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Jiang 2010: Authoritarian Deliberation on Chinese Internet
Electronic Journal of Communication

Volume 20 Numbers 3 & 4, 2010

Authoritarian deliberation on Chinese Internet

Min Jiang
Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

Abstract: Modern authoritarianism relies on a combination of patriotism and legitimacy based on performance rather than ideology. As such, a modern authoritarian government has to allow for some forms of political discussion and participation from which popular consent to authoritarian rule is derived. With 335 million Internet users, 182 million bloggers, and 155 million netizens able to access the Internet through their mobile phones (CNNIC, 2009b), China presents an interesting case to examine public deliberation online. Adapting the concept of authoritarian deliberation (He, 2006a) from an offline environment to an online one, this article proposes four types of online spaces of authoritarian deliberation extending from the core to the peripheries of authoritarian rule: central propaganda spaces, government-regulated commercial spaces, emergent civic spaces, and international deliberative spaces. The paper discusses their characteristics and implications for political participation in China and argues that democracy need not be a precursor to public deliberation. Instead, public deliberation may flourish as a viable alternative to the radical electoral democracy in authoritarian countries like China.

“Without legitimacy, words are invalid; invalid words lead man to nowhere” (Mingbuzheng ze yanbushun; yanbushun ze shibucheng). – Confucius

In 1994, China connected to the World Wide Web. By mid-1998, Chinese Internet users reached one million. Ten years later, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest Internet market. By July 2009, China had 335 million Internet users, 25.5% of its population. Among them, 182 million have blogs1 (China Internet Network Information Center [CNNIC], 2009b).

The exponential growth of the information sector helped China leapfrog into the digital age and galvanized its economy. However, it also amplified voices of the masses, much to the horror of the one-party state, as the Editor-in-Chief of People’s Net said: “What would it look like if everybody went into politics? … China has more than 100 million Internet users. If they were all free to speak their minds, we would have a very serious situation” (quoted from Lagerkvist, 2006, p. 9). It almost seems that President Reagan foresaw fear of this sort when he remarked in 1989 that “[t]he Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip” (quoted from Kalathil & Boas, 2003, p. 1). Yet despite the doom and gloom about the regime’s fate upon the arrival of information technology, the Chinese government has so far managed to weave and guard a sophisticated authoritarian web through various means of censorship (Boas, 2006). So, the state’s extensive Internet regulation runs against an impressive degree of Internet activism (Yang, 2006) that has led the famed Hong Kong blogger Roland Song to believe that “the dam is leaking all over the place” (2008).

Contrary to Western mainstream media’s sketch of China’s cyberspace as nothing but highly policed and censored, there is lively online public discussion of social, political, and policy issues, albeit largely within the expanding boundaries consented to by the state. Those who view the Chinese citizenry as an obedient and undifferentiated populace waiting to be enlightened and freed grossly miss the heterogeneity and cacophony of public opinion in Chinese cyberspace today. If forms of public deliberation promise to expand the public sphere and elevate democratic practice in the West (Gastil & Black, 2008), do they hold any potential for China, a society under the watchful eye of a powerful government? What emergent spaces for public deliberation, however limited, can help unlock China’s online public sphere (Lagerkvist, 2006)? In what ways has public deliberation among Chinese Internet users challenged or supported the state? And what implications does it have for social and political pluralism and liberalization in China, if not democratization?

This article explores the spaces, dynamics, and implications of online public deliberation in a rapidly changing Chinese society. First, I draw upon Western theories of public sphere and public deliberation and discuss their relevance to Chinese online public discourses. In particular, to account for pervasive government control of Internet access and content, and increasing commercial influence in China’s online spaces, this paper extends the concept of authoritarian deliberation developed by Baogang He (2006a, 2006b) for China’s offline deliberative experiences to Chinese cyberspace. Second, this paper examines how China’s peculiar sociopolitical contexts shape its online deliberative spaces. I propose four major types of spaces of authoritarian deliberation extending from the core to the peripheries of authoritarian rule: central propaganda spaces, government-regulated commercial spaces, emergent civic sp aces, and international deliberative spaces. I consider the dynamics of deliberation and state control in each and finally discuss the implications of online authoritarian deliberation in China.

