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date: 18 June 2018

Social Media in Mainland China: Weak Democracy, Emergent Civil Society

Summary and Keywords

In August 2016, on the heels of the summer heat surrounding the Olympics, a major celebrity family scandal gripped mainland China. The nation watched closely as a well-known actor struggled through revelations about his wife’s scandalous infidelities, her disgraceful possession over their family properties, and most dramatically, her unilateral decision to flee to America with their two children—all while their divorce unfolded in front of the nation’s gaze. Not a political affair, this scandal was able to attract as much publicity as the Chinese people were thirsty for. Sina Weibo (Microblogging) became one of the biggest winners of this storm, as its NASDAQ stock price rose 7.05% the day after the actor made his announcement on Sina Weibo about his plan to divorce, and Sina Weibo’s market value broke through 10 billion U.S. dollars for the first time (according to Sohu Business in 2016). Within 14 hours of that announcement, the actor’s original Sina Weibo post had been forwarded 520,000 times and commented on 1,240,000 times (according to Sohu Business in 2016). Like all other major news events, many of which are often more politically sensitive and civically relevant, ordinary citizens in mainland China have grown used to looking to their social media sites for information and guidance. As of December 2015, mainland China’s social media population reached 530 million, amounting to 77% of its total Internet users (according to CINNIC in 2016). A Western media invention, social media platforms have largely permeated the lives of regular Chinese users, although not without “Chinese characteristics.” This article reviews an important body of literature that takes keen interest in the civic implications of mainland China’s social media sites, which render themselves more relevant than ever in everyday life as well as amid high-profile public events.

Following in the footsteps of many influential foreign Internet sites, including Google and the New York Times, such leading social media entities as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have all been blocked by the Great Firewall of China, officially known as the Golden Shield Project. This exclusive characteristic, along with other unique Chinese phenomena, has given rise to a separate social media universe that China calls its own. This article draws connections among explorations about the civic significance of China’s social media landscape for the world’s largest Internet population (according to CNNIC in 2008). While unique Chinese conditions do not necessarily disconnect China’s users from universal features of social media use, this article focuses specifically on works that examine how local social media platforms have shaped civic engagement in mainland China’s restrictive political environment.

Like the spread of Internet technology to modern China, recent developments in social media have invited competing narratives about their democratic implications, which often echo Western academia’s evaluative position taking between utopian and pessimistic narratives of digital technology’s social impact. The former state that Chinese citizens have availed themselves of the unprecedented opportunities afforded by social media to keep governmental actions in check, whereas the latter voice the concern that social media simply provide new and more ready channels for governmental monitoring and manipulating of public opinion.

In 2010, Deng and Jing suggested that although the concept of civil society originated in the West, we need to understand it as historically, culturally, and socially specific. The Chinese civil society, according to the two scholars, is both separate from and interdependent with the state. Its origin stemmed from China’s state-guided transition from a planned economy to marketization, leading China’s civil society to be more dependent on state policies, while the Western civil society gains more independence from private capital. Deng and Jing note that theories of state-society relations have primarily positioned the two as confrontational entities and instead propose a “Positive Interaction Theory (BIT)” for the case of China. Under this notion, the state allows for the civil society’s independent operation and protects it with laws and abstract legislation. While there is great diversity within the civil society and often conflicts of interest, the state should interfere and mediate in legal and economic terms, when members of the civil society fail to reconcile on contractual grounds.

Under BIT as an ideal type, Deng and Jing asserted that the state should not intervene in the civil society’s political rights, and the latter should reserve the freedom to organize their political voices and push for democratization. The closer state-society relation can be to this ideal, the more robust a civil society will be. Once China’s civil society establishes its independence and autonomy, the scholars suggest, it will then participate in China’s politics and provide effective checks and balances on state decision making. However, these two stages are not neatly separate from each other. As can be seen in the cases reviewed in this article, the Chinese civil society in its current state is not a unitary and static entity. While limited in sensitive political and religious domains, it has achieved a strong voice in other social issues and positive interaction with the state at times.

This investigation into a burgeoning literature on social media in mainland China finds that although the Chinese people’s use of social media does not strike one as immediately liberating in terms of new political freedom, it bears the potential of creating a civil society that may be particularly meaningful for the idiosyncratic political environment of China. In other words, there may be a lot left to desire, but researchers can look more closely into the various ways in which users in China actively, and often creatively, organize their voices and actions via new social media outlets. In the absence of a democracy, a civil society continues to emerge.

Keywords: China, social media, civil society, politics, censorship, social movement

A Brief History of Social Media in China

The Rise of Microblogging in the 2000s

Since the establishment of Facebook’s global domination, the Chinese technology sector has presented a variety of local alternatives, such as Renren and Kaixin. Starting in the 2000s, microblogging (weibo) gradually became the most popular form of social media activity thanks to the influence of Twitter (Xie & Xu, 2011). Its Chinese copycat, Fanfou, quickly emerged in 2007 after Twitter took off in 2006, which was then followed by a few other early experimenters (Xie & Xu, 2011). The landmark year for China’s most successful indigenous microblogging sites came in 2009, when the central government blocked major foreign Internet outlets, largely as a result of riots in Xinjiang in Northwestern China. While a few domestic players were also shut down in the process, such global juggernauts as Facebook and Twitter never made their way back in. After the riots quieted, a major Chinese Internet company, Sina, started its microblogging service in August 2009 and the groundswell of new microblogging services ensued, amounting to 20 major ones in 2010. A few major players, including Sina and Tencent, established their leading positions in the Chinese market since then.

