Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. April 2006

15.1. Transnational Activism, (Cyber-)Cultural (Re-)Presentations and Global Civil Society
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: On-Kwok Lai (Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Cultural (Re-)Presentation of Global Civil Society and Global Citizenship in the Cyber Age: Positioning Transnational Activism in a Globalizing World

On-Kwok Lai (School of Policy Studies, Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan)



This paper examines the cultural (re-)presentations of global civil society in the cyber-age, with special focus on social agencies, strategies and the structure of transnational activism and progressive advocacy networks. Attempting to conceptualize the transnational advocacies in general and the anti-globalization in particular, this paper addresses to (1) the strategies and role of social agencies for transnational advocacies, (2) the (re-)presentation of a new identity politics and the global citizenship in these campaigns, and (3) the particular historical role of the socio-cultural dynamics of the cyberspace.

It is argued that thanks to the Internet and mobile telephony, the anti-globalization demonstrations against global capitalism in major cities around the world are a core part of the anti-globalization processes. And the new identity and actions for global citizenship are represented through their messages and their new cultural representations, namely that the present mode(s) of the WTO/G8/World Bank sponsored global project is not just and fair for many people in the developing world, as well as those who are underprivileged in the developed ones, and that a healthy cultural reproduction is endangered.

Social consequences of transnational activism within and beyond the cyberspace are examined, highlighting the local people’s jobs, culture, language and hence identity; and attempting to examine aspects and processes of transnational activism, social mobilization logics and dynamics, with specific reference to the new cultural (re-)presentations and (re-)productions in constituting the global civil society, as well as the new identity building for the social activists’ global citizenship.


1. Strategies and Role of Social Agencies for Transnational Advocacies

The role of transnational civil society in environmental affairs has been subject to quite a bit of scholarly attention (e.g. Lipschutz 1996; Wapner 1996), and it has been pointed out that environmental advocacy networks have evolved into truly transnational social movement organisations (TSMO) (Roots, ed. 1999; Smith et al. 1997). But among and between the movement’s networks, it is the behavioral repertoire, identity and praxis of the social agency (individual at large) involved in these movements: they are critical and progressive. More specifically, scholars have been arguing for the strength of transnational civil society lying in its communicative power, against the global risk society (Beck 1992, 1999; Dryzek 1999). The role of networks, and the risk communications in them, have thereby been highlighted. I will add to this view by arguing that electronic (e-) mobilization and cyber-activism may contribute to the communicative power of transnational activism and hence not just to democratic ways of alternative participatory politics, but also the communicative identity and green praxis of cyber-rainbow warriors.

Thanks to modern information and communication technologies (ICT), it has been claimed that we are entering a new era of digital economy, polity and society (Castells 2000; Nie and Erbring 2000; Schiller 1999; US Commerce Department 2000). Participatory politics at a global scale seems more and more possible, allowing most forms of communication: one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-one and many-to-many. It is claimed by some commentators that cyber-activism has become revolutionary in changing the mode of interaction of advocacy and empowerment, the power relationship between the state and people, and the governance structure (Alexander and Pal 1998; Walch 1999). Take, for example, the Association of Progressive Communications and its Asian partner, South Korean they are international networks of civil organizations for social justice and development, active in mobilizing progressive forces for regional and global activism in labor, human rights and environmental movements alike, in both cyber and real spaces (Hick et al. 2000; Hick and McNutt, Eds. 2002;; The key issues here are the opening up of potential for transnational activism as far as interactivity, timeliness, active participation, and the progressive agenda setting and identity are concerned, both in virtual and real political communities.