Democratic Deliberation and Authoritarian Deliberation

Theories of public deliberation and discursive participation, built upon a framework of representative democracy or deliberative democracy (Chambers, 2003; Dryzek, 2006; Gastil & Black, 2008) have until recently excluded the experience of deliberation in China (He, 2006a; Leib & He, 2006). I argue, however, that the implicit assumption that democracy needs to be a precursor to public deliberation not only overlooks emerging empirical evidence of public deliberation in less democratic societies (He, 2006a, 2006b; Leib & He, 2006; Yang, 2003, 2006, 2008), but also inhibits consideration of alternative routes to liberalization and democratization in these societies. Here, I disti nguish democratic deliberation from authoritarian deliberation. The latter is no substitute for deliberative democracy but acknowledges limited public deliberation in countries like China, especially in online settings. The very development of public deliberative experiences and institutions, particularly at the grassroots levels, may help cultivate a critical citizenry and build a broader passage to increased political participation, civil liberties, and better governance in such transitional societies.

Democratic Deliberation

Rooted in theories of democracy, various definitions of public deliberation tend to agree on increasing the legitimacy and quality of decision making through informed and popular discussions. “Public” indicates open scrutiny as opposed to private chat (Sennett, 1977). “Deliberation” suggests rational debate between participants. Public deliberation advocates a “talk-centric” approach to democracy instead of a “voting-centric” one that is the cornerstone of liberal representative democracy (Chambers, 2003; Fung & Wright, 2003). It is hoped that the very practice of public deliberation can approximate the public sphere as a social space where private individuals are able to engage in rational debate to reach a consensus free from coercion (Habermas, 1989; 1996).

So far, much of the literature on public deliberation has rested upon a rather idealized notion of the public sphere and a normative view of collective discursive deliberation. For instance, most recently, Gastil and Black (2008) define public deliberation as the following: “When people deliberate, they carefully examine a problem and arrive at a well-reasoned solution after a period of inclusive, respectful consideration of diverse points of view” (p. 2). Combining both analytical and social aspects, this definition resonates with both Dewey’s (1910) conceptualization of problem solving and Habermas’s writing on the public sphere. The Deweyan perspective on problem solving is rational and analytical: creating a solid information base, prioritizing the key values, identifying a broad range of solutions, weighing the pros, cons, and tradeoffs among the solutions, and lastly choosing the be st solution possible. The consideration of the social aspects of public deliberation also bears the imprint of Habermasian notions of the public sphere and communicative action: adequate opportunity to speak, rights to comprehend, obligation to consider others’ opinions, and respect for all.

This normative approach, however, is often criticized for its idealism and instrumentalism. For instance, Fraser (1990), Mouffe (1996), and Young (1996) have on various occasions critiqued the concept of the public sphere for its lack of attention to coercive forms of power in public discourse, the exclusion of affective modes of communication in favor of rational discourse, and its tendency to promote consensus as the purpose of deliberation. As the Internet is increasingly viewed as a public sphere (Papacharissi, 2002), the Web’s potential of decentralization, egalitarian access, and interactivity is often juxtaposed to the danger of centralization, digital divide, and loss of privacy (Harrison & Falvey, 2001). These exchanges reflect the tension between modern, normative, and idealized discourses and postmodern, lo cally grounded, imperfect accounts of human experiences. But this rift can be understood in productive ways. Dahlberg (2005) argues that the pursuit of the Habermasian ideal of the public sphere does not mean reduction of coercion is not desirable or cannot possibly be achieved. Instead, the very process of argumentation, justification, even when flawed, has the promise to identify power imbalances and eventually achieve equality.

A number of approaches have been proposed to bridge the gap between reality and idealized norms. For instance, Fishkin (1995) introduces the concept of “incompleteness” to account for the less than optimal processes of public deliberation. Dahlberg (2005) contends at a more fundamental level that in order to fully account for power that supports existing social and political systems, a radicalized public sphere where “counter-publics” struggle over the limits of legitimate deliberation is essential to Internet-supported democracy. Other approaches advocate differentiation between variant forms of public deliberation. Among Habermas’s various critics, Fraser (1990) argued that strong publics, those whose discourse encompasses both opinion-formation and decision-making should be differentiated from weak publics, whose deliberative practice consists exclusively of opinion-formation and does n ot encompass decision-making. Recently, Habermas (2005) also speaks of two types of political deliberation: “(a) among citizens within the informal public sphere and (b) among politicians or representatives within formal settings” (p. 388). The differentiation between strong and weak publics is particularly useful for understanding online public deliberation in China. While rarely amounting to strong publics, Chinese online opinion formation based on informal conversations between netizens can approach weak publics that often challenge the status quo power arrangement.