At first look, such services are strikingly similar to their Western counterparts, especially Twitter, including a cap on 140 characters for each post, which has been revoked since 2016. However, a few outstanding features set the two apart. The Chinese language is more efficient than English and allows a lot more to be communicated through the same number of characters. In addition, users can include multimedia elements in their comments on others’ posts while Twitter users cannot. Yu, Asur, and Huberman (2015) compared patterns in trending topics between Sina Weibo and Twitter and reach interesting findings that confirm the popular observation that established celebrities or elites in their respective fields garner the most influence in the social media space. More specifically, they find that trending topics on China’s microblogging site tend to be more frivolous than the kind of attention paid to public affairs on Twitter; the “Internet Water Army,” writers hired by PR firms or governments, or fake accounts, are used as a social media strategy to promote certain topics or opinions.

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Figure 1. Ranking of celebrity popularity on Sina Weibo based on four indicators: number of mentions of the celebrity handle; number of retweets of the celebrity posts; amount of search for the celebrity on Sina Weibo; and number of “flowers” that the celebrity receives from fans, which can be purchased on Sina Weibo. Author screengrabs.

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Figure 2. Ranking of celebrity popularity on Sina Weibo based on four indicators: number of mentions of the celebrity handle; number of retweets of the celebrity posts; amount of search for the celebrity on Sina Weibo; and number of “flowers” that the celebrity receives from fans, which can be purchased on Sina Weibo. Author screengrabs.

The Decline of Microblogging and the Dominance of WeChat in the Second Decade of 2000s

Since their start in 2007 and maturation in 2009, microblogging services in China have been empowering in many areas. However, CNNIC (2015) notes that from 2013 onward, major Internet companies such as Sohu, Netease, and Tencent have pulled back from their investments in microblogging services. By the first half of 2015, Sina solidified its top position in the domestic microblogging market, claiming 69.4% of microbloggers. Scholars have taken note of this dominance and mostly choose to study Sina Weibo as a reflection of the Chinese microblogging sphere and social media engagement for that matter. Admittedly, Sina and other leading domestic players to a large extent derive their success from a lack of foreign competitors in the market.

Competition became stiff again in 2011 with the introduction of WeChat, which is a mobile-based application developed by Tencent that integrates social networking with an impressively long list of in-app features, such as cab service, money wiring, and in-store payment. Most importantly, contrary to the potential of mainstream microblogging services putting one at risk of public gazing, the immense popularity of WeChat parallels a similar development in the West toward more privacy conscious platforms such as WhatsApp and Snapchat. WeChat dials social media interactions in China back towards being more personal and modest in one’s scope of reach. By the first quarter of 2015, WeChat penetrated more than 90% of China’s smartphones (Netease Technology, 2015) and claimed 762 million monthly active users in the first quarter of 2016 (Tencent Technology, 2016). As a result of many factors including the recent rise of WeChat, as well as the Chinese censors’ close watch over microblogging users’ public communications that led to grave punishments, the growth rate for China’s microblogging services has continued to slow down (Carsten, 2014). As reflected in the following sections about their political economy, microblogging services in China consistently receive conflicting policy treatments due to regulators’ own paradoxical approach to the local social media outlets’ roles in China. On the one hand, they make major contributions to the nation’s economy. On the other hand, microblogging entities also present themselves as obvious political provocateurs in channeling ordinary citizens’ voices, especially their dissatisfaction with the system. Service providers, especially the industry leaders, are blessed with the government’s support in blocking out foreign competition, but are often compelled to navigate China’s testy ground of political sensitivities. After an overview of Chinese social media’s economics and politics, we present research about their contributions and limits in the formation of China’s emergent civil society.

Social Media Economics in China

Social Media as a Driver of the Chinese Information Economy

In addition to political calculations, the Chinese government’s decision to block outside Internet sites has also helped foster the growth of homegrown services such as Tencent and Sina Weibo. For example, since 2010, when Google announced that it would stop censoring search results, the Chinese government has blocked access to Google, disabling the whole range of Google services. As one example, Google Maps lost its dominant market share directly to the homegrown Baidu Maps (Millward, 2014).

Sina Weibo joined the NASDAQ exchange in 2014 (France-Presse, 2014). After posting its first profit that year, it was valued by analysts at $5.1 billion (Chen & Gill, 2014). Meanwhile, Tencent is now valued at more than $200 billion, which is greater than companies such as Amazon, IBM, and Oracle (Carsten & Shih, 2015). The promotion of Internet companies is at the heart of the Chinese government’s official plans for economic growth, including the State Informationization Development Strategy (2006–2020) and the report of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Congress. As Atkinson (2014) explained, the Chinese government views information and communications technology (ICT) both as the cutting-edge industry for China’s transition from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy and as a general purpose technology that can affect almost every aspect of China’s economy and society. That is why a decade ago China designated “informatization” as a national strategy covering all areas of China’s modernization.

