannot reach otherwise, or at least not so easily. As in the chapter Sex & Life Politics Formed Through the Internet:Online & Offline Dating Experiences of Young Women in Shanghai the authors PEI Yuxin & HO Sik Ying show how cyber activities have become a part of the everyday life of their women informants and how these women use them for their life politics. They use cyber contact or cyber flirting as a tool to approach their potential sexual partners, and to change their offline lives, including their sexual lives, as well as their social and economical status.

These informants are able to formulate multiple strategies from their online experiences communicating with many different men and in the absence of this they would not have had such rich experiences or come up with so many strategies. This study sheds light on how women struggle to survive in a big city by making use of sex and whatever limited resources they have. The sexual relations and experiences are then used for personal growth and social positioning. Sex via the Internet is not just about sex. It is also their politics. Net love is such a rage that the Chinese mass media has a term for it, ‘wanglian’.

The cyberspace is used by the Chinese women for forming myriad online communities and as Wellman stated, computer networks are inarguably social networks, ‘loosely bounded

and sparsely knit’ which help to increase people’s social capital. However along with Giulia she argued that besides the above, people also bring their ‘gender, stage in life cycle, cultural

milieu, socioeconomic status, and offline connections to their online relationships. It is not like a whole new society getting formed online.

In the chapter Electronic Park Benches:Online Mothers in Hong Kong Using the Baby Kingdom, Caplan Victoria writes about how Pregnant Chinese women and mothers in Hong Kong have begun to use the Baby Kingdom as a springboard to exercise their power in the household and in the broader community, a sort of an ‘electronic park bench’ where women meet, gossip, exchange information and stories, plan later meetings, swap or sell goods, and even plan for political action.

She explains why communication in Chinese on the Internet is not easy due to technology issues and hence why some women write in English occasionally not knowing how to input Chinese characters or a they lack of Chinese software at home or in the office. The replies received are usually in Chinese, which they answer in English. It is not uncommon for writers to intersperse the use of Chinese with some English words. Hence it is a new venue for community supplementing the other ways of meeting and relating in real life. As such, it can be a source of empowerment, as women learn and share information, ideas, and experiences.


The author goes on to add that with the empowerment the site provides it is also is a place where oppressive norms and practices are perpetuated for example exercising unreasonable power over foreign domestic helpers, or working to keep women without Hong Kong ID cards from giving birth in public hospitals.

In the chapter Cyberactivism in the Women’s Movement: A Comparison of Feminist Practices by Women Organizing in Mainland China and Hong Kong, LIU Ting explores the issue of cyberactivism in the complex cultural context of contemporary China, Specifically Chinese cyber feminist activism as it responds to and functions within different underlying political

and economic conditions. The chapter explores the emergence of feminist activities in cyberspace across websites maintained by nine feminist websites in China and two in Hong Kong. The author states that the feminist websites were all established with the explicit goals of furthering gender equality and/or protecting women’s interests.

Tang Wesley Siu-hang & Ho Petula Sik-ying in their chapter Cyber Self-centres? Young Hong Kong women and their personal websites write about how gender implication being often overlooked by researchers who analyze the sociocultural influences of emerging digital media i.e. online diaries and personal websites. Most popular assumptions made are about how the Internet allows users especially women to express and actualize themselves. However from the interviews of the women the authors feel that Cyberspace besides providing a highly-accessible medium for computer literate young women also set the limits of such freedom: such resistance is by and large set by the ‘real’ society they are living in and the kind of gender socialization that they have been subject to.


The social and communal support they have received from their self-representation projects in cyberspace (on-screen) is not particularly helpful to these young women in the way they deal with various kinds of performative constraints in their real life settings (off-screen). On the contrary, these personal websites often contribute to the conflicts between the web-masters and their boyfriends. Their projects of the self, these women feel, should also be hidden from the sight of their parents because the complicated feelings they express online often contradict their presentations of themselves as good daughters and conforming girl friends.

In Internet as Social Capital and Social Network: Cyberactivity of Hong Kong and Shanghai Women, Kuah-Pearce Khun Eng finds the overall usefulness of the Internet with 35 percent of Hong Kong women rating it as being very useful and another 32 per cent rating it as useful. Only 3 per cent rated it as not useful at all. Likewise, 37 per cent of Shanghai women rated it as very useful and 34 per cent rated it as useful. 2 per cent rated it as not useful at all.

The Internet tends to reinforce social and interactive communication among friends. This is especially so in modern society where global migration results in movements of

people and the need for them to be connected to their family, friends, political and business bodies.

The authors wonder if women’s access and ability to use technology such as the Internet is significant in determining how they set agendas and reposition themselves in the 21st Century. Will women be able to use their individual set of socio-cultural capital and transform it into collective sociocultural capital to usurp the existing social structure and recreate different sets of social relationships that are more gender friendly and egalitarian?

They feel that it remains to be seen whether the women will be able to institutionalize the cyber-structure and use it to restructure the social and gender relationships that have been embedded within our existing social structure.  They feel till it is done their set of socio-cultural capital remains personalized enabling them to express and negotiate their identities and needs in their daily routine life.

The area where Internet has been most beneficial is where it can ease access to skilled job for Chinese immigrants in Canada as has been detailed by Greve Arent and Salaff Janet in their chapter Can the Internet Help? How Immigrant Women from China Get Jobs: A Survey on PRC Immigrants’ Employment Status in Canada.

They feel Internet offers advantages in getting around institutional discrimination in Canada. The ability to reach out more widely to new circles by using online access to job postings broadens their possibilities. The Internet has been extolled as value free, based on sophisticated technology available to all, connectivity through search engines, not personal relationships, and

text based neutrality. Access to the Internet gives immigrants a chance at breaking into the wider labour market through broadening job information, thereby widening job searches, and reducing signals that convey discriminating attributes. The Internet’s unique characteristic is its

ability to link widely. The Web can widen circles of information about available jobs and candidates. Through Internet postings, people learn about vacancies beyond what their personal friends can tell them. Both employers and job seekers get more information online. The various downsides to jobs through the Internet have also been detailed in the chapter.

It has been widely argued that friends formed over the cyberspace necessarily remain in the cyberspace for a variety of reasons,  mostly because the topic for interactions tend to be topical in nature and the netizens’ interests shift along with new interests and topics for discussion. However at the same time, netizens might adopt one or more personas and this again shifts along with their changing interests. As such, netizens often shift from one site to another in search of their new interests and hence make new cyber-friends.

This euphemistic cyber-relationship serves as a constraint to the establishment of permanent social relationship yet acts as a liberating force to allow for short-term but more varied types of cyber-interaction and hence the jury on increase of social capital is still out there.

The book is a must read for students of Diaspora, Cybermedia and Women studies. Even though some papers repeat themes and ideas and the papers are written in the early days of web 2.0 it is still relevant to the Indian context as India shares a similar set of socio-economic issues with China, hence digital engagement of Indian women will mirror aspects as detailed about Chinese women. Cyberspace is the grand new frontier as it is changing the real world interactions and in turn is getting changed by those interactions.


Abhay Chawla is a journalist and a visiting faculty in CIC, Delhi University. He teaches online journalism and his Ph.D topic is ―"Marginalizations and consumption of new media". Email:[email protected]
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