The alternative public sphere of Macau

2010-02-24 - chong
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*Liu Shih-Diing and Lou Lai-Chu Ivy have just published an article titled "The Internet as Macau's Alternative Public Sphere." in Mass Communication Research(Issue no. 102, January, 2010, p. 253-293). What follows is a summary. For the full version, please go here.

Liu and Lou highlight the importance of the resistant or alternative meanings generated in the Internet in Macau, a city in which the mainstream media and political institutions fail to help people to voice out and monitor the government. Hence, the Internet becomes a field formed by contesting discourses in which the people engage in the struggle for discursive power and resistant spaces. Since the handover in 1999, the Internet has played an important role in engaging people in political and social controversies. However, according to the authors' observation, the public sphere enabled by the Internet in Macau is still a "weak" one without substantial power to initiate social reform.

In Macau, the service of the Internet has been available since 1995. According to a survey conducted in 2008, 94% of people aged below 18 are internet users. The rate reaches 99% among people aged between 18 and 24. Although most people use the internet for obtaining information and entertainment, more and more people make use of the online and digital resources for creative activities and alternative communication.

While there are a number of people using blog, Facebook and Youtube, most netizens talk about current issues on "Forum". Many unverified news, informal comments and even rumors are posted on "Forum". The most popular forums in Macau are cyberctm.com, qoos.com, and orchidbbs.com.

Cyberctm.com was established by CTM, the only telecommunication service provider in Macau, in 1998. Following the corruption case of Ao Man-long, a former transport and public works secretary, massive and severe accusations of the Macau government made it the hottest forum. The Chief Executive was ridiculed as the "Chief Thief" ("Chak Shou"), a term banned by the administrator of cyberctm.com. This is also one of the first place for "cultural jamming" ("Kuso" /「惡搞」) in Macau, particularly after the Macau police opened fire to deter the protesters of May 1 rally in 2007. In May 2009, the survey of public opinion on Article 23 (an article of the Basic Law requiring the Macau government to make law for national security) showed that 60% opposed it. It made a big difference from the survey reported in mainstream media. Sometimes the forum posts turn into a kind of social mobilization, for example, the rally of teachers and social workers.

Apart from cyberctm.com, qoos.com and orchidbbs.com (shut down in 2008) are also the major forum for public discussion on current affairs. In Macau, most media are controlled, directly or indirectly, by government or pro-government businessmen. Self-censorship is part of the routines of local media. The online forums provide an alternative spaces for dissident views. However, censorship is imposed on the forum users occasionally. In 2008, after some netizens called upon people to stop the Olympic torch relay in Macau, cyberctm.com was closed "for maintenance". Orchidbbs.com was closed down for unclear political reasons just before June 4, 2008.

In recent years, some people have begun to make use of other online applicatons for political and social purposes. In 2006, a group of planners and conservationists, called Alliance for Light House, protested against the devastating impact of development on World Heritage. It used a blog to collect information and network supporters. Since 2008, Facebook has become more popular and some activists opened Facebook group to arouse people's concern about the issue of Article 23.

The authors further identify the subversive power of "Kuso". More people recycle materials of popular culture for political uses, rather than simply make critical comments on online forums. For example, New Macau Society inaugurated the issue of "Oimoon Dialy" (literally means "cheating daily") in October, 2005. This online magazine, available for download, makes creative use of popular culture to criticize Macau government.

Yet Liu and Lou argue that despite the strength of Macau's online space, it still fails to function as a counter public sphere characterized by radical media. The online forces are not strong enough to act as an alliance for political and social reform. Most netizens, despite its huge number, are still relatively isolated individuals, rather than dissidents and activists with a strong consciousness of reform.