My discussion is analytically rooted in three distinct yet inter-related debates on the communicative aspects of transnational activism: (1) the specific arrangement of ICT affects the shaping of individual’s identity involved in the process of information and actions that transcend territorial borders anchored upon ecological issues (cf. Katz and Aakhus Eds., 2002; Woolgar Ed., 2002), (2) the context of our global system: the ‘Globalized Space’ thesis of James N. Rosenau (1997; 1998) and (3) the Transnational Advocacy Networks (TAN) thesis of Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink (1998, 1999). Confronting globalization and the problematic of global governance, Rosenau (1997,1998) rightly identifies the nascent social agencies, networks and actions: NGOs, the internet and social movements respectively. As it is widely agreed that current existing global governance is largely undemocratic; possibilities for democratizing these structures need to be discussed - an issue which Dryzek approaches discursively arguing that "democratic action in the international system is rooted in reflexive control of the prevailing balance of discourses" (1999: 43) and that deliberation or communication is the central feature of transnational democracy.

On the ‘activism front’, e-mobilization (which is one form of cyber-activism) revolves around the strategic use of the new media by NGOs. E-mobilization occurs within the cyberspace in the form of virtual communication between activists using various means, such as fax and short-message-sending (SMS), e-mail, web-pages and hyperlinks. For instance, e-mails and SMS are central tools for global social protests against capitalist globalization: just before the WTO Seattle meetings, about 1500 NGOs signed the anti-WTO declaration using e-mails and text mail (Brecher 2000: 83). The more recent example is the global peace campaign against the American imperialist calling for a war against Iraq: with the fully-fledged utilization of ICT, the Internet and the Web, over 12 millions of protesters were on the march in hundreds of cities around the world on 15.February 2003.

Despite regional differences regarding the interconnectedness of the internet, the creation of Cyberspace through the integration of ICT locally and globally has been extending the mode and form of communications, doing business and policy-making, with an emerging new and distinct (cyber)culture, (virtual) community and (virtual) reality (Featherstone and Burrows 1995; Moss and Townsend 2000; Rash 1997). In short, the internet and the web enable like-minded people in distant places to converge, share perspectives, protest abuses, provide information and mobilize resources - dynamics that seem bound to constrain vertical structures that sustain governments, corporation and any other hierarchical organizations" (Rosenau 1998: 46). All these are the manifestations of the identity and praxis of cyber-rainbow warriors in everyday life in the context of e-mobilisation / cyber-activism.


2. Green Communicative Praxis @ Transnational Activism

In East Asia, environmental degradation has first surfaced in Japan during the (1960s) when several infamous cases of environmental pollution occurred which resulted in a post-war revival of civil society activism in support of the victims and their claims for compensation (Ui 1992). Depletion of natural resources in countries like China has also become a serious issue, and in the Asian newly industrialized countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, this has resulted in vigorous activism responding to the extensive environmental degradation experienced within relatively short periods of time. The boom and burst of Asian economic bubbles has also prompted Asian states and societies to reconsider their pro-growth development model (Drysdale 2000; Lee and So 1999; Mol and Sonnernfeld 2000; Nickum 1999). The example below gives more detailed insight into more radical forms of TEA in East Asia.

Example: Cyberactivism on/beyond the Gateway of Greenpeace Japan

In line with cyber-activism promoted by international advocacy networks, like the activities promoted by the Association of Progressive Communications, cyber-action has recently become an integral part of the activists’ repertoire on the part of the global Greenpeace movement against environmental pollution ( For this, each geographically anchored cell of the Greenpeace movement (like Greenpeace China and Greenpeace Japan) has established their respective e-platform for international exchange of information, in-house action-strategies, and recruitment of volunteers for green mobilization. For the individuals concerned, a cyber-activist is someone who has freely signed up for a local Greenpeace Cyber-activism Community. These activists receive regular e-mail updates, participate in on-line discussions, and help carrying out campaigns. The TEA is thus working on all fronts, concerning local, regional and global environmental issues, and cyber-activists recruited from the cyberspace are in this sense borderless.

The e-platform is the cyber-center (or network) where ‘green’ communications, ideas, messages and knowledge are archived and exchanged, in real time and online, for registered participants. They can freely ask questions, exchange views and even debate certain Greenpeace actions. The cyberspace serves as an interactive communicative reciprocity for green political and ideological formations as well. Apart from the discussion list function, it is also strategically instrumental for global and/or regionally (trans-border) protest actions against specific environmental issue, (as seen in the example discussed above). In this way, ‘information’ is at least to some extent being transferred into ‘knowledge’ (Comor 2001).

