BY JULIAN B. GEWIRTZ
OXFORD (England): Crowdfunding, which allows web users to contribute small sums of money to fund collective projects like concerts and films, is taking off in China — and just how far it will go is more than a business question.
By allowing netizens to vote with their renminbi, online crowdfunding could become an economic activity with political effects, bringing closer two separate spheres that rarely overlap in China.
There’s no question crowdfunding is becoming a big commercial factor in China. Websites like DemoHour and Musikid already allow Chinese citizens to hold real-world events that might once have been economically unfeasible.
These sites aren’t just for indie concerts — they also allow users to find projects that excite them and fund anything from refurbishing a Tibetan hostel, to producing an avant-garde film about gay life in Beijing, to developing a portable air-quality measuring device, with perks for donors if the project hits its goal.
An Oct 2013 World Bank report predicts that the Chinese market could grow as large as $50 billion by 2025.
Crowdfunding proponents not only see nice profits ahead, but also argue that the innovation allows for new creative ventures. Some may be so creative that they border on the political.
The Chinese Internet is already filled with examples of Chinese netizens repurposing seemingly innocuous new media, from Weibo (China’s Twitter) to online games, to express sensitive political views critical of the ruling Communist Party.
For example, in 2009, the “grass mud horse” meme, which played on three common characters that were difficult to censor but were heteronyms for a Chinese profanity, went viral, with users of video sharing and microblogging sites appropriating the meme to lambaste censorship of online political speech.
Creative netizens could also exploit crowdfunding platforms in unexpected ways. For example, if another earthquake strikes southern China, entrepreneurial citizens could use crowdfunding platforms to organise relief efforts independent of the government.
Some of what’s out there is already pushing boundaries. For example, an unemployed Chinese journalist, Yin Yusheng, announced in Oct 2013 that he intended to use crowdfunding to pay his salary while he worked independently on investigative reports. Cases like this may test the prospects of edgier crowdfunding projects.
Crowdfunding could also gradually tilt the Chinese Zeitgeist in the direction of greater democratic expectations.