I do not discount the importance of normative deliberation or strong publics for collective decision making in more democratic societies, but this paper focuses on dialogic deliberation and everyday political talk (Kim & Kim, 2008) among Chinese netizens. Whether individuals are drawn to the like-minded, more likely to result in a polarization effect (Sunstein, 2001) or are willing to be exposed to diverse opinions (Stromer-Galley, 2003), dialogic deliberation helps construct the concept of the self and other, produce a sense of community, and render public reason possible (Kim & Kim, 2008). Indeed, these are prerequisites to deliberation involving decision-making. Thus, the emphasis here is not the production of consensus through rational debate, but the very act of informal and spontaneous discussions on various social, political, and policy is sues. The author does not assume a fully capable Chinese citizenry for public deliberation or a liberal democratic framework that guarantees such institutions as the rule of law, civil liberties, and national elections, none of which is firmly established in China.

Authoritarian Deliberation

The consideration of deliberation in an authoritarian state like China recognizes modern authoritarianism relies on a combination of patriotism and legitimacy based on performance rather than ideology. Three decades of Chinese reform and opening up have witnessed the erosion of planned economy, rise of an impressive middle class, and demise of the communist ideology (Zhou, 2008). In order to engender popular belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate for the society, in other words to maintain the legitimacy of a political system (Lipset, 1959), a modern authoritarian government like China has to allow for some forms of discussion, debate, and participation from which popular consent of the authoritarian rule is derived.

Baogang He (2006a) coined the term “authoritarian deliberation” to recognize the contours of public discourse in China. For He, Chinese public deliberation is authoritarian because decision making is dominated by leaders who are not competitively elected. As a result, the party-state sanctions and prescribes the boundaries of political discourses. However, the discourse is deliberative in the sense that local people employ argumentation and reasoning to discuss collective problems. In these discussions, evidence is presented, and solutions are proposed and justified. This type of local participation is naturally problematic given that authoritarian regimes, by definition, can never be fully democratic (Pei, 2006). Nevertheless, the concept of “authoritarian deliberation” acknowledges the greater civic and political speech freedoms extant in an authoritarian state that relaxes its grip over political di scourse in exchange for its own legitimacy and survival.

Whereas He employed authoritarian deliberation to analyze public opinion formation and procedural decision making in face-to-face settings at the local level (2006a), I adapt the concept to study public discussion and opinion formation on the Chinese Internet. This does not discount the importance of offline public deliberation. Rather it acknowledges the Internet’s potential to facilitate information sharing, discussion, and even collective action on a wide range of public issues. Such online public deliberation is authoritarian because, similar to its offline practice, the state actively shapes the boundaries of political discourse in Chinese cyberspace, fully aware that the online medium affords alternative access to information and public dialogue.

Authoritarian deliberation is consistent with Nathan’s observation of institutionalization in China (2003). To maintain political legitimacy, the Chinese government has implemented various input institutions “that people can use to apprise the state of their concerns” (Nathan, 2003, p. 14). Such institutions include: the Administrative Litigation Act of 1989 that allows citizens to sue government agencies for alleged violations of government policies; Letters-and-Visits departments (Xinfangju) for citizen complaints; people’s congresses; people’s consultative conferences (where citizen grievances are addressed); and use of  mass media as the people’s tribunes (Nathan, 2003). I argue that the advent of the Internet in China has extended and in some ways transformed such practices by adding an online dimension to many of rights- and justice-seekin g activities.

Offline, for instance, Time Magazine reported the first deliberative poll conducted in China in 2005. It took place in Zeguo township, Wenling City of Zhejiang Province. 257 residents, who were randomly selected to represent the town’s 240,000 population, voted on the desirability of 30 government-proposed infrastructure projects after grilling local officials and learning about these budgetary proposals. They chose environmental projects over the flashier proposals of parks and bridges. The poll’s architect, James Fishkin was gleeful with hope, “The public is smart. Under the right conditions, it’s smart in China just like it’s smart in Britain or smart in Bulgaria” (Jakes, 2005).