Within a limited time frame of a year since the cyber-action started from mid-March 2001, up to mid-March 2002, Greenpeace Japan has organized altogether fourteen rounds of cyber-actions. A synoptic view of these cyber mobilizations is provided here (Table 1).


Table 1: Cyber-Actions of Greenpeace Japan (15 March 2001 - 10 March 2002)


Territory / Target

Action* / Actors

Time Frame

ICT & Content

Urging Japanese & US Governments to Support Kyoto Climate Agreement

Global Campaign:


Prime Minister

US President

3 rd Call: 68

2 nd Call: 254

13300 worldwide

1686 from Japan

Two Calls

3.-30 Jul.01.


E-Card + One Person-One E-Letter Appeal (OPOL)

Global Ban of Nuclear Test

Global Campaign


One Call

30.Aug.01 - 13.Nov.01


Save Ancient Forest (Canada)

Save Ancient Forest

Global Campaign: Canada & Japan Govt. & Business


Two Call


6.Mar. 02~~


Stop the Death Threat to Eco-Activists in the Amazonas

Global Campaign for Solidarity


One Call

10.Oct.01 ~~


Stop US’s Star War Missile Plan

Global Campaign

US & Japan

2 nd Call: 60.

1 st Call: 118.

Two Calls

30.Jun.01- 3.Aug.01

E-Card + OPOL

Anti Nuclear Power Plant in Chukok Region, and Japan

National /Regional


Power Company


Two Calls



E-Card + OPOL

Anti-PVC Packaging / Toys

Global Campaign

Govt. Ministry

Business Sector


Two Calls


17.Dec.01 ~~

E-Card + OPOL

Anti-Incinerator Plant in Japan

National / Local

City Governments


One Call



Village Referendum on Nuclear Power Plant

Local Leadership

National & Regional Policy


One Call



Stop Reprocessing Plant in Japan

National / Regional Government

Not Available (N.A.)

One Call

19.Oct.01 ~~


*Action is defined as confirmed/registered communication (of E-Card/Appeal Letter) forward to the targets via the cyber-centre of Greenpeace Japan. (Figure update: 10.March.2002).
OPOL: One Person One Letter (E-mail) Appeal
NA: Not Available.
~~ On Going Campaign


For the ecological issues concerned, of the fourteen actions in the year 2001-2002, the action profile can be analyzed in the following way. First, environmental issues range from local to global: on Japanese soil (anti-nuclear plan in Chukoku region, village referendum on nuclear power plant), abroad (Canadian ancient forest, anti-US Star War Missile Plan) and global (Kyoto Climate Protocol, Complete Ban of Nuclear Testing). Furthermore, they range from environmental protection of citizens in their own homes (anti PVC- products in general, toys for kids, life in/near the nuclear plant in two localities), to solidarity support for environmentalists elsewhere (e.g. Amazon region).

Despite the fact that the fourteen calls for cyber-action concern different issues and targets, the key mode of action is based on the direct involvement of registered participants (almost open to any Netizen). The method of One-Person-One-Letter (OPOL) for political appeal/support has been frequently applied. The OPOL is mostly ICT enhanced with Java-script or Shockwave-Flash. The targets range from super political power figures like the US President Bush (the Star Wars case) and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi (the Kyoto Climate Protocol case), to village representatives (the anti-nuclear power plant case) and the sub-district representatives in Tokyo city (the anti-incinerator plant case), and supporting the potential victims (children affected by PVC products, residents in/near the incinerator and nuclear power plant) and environmentalists (in Amazon under death threat) with solidarity and ecological concerns.

The mobilization (or call) period usually lasts for a month - so as to keep the most urgent issues online for action and to exploit the optimal attention span of the cyber-activists. Yet, there is a possibility to keep many issues in action at any one time online, and for a very long period in an offline-archive. We note that though cyberspace can be interacted with at real time anywhere, no more than five action calls were online at any one time or one web page. The shortest period of an urgent issue lasted less than a week (anti-nuclear power in support for the village referendum). Timeliness, cyber-actions and inter-connectivity are the key elements for cyber-activism.