Chinese social media platforms may especially contribute to the country’s economic growth because of the ease of making business transactions on such platforms. If you look at social media networks such as Facebook, you can connect with a community or a group, but you cannot buy anything. But if you go into WeChat, you can buy anything you see. As one venture capitalist puts it, WeChat is about 1.5 years ahead of Facebook in terms of social commerce (Soo, 2016). A piece by the Internet marketing site the Drum compared the data on mobile transactions made through WeChat during the Chinese New Year of 2016 and information about PayPal transactions during the whole year of 2015. Quite stunningly, there were 8.08 billion transactions on WeChat in the form of “red envelopes” containing gift money per Chinese tradition before the Internet came along, almost double the 4.9 billion through PayPal (McEleny, 2016). Not only is WeChat seeping into more online transactions, it is also making itself more widely available for offline payment. Tencent reports that, as of November 2015, over 200 million users had bound their personal banking accounts with WeChat Pay, which is connected to a vast array of brick-and-mortar stores nationwide (China Daily, 2016).

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Figure 3. Red Envelopes on WeChat: An old Chinese New Year tradition, which used to symbolize well wishes as cash exchanged in red envelopes, especially from older generations to younger recipients, and is now digitized and gamified thanks to WeChat.

Source: http://it.sohu.com/20170130/n479709974.shtml.

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Figure 4. Red Envelopes on WeChat: An old Chinese New Year tradition, which used to symbolize well wishes as cash exchanged in red envelopes, especially from older generations to younger recipients, and is now digitized and gamified thanks to WeChat.

Source: http://it.sohu.com/20170130/n479709974.shtml.

Chinese Characteristics of Social Media Economics

Social media have a greater impact on Chinese consumers’ purchasing decisions than in any other country in the world. Silverman, Lin, and Chiu (2012) explained that Chinese consumers are more likely to consider buying a product if they see it mentioned on social media and more likely to purchase a product or service if a friend or acquaintance recommends it on social media. This can be explained in part by a cultural difference: Chinese consumers prize peer-to-peer recommendations because they lack trust in formal institutions. In general, the Chinese populace is skeptical of information from news sources and advertising; people rely more on word-of-mouth from friends, family, and key opinion leaders (Lien & Cao, 2014).

As major companies and public figures are equipped with certified accounts across leading social media platforms, Men and Tsai (2013) found that urban Chinese consumers now primarily use companies’ pages on social networking sites to find out about products, promotions, and companies (though, of course, many rural Chinese citizens lack internet access). However, while China’s homegrown services benefit from restricted competition inside China, The Economist (2014) noted that as they attempt to expand globally, they must overcome an obstacle not faced by major Western platforms: they “must also persuade consumers living in free societies to use a social network actively monitored by an authoritarian regime.”

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Figure 5. Sina Weibo pages of Alibaba, a local technology giant in China, and of Madonna, who joined Sina Weibo in late 2016 with her own certified account. Author screengrabs.

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Figure 6. Sina Weibo pages of Alibaba, a local technology giant in China, and of Madonna, who joined Sina Weibo in late 2016 with her own certified account. Author screengrabs.

Social Media Politics in China

Censorship of Social Media

In 2014, China’s State Internet and Information Office announced new regulations for individuals posting on public instant messaging apps, requiring that they register with their real names and sign an agreement pledging to “abide by laws and regulations, the socialist system, national interests, the legitimate rights and interests of citizens, public order, social morality and ensure the authenticity of the information they provide” (Levin, Dou, & Lee, 2014). Sustaining the notorious censorship machine of China, state and institutional censors oftentimes retroactively block or delete messages posted on social media. King, Pan, and Roberts (2013) found that about 13% of social media posts are censored. MacKinnon (2009) noted that the deletions are almost always made by Chinese social media companies, which must comply with government censorship directives in order to maintain their business licenses. MacKinnon’s research further finds that the companies use a range of practices to censor blog content, such as displaying error messages when users attempt to post content with particular keywords; holding posts with sensitive words for review and approval; publishing posts in “private” view that are visible only to the author but not to the public; deleting content that has been posted; replacing sensitive keywords with “***” or other unreadable symbols; and blocking readers inside mainland China from viewing particular posts. Zhu et al. (2013) found that Weibo also monitors particular users who appear likely to discuss sensitive topics, closes the accounts of users who post sensitive content, and prevents users from searching for particular words on the platform. Internet companies are under constant pressure to preemptively nip any anti-authority sentiment in the bud, based on which the government would weigh its rewards and punishments.

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Figure 7. Message that users see when a Weibo post has been deleted, by the author or the site administrator; a timeline constructed by Chi-Chu Tschang, an MBA student at MIT, that visualizes Weibo deletion in relation to sensitive political events in Mainland China between February 1 and May 20, 2012.

Source: http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/05/reverse-engineering-chinese-censorship-when-and-why-are-controversial-tweets-deleted/.

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Figure 8. Twitter page of artist-activist Ai Weiwei. Author screengrab.