The Zeguo poll was not entirely unprecedented. Over the years, a variety of indigenous deliberative practices for collective decision-making had been adopted at both the local and national levels (He, 2006b): democratic discussion meetings (minzhu kentanhui, kentan literarily means “sincere discussion,” or “have a heart-to-heart.”); fast track for people’s voices (minqing zhitongche); democratic political discussion day (minzhu yizhengri); democratic budgetary meetings (minzhu licaihui); democratic public hearings (minzhu tingzhenghui); residents’ forums (jumin luntan), and etc. Some grassroots meetings also experiment with citizen evaluation of local leaders’ performance (Kennedy, Rozelle, & Shi, 2004). At the national level, village elections and public hearings have been approved the central governme nt (He, 2006b; Pei, 2006; Shi, 1997).

Sure, one can reasonably argue that such deliberative practices are often times dominated by the state and marked by lack of equality and representation of different interests. Whether online or offline, they are approved by the state to pacify the public and maintain government legitimacy. Calling a few of China’s local deliberative experiments acts of deliberative democracy will “let the Chinese government off too easily” (Leib, 2005).

However, it may be counter-productive to quickly dismiss such instances of deliberation as entirely meaningless. Both democratic and transitional societies need to aggregate public opinions. Deliberation in China may not be fully democratic, but it is likely to force government, especially local governments, to be more efficient and accountable for their actions. If the cultivation of public reason and consideration of public opinion in policy making can foster what some scholars call governance-driven democratization (He, 2006a; Warren, 2008), authoritarian deliberation may be a worthwhile route to China’s political reforms.

The unprecedented adoption of the Internet, along with other recent adjustment of state-society relationship in China, has made online authoritarian deliberation particularly relevant. First of all, three decades of economic and related social reforms have transformed China in such a way that the state can no longer dictate or monopolize the distribution of resources (Yang, 2004). Nor can it fully control public discourses. Not only is there a swelling Chinese middle class with their faith in free enterprise and respect for private property, there is an equally impressive civil rights movement aimed at defending individual rights and free personal choices, including occupational, sexual, religious and other freedoms (Zhou, 2008).

Second, in such an increasingly pluralized and mobile society, public deliberation appeals to Chinese government in a number of ways. It may: (a) serve as a safety valve allowing people to let off steam to avoid and contain social confrontation; (b) channel public discourses in ways to support the government’s policies and agendas; and (c) increase government legitimacy by building a more open, responsive, and democratic administrative image among the public.

Furthermore, Internet diffusion accelerates the expansion of public discourses. Paradoxically, while the digital revolution has enhanced the Party’s ability to control, bolstered the permeation of commercial interests in the society, and in many ways widened the digital divide (Zhao, 2007), it also has empowered individual voices and group formation (Yang, 2007). Many Chinese are now able to: (a) access greater alternative sources of information besides what was provided by official newspapers, radio, and TV programs previously; (b) “talk back” to official media on issues of their concern; and (c) engage with other societal members and overseas media through public discourse. In this context, study of online authoritarian deliberation can provide insight into the unique nature and potential of everyday political discourse among Chinese netizens.

Spaces of Online Authoritarian Deliberation in China

By the end of 2008, there were 2,878 million Chinese websites (CNNIC, 2009a). Like elsewhere in the world, the Chinese Internet teems with various applications ranging from emails, news feeds, blogs, bulletin boards (BBSs), podcasts, videocasts, social networking sites and so on. What sets China apart from others is the state’s insistence on asserting its authority over a massive network of users and public discourses within its jurisdiction with extensive means of surveillance and manipulation: configuration of Internet gateway infrastructure (Boas, 2006), filtering (Zittrain & Edelman, 2003), Internet policing (Brady, 2006), regulation of Internet service providers (MacKinnon, 2009), suppression of dissident use and discipline of cyber cafes (Chase & Mulvenon, 2002; Qiu, 2000), and most recently employment of web commentators to shape and alter public debate (Bandurski, 2008). However, these tactics of control are not deployed invariably across the board2, thus producing different types of constraints and opportunities for public discourses.