The participants (Cyber-Rainbow Warriors) are from any part of the real world, provided they can access the cyberspace. For instance, a call for a political appeal, targeting Prime Minister Koizumi, has received 13,300 responses, with 1,686 from Japan. More often than not, the calls/appeals are extended and connected to the global community through the cyber-centre(s) of Greenpeace International - this also helps the individuals in front of the computer screen to feel being involved in the global environmental movement, with new identities and praxis evolving out of cyber-activism. More precisely, this can bridge the previous gap between the supporters (non-activists) and the activists in the Greenpeace movement, with important implications for enhanced participation in, and new identity building / praxis, in the real global environmental movement, within and beyond the transnational activist network.

On- and off-line, round-the-clock and in real time, cyber-activists are recruited from cyberspace through the web of the Greenpeace Japan ( ) to critically engage in local and global environmental struggles. The dynamics are the critical, progressive engagements of cyber-rainbow warriors. Lately, cyber-visitors to the homepage of Greenpeace Japan and Greenpeace China amounted to 326,700 (first seven months of 2001) and 111,300 (August 2000 to July 2001) respectively. These figures might not be high if compared with hit-rates in the information or entertainment sectors, but they are believed to be higher than what traditional political institutions in both countries reached. What makes these web sites significant is their accessibility and real time, round-the-clock engagement in local, regional and global mobilization. The Greenpeace China’s web-page-visiting statistics shows that the visitors are more local and regional than previously expected. This highlights the local and regional anchoring of western international NGOs, although this (e-)mobilization via cyber space is relatively new for the Asian Greenpeace movement. E-mobilization is reinforcing the predominant action strategy of Greenpeace that emphasizes the use of direct action with a minimum number of selected activists but maximum media coverage, hoping to bring prompt responses from the government, the public and the culprits of pollution. In short, this form of civic mobilization at a cross-border and global level enabling individuals to participate echoes the praxis of Cosmopolitan Democracy (Held 1998, 1999), in which multiple civic agencies from different localities can shape transnational governance.

Despite the limited numbers involved in cyber-action, the multiplying effect and the impact of this type of mobilization in and beyond cyberspace should not be underestimated, as this has positive outcomes (and new identity - in and through cyber-activism) in a number of ways: for the affected (victims) who are struggling with the powerful environmental polluters (the village against nuclear power plant), and for the threatened activists who receive solidarity and support in the form of e-cards and greeting letters.

Prominent or top business people whose companies are producing environmental pollution are reminded/challenged by these letters and/or e-cards that their activities are closely monitored with the use of global environmental ethical standards (in the anti-PVC products campaign). Undoubtedly, governments and political leaders having to observe certain normative values for their governance have to confront the emerging ecological concerns within and outside their home country (as in the example of appeal lodged to the Japanese Prime Minister). In a nutshell, this kind of cyber-activism may prompt timely, pro-active policies and politics for the greening of the world. E-mobilization, (e-)democratic activism and TEA will be influential in not only broadening and deepening the scope and extent of democratic, participatory politics in local and regional spaces, but also reshaping/constituting the new identity of the stake-holders in the age of global environmentalism.


3. Re-Presentation of the New Identity Politics and of Global Citizenship

The above example from Greenpeace Japan highlights the communicative aspects, identity and praxis of Cyber-Rainbow-Warriors in action. For the greening (transformation) of everyday life by/with cyber-dynamics, within and beyond the e-mobilization for ecological justice, four major processes have transpired as critical. First and foremost is the new self-identity formation (with and through individual actions), within a wider context of global/regional green political lobbying (the otherness). Cyberspace provides good information with hyper-links to other sources of information and it is a relatively safe haven for people to have imaginative and innovative encounters with global policy problems. Under the previous regime of environmental politics, it was not possible for a wide range of people to be actively engaged in activist campaigns. They were confined to learning about it from the conventional mass media. The cyberspace (for novices as well as veteran activists) is a learning-by-doing, action-oriented medium at both individual and collective levels. They act with just a few clicks, sending support and appeal letters or animated e-cards to the targets. Hence, the green, finger-tipped, motor-skilled actions onto the keyboard and clicking the mouse constitute a new green identity of the individual, as well as a praxis for becoming cyber-rainbow warrior by being involved in global ecological movements.