Although often faced with such stiff regulations, in comparison to the rest of the Internet in China, social media platforms allow a significant degree of political dissent to flourish. For instance, Zhao and Liu (2015) found that social media users have promulgated alternative narratives about Chinese history, including a rich debate about China’s Great Famine on Weibo. Esarey and Qiang (2008) suggested that Chinese bloggers are able to discuss politically sensitive topics because they learn to bypass the Internet filters through alternative words, coded language, and satire. Poell, de Kloet, and Zeng (2014) likewise reported that social media users utilize mockery, parody, jokes, humor, symbols, and creative visuals to make sophisticated political critiques on social media. In addition, social media censorship varies widely based on the timing of posts, their implications, and their geographic origins. Zhu et al. (2013) found that deletions happen most heavily in the first hour after a post has been submitted and tend to prioritize original posts over reposts/retweets. The researchers observe an efficient system that makes nearly 30% of the total deletions within 5–30 minutes, and nearly 90% within the first 24 hours. MacKinnon (2009) concluded that much critical political content lives on Chinese social media. The companies’ preemptive measures appear to respond most sensitively to the type of reaction a post may solicit from its viewers. King, Pan, and Roberts (2013) found that social media posts critical of the government are not more likely to be censored than other content. Rather, social mobilization—even just the idea of it—triggers the censor’s button much more readily. Likewise, Poell, de Kloet, and Zeng (2014) found that “a lot of jokes and critique aimed at the government remained uncensored, yet posts that hinted at joined action were deleted” (p. 12). Hassid (2012) stated that the government tolerates criticism from bloggers about topics on which the government or newspapers set the agenda but is less tolerant “when they get ahead of the official agenda or push into areas where the CCP is wary,” such as complaints by artists and farmers. Bamman, O’Connor, and Smith (2012) claimed that social media posts from the country’s far western and northern provinces, including Tibet and Qinghai, are more likely to be deleted by censors.

Political Freedom and Co-Optation

In many instances, citizens and opinion leaders have used social media to expose government wrongdoing (Sullivan, 2014). Opinion leaders with large followings frequently post versions of events that counter official narratives (Tong & Lei, 2013). Hassid (2012) noted that “Chinese bloggers routinely uncover corruption, help solve social problems, and even pressure state officials to change policy” (p. 212). Because these types of stories are often ignored or censored in the traditional Chinese media, Sullivan (2014) suggested that new media channels may be even more important and credible than in other countries with more open and free media.

Despite the government’s wary eyes, Chinese activists are able to utilize officially banned social media platforms to communicate through VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) and elude China’s Internet firewall and access censored content. For example, the artist-activist Ai Weiwei uses Twitter to communicate with a Chinese audience. Millions of China’s Internet users, especially the elite class, regularly use free VPNs to trick the firewall into thinking that the user is accessing foreign sites from an IP address located abroad, rather than from within China (McCarthy, 2016). Some even subscribe to a paid VPN service in exchange for relatively unfettered access. Strafella and Berg (2015) noted that “the mainland [China]-based Twitter population may be more likely than other netizens to share Ai Weiwei’s yearning for freedom of expression; one could even argue that he tweets to a self-selected audience” (p. 144).

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Figure 9. Twitter page of artist-activist Ai Weiwei. Author screengrab.

Such maneuvers have led to speculation that social media will catalyze broader political change in China. In a 2005 op-ed entitled “Death by a Thousand Blogs,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argues that “it’s the Chinese leadership itself that is digging the Communist Party’s grave, by giving the Chinese people broadband,” which allows them to expose state malfeasance. However, as Tong and Lei (2013) noted, “This war. . .in cyberspace is not consciously waged by the opposition and therefore lacks a clearly defined strategy and goals” (p. 297), in addition to which coordination is often lacking. Furthermore, many scholars believe that the current system may actually serve the state’s interests. For example, MacKinnon (2008) argued that forums, chatrooms, and blogs also serve as a “safety valve” by allowing enough room for a sufficiently wide range of subjects so that people can let off steam about government corruption or incompetence, thus giving people more things to do with their frustrations before considering taking their gripes to the streets. Tong and Lei (2013) noted that the problem is that more government micro accountability may reduce the pressure for democracy. If the incidents are resolved more or less according to what the netizens hope for, they feel satisfied afterward. If people can have justice served sitting at home in front of the computer, there is no pressing reason to go to the street and risk their lives.

Additionally, social media comments can serve as a helpful early warning system for the government. Poell, de Kloet, and Zeng (2014) noted that the Internet offers direct access to citizens’ unembellished political views, “allowing officials to identify and fix problems before they provoke popular unrest” (p. 3). Hassid (2012) added that such exposés allow the party to especially stay in the know about politicians below the state level. In fact, the government itself has invited citizens to communicate with it through web chats and other forms of social media (MacKinnon, 2011). Sullivan (2014) argued that the seeming transparency and accountability conceal the government’s strategic use of China’s microblogosphere to create a façade of democracy. The Chinese government employs heavy-handed tactics to attempt to control and shape social media conversations. Government entities maintain official social media accounts which they utilize to engage with critics (Lu, 2015). Keane (2012) reported that local government propaganda departments contain “‘rumor refutation’ departments . . . [which] scan posts for forbidden topics and issue knock-down rebuttals . . . Citizens are encouraged to report anti-government conversations” (p. 10). Additionally, the government employs an estimated 280,000 people as “fifty cent” commentators, a derogatory term for the fifty cents they are supposedly paid for each pro-government post (Bandurski, 2008). Much like the “Internet Water Army” that metaphorically floods the cyberspace with preordered messages, MacKinnon (2011) explained that these people are paid to write posts that defend their political employers in a favorable light in online chatrooms, social-networking services, blogs, and comments sections of news websites. Many more people do similar work as volunteers—recruited from the ranks of retired officials as well as college students in the Communist Youth League who aspire to become party members.