Instead of treating the Chinese cyberspace as a monolithic entity filtered, censored, and patrolled by the government, severed from the rest of the world by the “Great Firewall of China”3 (Qiu, 2000), I see it as a sphere composed of diverse yet connected spaces where the influence of the state varies, thus creating disparate conditions for public deliberation. I recognize four types of online spaces of authoritarian deliberation extending from the core to the peripheries of authoritarian rule: central propaganda spaces, government-regulated commercial spaces, emergent civic spaces, and international deliberative spaces. The state maintains a distinctive relationship to the Chinese society and/or international communities in each space. Moreover, these spaces are not disjointed islands. Rather, they overlap, converge, and clash. In the following section, I discuss th e features of these spaces that are not only home to mundane public conversations between Chinese netizens but are also groundswells of radical jingoism as well as rational discourse of public issues and policies.

Central Propaganda Spaces

Central propaganda spaces are online spaces where the Chinese government asserts its presence through government websites and other official online media. The state’s control over these spaces is firm, if not complete. Examples of central propaganda spaces include Chinese e-government websites as well as state media such as People’s Net (, Xinhuanet (, CCTV Online (, and CNR Online ( In addition to enhanced office automation, e-commerce, the state’s 1 trillion yuan investment (US$121 billion) in government IT projects since early 1990s also built an extensive government network (Yong, 2003, p. 83). Provincial, city, and county governments feature government portals at rates of 100%, 93%, and 69% respectively (CCID, 2006). Offline government operations such as People&rsquo ;s Daily and Xinhua News Agency also have a significant online presence through People’s Net and Xinhuanet respectively. State broadcast heavyweights like China Central Television (CCTV) and China National Radio (CNR) quickly adopted digital platforms. Similar to the government’s manipulation of print and broadcast media for propaganda and mobilization of its citizens, the recent development and management of the government’s online presence helps solidify the government’s technical, symbolic, and political power in the digital age.

Not surprisingly, control of public deliberation in central propaganda spaces is easier to achieve given the state’s direct control over the infrastructure and dependent institutions. Not only is online content in such spaces dominated by state “guidance of public opinion” (Yulun Daoxiang), filtered by state employed “Internet police,” compliance with official agenda in these central propaganda institutions is also buttressed through top leadership support and government funding.

It is worth noting, however, that despite these constraints, a considerable amount of public deliberation occurs. Jiang’s study of 31 Chinese provincial government portals (2009) reveals a complicated picture of government networks that have grown adept at setting public agenda, regulating public discourse, managing social order to maintain its legitimacy. Aside from making more information available online, government networks opened up spaces for public discourse: e-consultation functions such as Q&A with government officials and e-petition; e-discussion features such as real-time “gov. chat” between citizens and policy makers and policy discussion forums. Granted, the state intends these limited spaces to deflate social tension and re-establish Party legitimacy. Nevertheless, when compared to the past, local citizens have more access to government information, services, and means to articulate their rights and seek socia l justice. As a result citizens are gaining access to local politics, and with it, political knowledge.

Government online media have also resorted to softer societal control, relying on more sophisticated methods of containing public dissent and setting agenda. Similar to the use of investigative journalism in traditional broadcast media (Zhao, 2000), official online media have both strategic and commercial imperatives to provide some spaces for public deliberation. For instance, People’s Net has maintained a highly popular online forum, “Strengthening the Nation Forum” (Qingguao Luntan). The forum rose out of a nationalistic “protest forum” against NATO’s 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in former Yugoslavia (Yang, 2003). Riding the wave of zealous sentiments, the forum was an important locus of rising nationalism. Later, the forum became a highly popular place for debating policy issues: tackling China’s economic problems, fighting corruption, revisiting China’s one chil d policy, improving food safety, increasing social equality and so on. Many of the forum’s users consider the forum and the Internet in general a freer space for public discussion of national affairs, expression of their opinions, concerns and complaints (Yang, 2003). In a symbolic gesture of top Chinese leaders’ awareness of the Internet’s power in shaping public opinion, Chinese President Hu Jingtao recently held a dialogue with netizens on the forum. Some interpreted his appearance as proof that the forum influence government decision-making (People’s Net, 2008). Notably, with the state’s strong financial backing, websites like People’s Net lead the way in adopting the latest interactive features such as blog, podcast, videocast, social bookmarking, and mobile delivery of news and information. So the government’s capacity to influence public deliberation in the digita l age has strengthened, not withered.