Second and in relation to environmental politics that used to be characterized by local, regional and national political processes, the ICT enhanced cyber-cum-social mobilization extends the territorial (ir)relevance and enables "outsiders" to have an influence in and beyond the locally and regionally specific, territorially defined, environmental struggles. Within and beyond the transformative cyberspace, the "outsiders" are inherently bound and structurally anchored onto/into the ecological movements and therefore acquiring the identity of "insiders" or at the very least, an empathetic actor/supporter for victims of environmental disasters. Hence, the TEA articulates and reinforces the bondage between human agency and global sustainability, juxtaposing the higher level of global concern into national/regional/local political spaces.

Third, the multiple linkages of TEA in and beyond the cyberspace stretch geographical localities, and they extend to numerous individuals who used to be passive observers (of the mass media) and call upon their participation in a less militant, yet supportive, role for the protest movement. Here, individuals can make a difference in the global politics, especially on those issues (refugees, environment, animal and human rights) normally neglected by the present state system. At this historical conjuncture of informational development, the everyday life green praxis (of a few mouse-clicks) is not just transforming the greenness of one’s identity (its relationship with the natural world) but also reshaping the relationship between oneself and the otherness - this cyber-logics is very similar to the feminist cyber-culturalization (cf. Flanagan and Booth, eds. 2002).

Finally, the cases of cyber-activism analyzed here point towards the emergence of a new political charged green identity within/beyond the cyberspace, extending the opportunity structure for participatory politics - cyber-activists have a role to play! The cyberspace reinforces the civic forces (the solidarity movement of various forms) and extends the horizon of ecological action - possibly keeping the ecological issues/calling alive even when social movement (in the real world) becomes dormant at the local level - this is compatible with the idea of ‘perpetual contact’ offered by the ICT (Katz and Aakhus, Eds. 2002). The struggles against nuclear power plants, the anti-PVC campaign, the anti-incinerator plant, as well as the local referendum for nuclear energy in our case study highlight this ICT enhanced mode of advocacy and their multiplying effect towards a new form of not just communicative identity of the cyber-rainbow warriors but extending the spaces for democratic governance and rainbow of praxis for sustainable development.


4. Cultural Re-Presentation: New Communicative Identities and Global Citizenship

Despite its image of individualism, profit-seeking, self-promotion and greed, the increase of both wired and wireless communications in volume, bandwidth and frequency terms can largely help to develop the size, power base and influence of a critical mass for new alternative politicking in the cyberspace. This, in turn, might challenge the traditional political establishment, as well as the behavioral repertory of (a)political actors (IDEA 2001; Goldstein and O’Connor 2000; Hick et al. 2000; Hick and McNutt, Eds. 2002; Stefik 1999). Yet, the actual geographical location and spread of the relevant technology is vital for the potentials of transnational activism. There are four distinct yet inter-related issues here.

First and foremost, although the activism derived from and through the Internet /Cyberspace can be described as borderless in many ways, the networks are sometimes geographically confined to global cities of the developed world. More specifically, the choice of the location of transnational advocacy network (TAN) agencies is still important though the activism itself can shape regional affairs beyond the local base of the activists (Keck and Sikkink 1998, 1999). In other words, the cross-border advocacy is by no means borderless or non-territorial, as the specific location or node of protest organizing and social mobilization is still geographically very specific. Cities and micro regions with a high concentration of information flow and knowledge exchanges, as well as a capital and economic activities (like London, New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong; cf. Downey and McGuigan eds.1999; Hick and McNutt, Eds. 2002; Leyshon and Thrift 1997; Sassen 1998) usually attract international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). These places - among others - also have a comparative advantage in terms of availability and functionality of ICT - and this gives the seemingly borderless, transnational activism a geo-politics fix. The logic of green communicative identity hence has a geo-cultural dimension (Lai 2004, 2005).