Other Challenges with Social Media’s Political Power in China

In addition to state censorship, Chinese citizens undoubtedly self-censor their own posts because criticizing the government can result in “early-morning swoops by plain-clothed police known as ‘interceptors’; illegal detentions; [and] violent beatings by unidentified thugs” (Keane, 2012, p. 11). Sullivan (2014) noted that online activists tend to receive most attention and punishment, such as detentions, for challenging the state authority, so that online criticism tends to be limited to specific incidents and remain “compartmentalized.” Another reason to doubt the power of social media in China to catalyze broader political change is because those using social media with the most sophistication are the least disenfranchised. MacKinnon (2008) pointed out that the people that tend to be most active in the blogosphere also have gained the most from China’s recent rise and it is too risky for them to fight for more freedom than they are already enjoying, especially the kind of freedom that does not directly benefit themselves.

China’s social media platforms share the same problem with their Western counterparts in the difficulty of determining the veracity of information shared on social media. Liu (2015) argued that although the social media “explosion” has intensified the spread of information about events such as natural disasters that could be censored in the traditional Chinese media, it is also now more challenging to tell accurate reporting from subjective information. Gao (2012) pointed out that in contrast to the West, Chinese users are more likely to trust social media rumors because they are all too aware of the state’s routine practice of silencing traditional news outlets rather than a sizable body of individual and anonymous social media users.

To conclude, although heavily repressed by state censorship and indirect control, there is evidence that the use of social media in mainland China and elsewhere does foment broader political dissatisfaction. Lee, So, and Leung (2015) found, for example, that people who use Facebook to access political news were more likely to support the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014 and were less satisfied and less trusting of the government. They note that social media amplify dissenting views and promote political participation through social connections. Yang (2013) likewise saw Chinese citizens “experimenting with forms of citizen democracy” online (p. 221). Alaimo (2015) found that in the case of the Egyptian revolution, social media were used to “soften” the Egyptian people by educating them about the abuses of their government and help them gradually become more comfortable with deeper levels of activism, so that they were prepared when a political opportunity for regime change arose. We may think of social media as playing a similar role in preparing the Chinese users for more radical moments of action. Largely due to the same consideration, the Chinese government kept a heavy lid on social media engagements during the Arab Spring movements.

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Figure 10. Facebook posts about the Umbrella Movement in 2014, including Weiboscope sharing deleted Sina Weibo post about the movement. Author screengrab.

The next section discusses a synopsis of case studies that suggest a civil society could continue to emerge and engage regular Chinese citizens with the rise of social media. As scholars have proposed, we should not rush to dismiss the civic significance of China’s social media in spite of its flaws. Given the stubborn reality of a weak democracy, maybe social media platforms at least deserve the credit for shaping an emergent civil society that promises to prepare and organize its citizens.

Civic Implications of Social Media in China

Chinese Social Media as Powerful Platforms for Diverse Civic Causes

Before social media took off globally, Yang (2003) noted that the Internet spread to China around the same time that its civil society was starting to take shape. Using the case of early online Internet forums, especially the one organized by China’s “educated youth generation,” Yang concludes that its civil society and the Internet fed energy into each other’s development due to their similarly interactive features. Yang further argues that we should not limit our evaluation of the Internet from a strictly political perspective. A thriving civil society that takes advantage of the Internet will not only complicate the state’s control of the Internet but also challenge its rule over civic organizations offline.

Since the emergence of China’s indigenous social media outlets, much research has looked into the ways in which social media sites, especially microblogging services, lend themselves as a powerful tool for Chinese users to organize their voices and protest against unjust social issues or policy practices. Although many studies tend to conclude on a cautionary note about the deficiencies in this new power, scholars continue to argue for the great civic implications of the wide range of social issues being discussed and debated on China’s social media space. Thanks to their wide access to popular Chinese services, citizens of China highlight issues that are of prime interest to them, in spite of governmental agendas or cover-ups in certain instances. Such topics reflect deep concerns with one’s life quality in today’s China, ranging from air pollution (Jiang, Wang, Tsou, & Fu, 2015), to the country’s birth-control policy (Shi, 2014), to other failures of public infrastructure (Bondes & Schucher, 2014; Wu, 2012). Although these social media exchanges may not directly challenge China’s politics or its Communist rule, citizens’ impassionate investments in their online efforts and success in pushing for accountability offline have undeniably helped them to flex their civic muscles and arguably prepared them for more transformational political movements.