Government-regulated Commercial Spaces

Another type of space for public deliberation is online commercial spaces. Commercial websites have been inconsistently regulated by Internet companies following government directives. By the end of 2008, there were 552,898 .com Chinese websites, 19.2% of all websites in China (CNNIC, 2009a). By comparison, 77% of sites bear .cn domain names, 3% use .net, and 0.7% register as .org (see Table 1). However, many websites with .cn and .net domain names are commercial as well, such as Tianya Community (, the largest Chinese online forum with over 20 million users (Tianya, 2009).


Table 1
Number of Websites under Various Domain Names in China
Domain Name Quantity Proportion
.CN 2,216,437 77%
.COM 552,898 19.2%
.NET 87,713 3%
.ORG 21,005 0.7%
Total 2,878,053 100.0%
Source: 23rd CNNIC Statistical Survey Report on the Internet Development in China (January 2009)

Users flock to commercial websites for a wide variety of activities. The six most popular uses are music (83.7% Chinese Internet users), news (78.5%), instant messaging (75%), search engine (68%), online video (67.7%), and gaming (62.8%), according to a national survey conducted by CNNIC (2009a). It is noteworthy that, in addition to online news, discursive and socializing spaces such as blogs, online forum/BBS, and social networking sites (SNSs), are also very popular: 54.3% netizens reported having a blog, 35.2% updating their blogs, 30.7% publishing on forum/BBS, and 19.3% actively using SNSs.

Such a pattern of use is partially driven by China’s dominant younger Internet demographic: 35.6% are under the age of 20, 31.5% between ages 20 and 29, i.e. two-thirds of Chinese Internet users, or 200 million, are under age 30 (CNNIC, 2009a). This wired young generation, born digital or growing up digital like their Western counterparts, defies tradition and embraces fads (Wang, 2008). They crave social bonding, information, and entertainment (Bu, 2006). The famed Chinese Back Dorm Boys who rose to stardom by lip syncing Back Street Boys songs and making them available on video sharing sites such as YouTube are symbolic of a youth culture that yearns for self expression and recognition. Undoubtedly, Chinese youth today have more self-publishing and networking tools at their disposal. Blogs, online videos, BBS, and instant messaging platforms can help bypass traditional media gatekeepers. It is not clear whether this generation will take the initiative to improve social justice and create social change as “digital renegades” rather than simply turning into happy “digital captives” of consumerism and hedonism (Morozov, 2008). Nevertheless, there is plenty of economic incentive for Chinese Internet companies to provide a relative open environment to attract users.

These commercial spaces are “open” in relative terms because the state still defines and redefines the boundaries of political discourses. First, the government filters “harmful” foreign web content through the Great Firewall by controlling key international Internet gateways (Qiu, 2000). Second, both domestic and foreign Internet companies have been asked to comply with state regulations. Notably, Baidu, Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft have agreed to censor their search engines (MacKinnon, 2009). Internet content providers are ordered to follow state directives such as the Administration of Internet Electronic Messaging Services Provisions and Administration of Internet Information Services Provisions (both issued in 2000) and the Administration of Internet News and Information Services Provisions (effective in 2005)(CNNIC 2009c). Moreover, the go vernment can easily reach out to commercial websites to assert its presence. For example, in 2005, Beijing People’s Political Consultative Conference invited public input on policy topics such as energy conservation, healthcare, and pension systems on, one of the top three Chinese commercial portals (Sina, 2005).

Nevertheless, regulating hundreds of thousands of commercial websites remains quite difficult. Although commercial Internet firms have taken a “voluntary pledge” to keep a watchful eye over users, the finer details of how to interpret and implement government filtering directives are left to the companies themselves. MacKinnon’s (2009) study of censorship patterns in Chinese blogosphere reveals great variations among blog hosting companies operating in China. Much of the variation is caused by differences in resources, values, and perceived relationships with government and users.