Secondly, despite the promising developments in the Asia-Pacific region, severe obstacles to cyber-activism (enhancing the green communicative praxis and identity building) remain, not least is the state’s control on the Internet (Hong 2001). In addition, digital deficiencies and divides remain problematic in the Asia Pacific. The Internet backbone is still controlled by developed economies: 50% of the Internet communications among Asian countries are routed via US infrastructure. The ratio of the Internet population in Southeast Asia compared with the total of the population in the above area is about 0.5%, in East Asia it is 0.4%, and in South Asia 0.04%. For the OECD countries (except the US), the figure is 6.9%, and for the US it is 26.3% (UNDP 1999).

The gap within Asian countries is also very wide: around 20% of the adults in the rich part of Asia ( the Asian Four Little Dragons of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong) are online but less than 1% of the people in the poor parts (such as the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan) are using the internet (ITU 2000). These figures confirm the digital divide inside and between regions and countries in Asia. An overwhelming majority, especially poor people in poor countries, are the victims of globalization and deprived of the benefit of the internet. Therefore, the problem of a digital divide is still serious and needs to be addressed (Kenny et al. 2000).

Thirdly, new identity formation and green political praxis by the information revolution are contingent upon a complex configuration of dynamic socio-economic factors (Waller et al. 2001). The prospects for the greening of global/regional civil society, in the Asian case, are further shaped by the differential state-society conflict and intra-socio-cultural fault-lines in the region, in addition to a variety of forms of undemocratic praxis which need to be challenged. Democracy, political liberalization for open societies, and environmentalism are as important as the economic miracle for Asian societies (Lee and So 1999; Sachs 2001). Furthering democratization is the way to go. Given the rise of Asian digital power and the expansion of cyberspace, the strategic use of the internet can thereby foster transnational activism and social capital building, across local, regional and global spaces. On the other hand, there are powerful forces to slow down the scope of transnational activism, Asian states/societies are deeply divided along religious lines (Confucianism, Buddhism, Hindu, and Muslim), political ideologies (democracy, authoritarianism, and market socialism), colonial heritages (British, Japanese, and American), boundary disputes (between India and Pakistan), and security tensions (at the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula). All this might provide the pretext for the state’s control over civil forces, exerting its hegemonic banner of nationalism and cultural-political correctness inside and outside of the cyberspace. Furthermore, there are always supra-national institutional attempts to challenge local civic forces, like the further economic liberalization related to APEC and WTO. Hence, while prospects for continued cyber-activism are good, it will be a rocky path towards (e-)liberative communicative politics.

Lastly, regarding the prospects for green cyber-activism in Asia in general and the greening of everyday life with cyber-dynamics in particular, there are additional issues which need to be tackled. This concerns the down side of the ’information society’ (Castells 1996; 2000; Luke 2000; Menzies 1996; Schiller 1999). Even advanced societies are still characterized by more or less high levels of segregation, diversity and hierarchy with regard to the level of information gained through the internet. More specifically for Asia, this has to a large extent to do with the dominance of the English language and American culture (Main 2001). In the long term, the domination of the English language in global communication might bring about a serious crisis in the existence of minority languages. Furthermore, the US style of life, movies, comics and other visual popular culture, and the ‘manufactured’ news and documentaries (the US version of the ‘war-against-terrorism’ represents such a case) could be seen as cultural manifestations of a global imperialism. As long as the internet is based on existent power structures, it will likewise reinforce cyber-imperialism (Ebo 2001; Ogura 2001; Wyatt et al. 2000). How to confront cyber-imperialism will be the challenge for transnational activists.

© On-Kwok Lai (School of Policy Studies, Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan)


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15.1. Transnational Activism, (Cyber-)Cultural (Re-)Presentations and Global Civil Society

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  16 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
On-Kwok Lai (School of Policy Studies, Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan): Cultural (Re-)Presentation of Global Civil Society and Global Citizenship in the Cyber Age: Positioning Transnational Activism in a Globalizing World. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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