Using the case of the Slut Walk movement, which encompasses worldwide protests of rape culture that tends to place the blame on the victims, Zhang and Kramarae (2014) observed that social media offer a potential channel for Chinese citizens to join global cultural discourses and actions. While the Chinese government keeps its wary watch over all forms of civic engagement, the scholars suggest that feminist performances over China’s social media serve a safer yet meaningful venue for their users’ constructions of gender identities. Specifically, they studied the case in which Sina Weibo users protested a victim-blaming post published by the Shanghai Metro on its Weibo page regarding the connection between women’s outfits while riding the subway and sexual harassment. In addition to vocal protests, China’s microbloggers also engaged in debates and playful ridicules of online comments, which surprisingly were not met with any major response or censorship by any official agency. The authors read some of the playful exchanges as granting social media users a certain freedom that is not bound by political sensitivities, although they could also be disruptive toward feminist causes by diluting their serious messages.

Such a defiant attitude toward China’s authorities was brought into stark relief after a high-speed train crash killed 39 passengers and injured about 200 in 2011 (Bondes & Schucher, 2014). Noting that the Chinese netizens were enraged by the lack of oversight or satisfying public response by China’s government, Bondes and Schucher (2014) detected not only open challenge to the national agency directly responsible for the accident but also broader commentaries about governmental accountability exchanged via Sina Weibo. Although they stayed away from making outright criticisms of the central government, microbloggers reached beyond the accident in and of itself, and reflected on other similar deep-rooted social issues of which the accident was merely a manifestation.

Furthermore, Wu (2012) suggested that the “7.23 Accident,” a commonly used reference to the collision of two high-speed trains in the Zhejiang province of China on July 23 (therefore 7.23), 2011, was a landmark event in the way China’s middle class participated in online activism, especially through social media. Before the accident, their civic engagement was more driven by self-interest and offered little more than lip service to those of the lower class and those in need. However, as the victims of the “7.23 Accident” were primarily from China’s middle class, and could afford the sizable price for a speed-rail train ticket, they launched into a formidable online speech community. Such moments of public crisis brought people together from different social strata in voicing their grievances about the failures of China’s system.

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Figure 11. Sina Weibo page of one 7.23 victim’s husband, which received lots of attention. Author screengrab.

Scholars have particularly commended social media for providing social support to China’s marginalized and underprivileged, such as online support groups for people living with HIV/AIDS (Shi & Chen, 2014). Zhang (2013) examined how social media promise to weaken the digital and social gap between the “new generation” of migrant workers in China, “those born in the 1980s and 1990s to parents who were first-generation migrant workers” (p. 64), and higher social classes. In general, Hu (2012) attributed the rise in civil rights mobilization in China to its citizens’ wider access to the Internet. Although concerns remain that the young, educated urban elites of China disproportionately dominate new communication technologies (Kay, Zhao, & Sui, 2015), Hu (2012) claimed that with the lack of “a functioning civil society” in China, both farmers and workers stand to benefit from the Internet in fighting for their rights. Contrary to popular belief, there is a significant level of freedom in China’s cyberspace. It is relatively safe to criticize the government, its associated institutions, or its policies, as long as such criticisms do not lead to offline actions (Herold, 2008; King, Pan, & Roberts, 2013), and especially when they primarily target governments below the level of state authorities (Shi, 2014).

Looking at earlier sites of online resistance and mobilization, including BBS (Bulletin Board System), IM (Instant Messenger), and Weblogs, Hu (2012) found acute awareness of civil rights among China’s netizens and their emphasis on collective interests over individual benefits. The author goes as far as to claim that such involvements are the most meaningful form of political participation for China’s citizens. With the advent of microblogging, the convergence between the two has come to its prime manifestation as Hu (2012) noted a rise in regular citizens running for local political offices and campaigning through their microblogging sites.

New pieces continue to emerge about many positive cases in which China’s social media users exhibit remarkable agency, which has led scholars to venture that a meaningful civil society is forming in the country’s restrictive political environment (Shi & Yang, 2016; Svensson, 2016). The case studies above demonstrate a civil society becoming stronger through the opportunities social media platforms are creating for Chinese citizens. Citizens discuss issues, voice discontent, question the government, promote causes, provide social support, campaign for offices online, and engage with members of other social classes. Such cases resonate with Deng and Jing’s Positive Interaction Theory in that the Chinese civil society exhibits a great level of agency and strength in holding the state authorities accountable on a variety of issues. However, celebrations often conclude on a note of caution. The next section discusses limits within the civil society that are taking shape through China’s social media.

Limits of China’s Civil Society Through Social Media

Although Chinese citizens display an extraordinary level of critical awareness and frequently exchange biting criticisms about China’s authorities and its social issues, scholars have raised concerns about their actual significance for constructive policy changes, the potential repercussions of uncivil behaviors, and most importantly, a hierarchy of power in the social media sphere that inhibits the impact of regular citizens on China’s politics.

