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.
Jingsi Christina Wu and Kara S. Alaimo
Intergroup communication is an important aspect of dealing with intergroup conflicts in post-conflict societies, including countries of the former Yugoslavia. Widespread monolithic and authoritarian communication is one of the main obstacles to constructive communication about the past in the former Yugoslavia, and the challenges involved in shifting the nature of communication, although rarely addressed and explored, seem to be a condition sine qua non of effective reconciliation efforts. This should include contact and communication issues as well as the very process through which the shift from authoritarian (one-way) communication, which perpetuates conflicts, to inclusive (two-way) communication, which has reconciliatory potential, can be achieved. Allport’s intergroup contact hypothesis, its revisions and further elaborations in relation to the use of inclusive communication for overcoming divisions and reaching reconciliation in post-conflict societies, as well as restorative and transformative justice literature, including experiences of using yoga as part of restorative justice and reconciliation programs, can serve as good theoretical departures. As we explore communication as a way toward reconciliation in post-conflict societies using as an illustration experiences from the former Yugoslavia, we need to be aware of intergroup communication on the macro, meso, and micro level and its impact on reconciliation after the armed conflicts of the 1990s. Conflicts on the macro level include conflicts between the states, or on the level of the society, while meso-level conflicts are intergroup conflicts; micro-level conflicts relate to interpersonal conflicts. Also we need to understand the scope and nature of interethnic and other intercultural conflicts, as well as their socio-historical context and impact on intergroup communication. Thus, addressing intergroup communication in a constructive and inclusive way while dealing with the past and implementing reconciliation initiatives is important. Intergroup communication initiatives that foster reconciliation in particular need to be identified and explored, as examples of the practice of establishing inclusive communication and binding people from different ethnic groups and those affected by armed conflicts in different ways together.
The concept of public culture refers most broadly to the dynamic negotiation of beliefs, values, and attitudes regarding collective association through media and other social practices that are defined by norms of open access and voluntary response. The concept is a recent innovation and applies primarily to modern societies, where public culture is the envelope of communication practices within which public opinion is formed; those practices can include news, entertainment, the arts, advertising, social media, and many other means for representing and judging any individual, institution, or custom having collective significance. The term “public” emphasizes relatively unrestricted communication across civil society regarding governance and other matters affecting the general welfare. The term “culture” emphasizes that public opinion depends on contextual factors that emerge through multiple media and embodied responsiveness. These considerations provide a basis for analysis of distinctively modern relationships across civil society, media technologies, and political action in a global context.
Jürgen Habermas is a primary figure in the Frankfurt School of critical theory that emerged in Germany after World War II. He wrote several important works addressing a variety of fields, including legal hermeneutics, to liberal political philosophy, to systems theory, and language analysis. Throughout his research, he has lauded intersubjective “communicative action” as a key paradigm for politics, law, and ethics. Habermas’s theory of communicative action frames human beings as rational arguers. In his view, communication involves discussants disputing “validity claims” to gain mutual understanding and reach consensus. When he applies this communicative action perspective to culture and society, Habermas diagnoses the pathologies that occur when people coordinate their actions strategically through artificial systems rather than cooperatively through dialogue. When he applies it to ethical theory, he draws out the assumptions interlocutors must make when they argue—they are obliged to attempt to justify claims so that they could be universally accepted by those involved in the discourse. In addition to theorizing communication, Habermas throughout his work analyzes the structures and systems that enable public communication in civil society. From this perspective, democratic society relies on spaces and institutions that allow for the public to debate matters of common concern, particularly when they involve the state. In his historical account, Habermas argues that the “public sphere” transformed during the Enlightenment to give communicative outlets to an emerging bourgeois class. From a legal and philosophical perspective, he outlines conditions for political and communicative agency in a modern constitutional state. Communication scholars have had a mixed reaction to Habermas. He offers a vision of critical theory that allows for practical reason, but some assert that his theories are too idealistic and counterfactual to apply to real-life discourse. However, other scholars have nuanced his theory by putting him in dialogue with the rhetorical tradition. Publics and counterpublics especially have become common parlance and have helped explain protest, advocacy, and the constitution of communities in democratic culture.