China’s authoritarian adaptation towards social media


The rising of social media in China

According to Go Globe, China had an estimated 597 million people active on social media by the end of 2012. The country’s top 10 social sites have a staggering 3.2 billion individual accounts. Without question, the rise of social media sites has fundamentally altered the flow of information on China’s Internet.

It is a commonly held assumption that the Internet along with social media is ultimately a force for democratization. Social media provides real opportunities for democratization and political transformation, especially in societies where freedom of speech and expression is constrained by government controls. The Arab spring in 2011 is a supportive instance for this assumption. [1]

Small victories

So will the rise of social media lead to democratic and political transformations in China?  The large participation in online discussions, petitions and protests in China influence public opinion, checks the authority, and challenges the government.  In the past few years, the voices in social media have produced results.

In April 2003, long before the dramatic increase of social media penetration during the last 3 years, the name of Sun Zhigang hit social media of the time. ‘‘A university graduate detained and cruelly beaten to death for not showing his temporary resident card.’’ At first traditional media didn’t cover the incident, and the case would have been closed without public attention, if it were not for the Chinese netizens’ coordinated efforts to push the case online. This was the first time that an ordinary person was given so much attention in the national media. The case closed in June 2003, with 18 people tried and convicted and 23 government officials punished outside the legal system, and led to the abolition of anti-vagrancy laws (the reason for Sun’s detention). This was the very first time that people in China discovered the power of social media.

With the rise of Weibo (the Chinese copycat of Twitter and Facebook) in the past few years, and similar services powered by its competitors, this kind of small victories is not uncommon. From the list of events below, you will catch a glimpse of the victories that social media have brought about in recent years.

2007. Xiamen Demonstration against the building of a PX chemical plant.

2009. Deng Yujiao Incident, which resonated with the public anger over the corruption and immorality of officials.

2010. Li Gang Incident, a 22-year-old drunk diver asked for immunity after he hit a student to death, as his father (Li Gang) was the deputy director of the local public security bureau.

2011. Guo Meimei, a young girl who triggered the online attention over the corruption in the Red Cross Society of China.

2011. Wukan Protests, was an anti-corruption protest that led to a democratic election in the southern China village.

2011.  Wenzhou Train Collision,

2012. Beijing Smog and PM 2.5, the protest against the severe air pollution in Beijing, which led to the series of environmental investment and the establishment of the new air quality standard.

Based on these events, can we suggest that social media is shaping China towards democratization? The answer is probably no!

Authoritarian Adaptation

The social media is a tool, but not a cause of political change. Thus, the social media rising in China does not guarantee it will bring democracy to China. Despite the small victories discussed above, the Chinese government has succeeded through censorship and regulation to prevent activists from using social media as an effective political tool.

The social media may be new, but its challenge to the Chinese leadership is not.  Since the former chief of Chinese Communist Party, Deng Xiaopin began the policy of “Reform and Opening Up” in 1979, the government has learned how to balancing openness with control. As one of Deng’s famous saying “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” [2]

The Chinese government adapt to new social media age through two main strategies: openness and censorship, two terms sound in contradiction.

To the openness side, it is unarguable that the Chinese government has supported the development of the Internet as a tool for business, entertainment, education, and information exchange at the best. On 24 September of 2013, it even announced an uncensored Internet access plan within the Pilot Free Trade Zone in Shanghai. Also as the small victories I listed above, the government had listened to the public concern and taken part in the discussion. The authorities have come up with serious responses to events such as Wenzhou Train Collision and Beijing Smog and PM 2.5. And that is why those incidents have had no further repercussions. Thus, people’s expectations for better government have been building up while delaying the kind of political transformation needed to deliver it.

On the censorship side, it has implemented “the most elaborate system for internet content control in the world” [3], which helps preventing events from out of control. It is commonly recognized that Chinese social media censorship works in 3 ways: [4]

First, “The Great Firewall of China,” which disallows certain entire Web sites from operating in the country such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.

Second, “Keywords blocking” which stops a user from posting text that contain banned words or phrases.

Third, manual censors will read and remove sensitive content.

Besides these 3 ways of censor online information, there is an important aspect that there is no clear censor standard to follow. According to the Chinese law, the content provider should be responsible for the potential trouble. This would lead to the overly self-censor by the social media sites itself in order to keep from shut down. Additionally, as there is no top down censorship method, it will promote innovation and competition in the censorship technologies and then as an enhancement of the overall censorship system.

However, according to the latest empirical studies conducted in 2013 by Gary King, a Harvard University professor and his team, it suggests the censorship in China allows government criticism but silences collective expression. [4] [5] That means theoretically, social media users enjoy larger freedom as long as they are not planning any collective action.

We can say that the overall censorship methods implemented in China’s social media make it more like a giant cage. [6] At the same time, the government allows a distinctly social media sites to flourish and ensures a relatively larger freedom to the people, thus it managed to build the cage a better place that most people would choose to stay quietly rather than try to break out. To this extend, the China’s government succeeded in adapting to the social media era through an evolutionary rather than revolutionary way.


1. Jeffrey Ghannam. 2013. “Social Media in the Arab World: Leading up to the Uprisings of 2011”

2. Rebecca MacKinnon. 2007. “Flatter world and thicker walls? Blogs, censorship and civic discourse in China”

3. Freedom House. 2012. “Freedom of the Press, 2012.”

4. King, Gary, Jennifer Pan and Margaret E. Roberts. 2013. “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression.” American Political Science Review 107:1–18.

5. King, Gary, Jennifer Pan and Margaret E. Roberts. 2013. “A Randomized Experimental Study of Censorship in China.”

6. The Economist. 2013. “China’s Internet – A giant cage”



One thought on “China’s authoritarian adaptation towards social media

  1. Pingback: The Role of Social Media for Civic Action | Understanding Social Media

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