First of all, although scholars celebrate the finding that public voices circulated through China’s social media platforms tend to be more critical than established media outlets, they also worry that angry citizens in China simply turn social media into a venting channel that accomplishes nothing more than letting off steam. For example, Mou (2014) pointed out that when complaining about systemic issues such as lapses in food safety, the public tend to be more cynical than practical, given their lack of know-how about the sciences behind the controversies; thus, they share misinformation in a mass panic about their personal well-being. Similarly, Zhang (2013) found that negative emotions about China’s migrant workers’ life experiences tend to outnumber positive expressions. Such pessimistic sentiments may distract from, if not pacify, any real effort to make changes.

Social Media in Mainland China: Weak Democracy, Emergent Civil SocietyClick to view larger

Figure 12. Online posts sharing panic after repeated reports about young children being administered with vaccines that have expired and lost their effect, leading some parents to bypass vaccines for their children. Author screengrab.

Even in the cases where citizens pressed for actual changes, public outcry channeled in the social media sphere tends to only result in punishments to local authorities, without posing fundamental challenge to state policy itself (Shi & Chen, 2014). More studies suggest that China’s microbloggers express a lot of negative emotions toward authorities without presenting clear demands (Bondes & Schucher, 2014). Such expressions also tend to be dispersed over individual opinions and interests and therefore lack uniting power or any explicit calls for action. The political power of civic exchanges remains limited. Heated online debates at best help circulate abstract notions about democratic ideals, rather than lead to any concrete plans for action in challenging China’s state authority (Wu, 2012).

Furthermore, scholars are concerned that the critical approach to one’s social media engagements often encourages uncivil behavior among the users rather than productive solutions to the actual problems that prompted the conversations. Herold (2008) studied cases of online vigilantism and pointed out that the Chinese government adopts a fairly laissez-faire approach to online regulations when Chinese netizens take matters into their own hands and seek justice among fellow citizens, as long as such actions do not threaten the central government’s authority. In many such instances, people experience life-threatening harassments when they find themselves at the center of public controversies around their previous offenses. The Chinese government, which is usually notorious for its tight control over China’s Internet, tends not to intervene in the justice-seeking actions by mobs of Internet vigilantes, regardless of the grave consequences to certain individuals’ personal lives. A “truce” exists between the Chinese government and civil society online, especially given that the latter often operates in defense of the national pride and nationalistic sentiments, which may work in the government’s favor. Furthermore, the Communist Party continues to reinforce the narrative online that associates its rule with the country’s economic well-being, which tends to discourage any serious push for political democracy.

Even when citizens attempt any push, they frequently bump into the formidable Great Firewall of China. Bamman, O’Connor, and Smith (2012) confirmed the general assumption that politically sensitive words are frequently deleted on Chinese social media platforms. However, curiously, such references are not always deleted, even when the posts express support for a sensitive subject. The authors suggest that the Chinese government may not be operating its social media censorship machine on the premise of a simple blacklist but may also calibrate the terms’ sensitivity levels based on current events and the geographical location from which such posts are made. In general, posts that come from the more contentious and remote areas of China tend to face a higher deletion rate.

The Chinese social media censorship machine is not only more sophisticated than a low-grade filter of sensitive triggers, but it is also set to be particularly tuned to action-oriented posts. King, Pan, and Roberts (2013) followed a wide net of social media postings during the first half of 2011 and found that those with collective action potential, even when they are supportive of the government, have a much higher chance of being censored within the first 24 hours of posting than those without the potential, even when they are scathingly critical of the government. The authors suggest that such a differential treatment between the action-based posts and those that are not, rather than that between disapproving or favorable comments toward the government, may further facilitate the Chinese authorities’ efforts in monitoring public opinion through its Internet and maintaining the façade of freedom of expression, the premise for a regime’s legitimacy.

Although the Great Firewall of China (the Golden Shield Project is its official name) has a more nuanced approach to its social media censorship than a simple “delete” button, all bets are off during episodes of public relations crisis. Auer and Fu (2015) studied the case of a provocative documentary Under the Dome, which was originally released under governmental approval, but censors quickly took the documentary off the web after it started to incite a lot of public anger over environmental pollution in China and especially calls for governmental responsibility and collective action. In addition to deleting Weibo posts that were action oriented, which tend to encounter more scrutiny, the government seemed perturbed enough about online exchanges that simply expressed concerns about China’s environmental issues. Such opinion-based posts were wiped as well.

Last but not least, scholars are not ready to declare a ripe civil society in China thanks to its social media due to the concern that elites continue to dominate the social media space. For example, although social media platforms promise to close the gap for China’s migrant workers with higher classes, Zhang (2013) observed that they tend to generate more information-based posts, and opinion leaders dominate the area of opinion expressions. The author treats this as a sign that microblogging services could potentially perpetuate social exclusion for the migrant workers. In addition, Mou (2014) suggested that although ordinary users outnumber formal institutions on social media outlets, communication in China remains largely top-down.

As a result of such reservations about the actual impact of Chinese social media users’ active civic engagement, the debate remains inconclusive over whether a strong civil society is forming through China’s social media. Although the Chinese civil society does not meet Western standards (Brook & Frolic, 1997), as Taylor (1990) reminded us, the extent to which civil society exists even in the West is questionable. In the conclusion, we draw on arguments that have carefully considered both the optimistic and the negative assessments of the civil society fermented through Chinese users’ social media use and connections. The proposal is to acknowledge the idealistic, therefore not particularly realistic, aspects within the model of a civil society and adopt a more empirically open-minded approach to the contributions by a social-media-enabled civil society in China to its idiosyncratic political life.

