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.