Creative Building of China’s Civil Society Through Its Social Media

Twenty-first-century scholarship in Western societies has been contending for a shift away from formal, traditional political participation toward more issue-based civic engagement (Brooks & Hodkinson, 2008; Dahlgren, 2007; Harris, 2008; Ward, 2008). To a large extent, this has been a universal transition across the West-East divide among the younger generations (Svensson, 2016). We are seeing less commitment to behaviors that label one as a model citizen, such as joining institutional initiatives toward a common good and a weak civil society for that matter; however, instead of rushing to dismiss the Chinese civil society for its apparent flaws, we need to take a more empirically grounded approach to the actualities of civic engagement (Svensson, 2016). As Brook and Frolic (1997) more radically state, civil society serves more as an ideal than a reality. Therefore, instead of measuring Chinese social media users’ activities against an idealistic yardstick, and especially one that arose from the Western model of liberal democracy, we may gain more insights about how civil society acts as a meaningful space for Chinese citizens to work on issues that concern them the most. In other words, the most productive conversation may not revolve around a rigid definition of what civil society is but rather how it actually operates.

To achieve such an empirical understanding toward the role of social media in China’s civic life, scholars could devote attention to the creative ways in which Chinese Internet users bypass state censorship and pass harsh commentaries on their life situations in contemporary China. For example, in the latest collection on social media and civic engagement in China (deLisle, Goldstein, & Yang, 2016), Jiang (2016) interrogated the practice of “political jamming” in China, while Svensson (2016) honed in on the phenomenon of image sharing via social media, both of which involve popular Internet cultural practices such as memes and Photoshopping. While the most provocative images tend to highlight dark realities confronting the underprivileged in China and the abuse of privileges by the powerful, Svensson (2016) suggested that microblogging, particularly image sharing via social media, fosters a form of reverse surveillance, or “sousveillance,” which turns the gaze around at the privileged and connects citizens and civic leaders in the presence of an intimidating political body.

In the same spirit as taking a more grounded approach, scholars could give more voice to the working knowledge of Chinese citizens in their day-to-day social media engagements. For example, Shi and Yang (2016) drew on the first author’s experiences in directly working with actors and organizations in China’s civil society to argue that social media can serve as an important empowerment tool for forming “imagined micro communities” and connecting their users around a wider range of common concerns than during the pre-Internet age. The authors cite the examples of disaster relief efforts and other philanthropic involvements enabled by China’s social media platforms. They contend that social media have more power to offer than not, especially when the state and China’s civil society join forces.

As China’s social media continue their active growth and expansion, scholarly attention has also turned to other underexplored areas of civic engagement, especially social media use that is more directly geared toward entertainment purposes. Through the first author’s research of online discussions about Super Girl, a widely popular talent show modeled on American Idol, Wu (2014) noted that entertainment can provide an alternative venue for Chinese citizens to construct deep social commentaries that may count as meaningful civic engagement. Given China’s political sensitivities, it is remarkable that entertainment viewers can go online and voice critical reflections on China’s social issues, such as inequality. As entertainment occupies a prominent position in an average citizen’s life, including their social media use, we expect more research on the civic implications of social media’s use for entertainment purposes in mainland China.

Although it has existed for a short time, China’s civil society, the kind taking shape via the help of social media included, exhibits a mixture of virtues and vices. Progress toward a democratic future is incremental but hopeful (MacKinnon, 2008). By Western standards, the state of affairs in China may appear perplexing and discouraging, but the Internet has enabled vast grassroots connections that was not previously possible under the authoritarian rule of the country. More radically, some would claim that the Internet has given birth to “an independent and resistant Chinese civil society” (Hu, 2012, p. 110). While a categorical statement is beyond the point, the genie is out of the bottle. Future research promises a lot of important insights by looking deeply into the creative and ingenious ways in which social media users continue to build a meaningful civil society in China.

Further Reading

He, W. (2016). Networked public: Social media and social change in contemporary China. New York: Springer.Find this resource:

Jiang, M. (2010). Authoritarian deliberation on Chinese Internet. Electronic Journal of Communication, 20(3–4).Find this resource:

Lagerkvist, J. (2006). The Internet in China: Unlocking and containing the public sphere. Lund, Sweden: Lund University Press.Find this resource:

Li, S. (2010). The online public space and popular ethos in China. Media, Culture & Society, 32, 63–83.Find this resource:

Yang, G. (Ed.). (2014). Special issue on Cyberpolitics. China Information, 28(2).Find this resource:

Chen, W. (Ed.). (2010). The Internet, social networks and civic engagement in Chinese societies. Special issue: Information, Communication & Society, 14(1).Find this resource:

Hong, J. (Ed.). (2017). Special issue: Telematics and Informatics. Social Media in China, 34(3).Find this resource:

Yu, H. (2017). Networking China: The digital transformation of the Chinese economy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Find this resource:

Zheng, Y. (2007). Technological empowerment: The Internet, state, and society in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Find this resource:

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