Adding to the difficulty of regulation is the fact that Chinese netizens have grown adept at critiquing the regime while avoiding harsh repression (Esarey, 2008). It is one thing to ban patently sensitive topics such as Tibet and Falun Gong, but quite another to detect and delete farce, coded criticism, and political satire (Esarey & Xiao, 2008). For instance, when websites are shut down by authorities, netizens openly refer to it as being “harmonized,” a sardonic reference to the government’s ubiquitous promotion of “harmony” in Chinese society. After that phrase became blocked, Chinese netizens started to post pictures of river crabs wearing three watches: river crabs sound like “harmonize” in Chinese and three watches are a pun on “the three represents.”4

To shape and sway public opinion in these spaces, the “50 cent party” approach became popular. Started in 2005 in Nanjing University, web commentators are reputedly paid 50 cents (or $0.07) for each positive comment made on popular Chinese websites and message boards (Bandurski, 2008). Backed by government Information Office and funded by commercial websites, these web commentators focus on current affairs forums and major national and provincial portals, both official and commercial. Thus, “larger Web sites must find a happy medium between pleasing the authorities and going about their business” (Bandurski, 2008) in the face of increasing civic desire for free expression and accountable governance.

Emergent Civic Spaces

Despite censorship and commercialization of Chinese Internet, public discourse thrives. Emergent civic spaces here refer to online spaces where NGOs, civic groups and organizations deliberate and coordinate collective actions around shared interests and values, relatively independent of the state and the market. A recent CCNIC survey (2009a) indicates civic spaces are a weak sector of Chinese Internet, with 21,005 websites registering with .ORG domain names, constituting only 0.7% of all Chinese websites. Many officially sanctioned national civic organizations use the Internet to coordinate their efforts: China Red Cross, China International Almsdeed Institute, and China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF). CYDF manages the widely popular Project Hope, building elementary schools in rural areas and improving poor students’ access to education. Recently, a few celebrity charities such as One Foundation (started by Chinese Kong Fu movie star Jet Li), and Yumi Love Fund (pioneered by Chinese pop star Li Yuchun) garnered a lot of media attention and a large online following.

The types of civic spaces are as varied as the types of civic organizations. Yang (2007) identifies five types of civic organizations in China: business, environment, women’s issues, social services, health and community development. Others organizations, such as religious and cultural ones, also maintain an online presence. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (2008), there were 212,000 voluntary social organizations in 2007, compared to 131,000 in 2000.

While neither outwardly ideological nor political, Chinese civic organizations do not exist entirely separate from the state. Civic organizations are expected to complement government organizations by providing necessary social services, alleviate social malaise, convey social concerns, and maintain social order (Wang & Zhang, 2007). The growth of Chinese civil organizations is positive in the sense that they improve people’s experience and abilities of self-organization as well as helping define the administrative power. However, in a society teemed with governmental “mommies and nannies” (Zhai, 2009), Chinese civic organizations are not only required to register but also to be affiliated with related government “supervisory bodies” (Wang & Zhang, 2007).

Much like their offline counterparts, non-commercial websites have been asked to register online. Under Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s (MIIT) 2005 Non-Commercial Web Site Registration Regulation (2009), all non-commercial websites must register with the MIIT and provide contact information or will face a significant financial penalty. This regulation applies to all personal websites and blogs hosted in China that are accessible through an independent domain name. Blogs hosted by a service like Sina Blogs, for instance, need not register. This regulation extends similar rules intended for commercial websites to their non-commercial counterparts, creating a chilling effect on China’s growing population of website owners and bloggers.

Yet despite interference from the government, civic spaces are expanding. Through a process of what Yang (2003) calls “the co-evolution of the Internet and civil society in China,” the Web offers new avenues for citizen participation. China’s incipient civil society, in turn, expands the Internet by providing the social basis for communication.

When Beijing initially embraced the Internet for economic development, the Web was not seen as inherently liberating but rather something that can be configured and controlled (Jiang, 2009). As China’s information sector boomed, the state ability to police it has also grown broader and more sophisticated. Meanwhile Internet adoption has also significantly increased the opportunities for Chinese people to access information, assert their voices, and connect with fellow netizens. If civil society is “the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values” (Center for Civil Society, 2004), the spaces of spontaneous civic actions have expanded.

Much of this development occurs within specific groups of shared cultural identities and interests. Yang’s study of Huaxia Zhiqing Net (2003), for instance, demonstrates how the educated youth generation uses online forums to build a virtual community based on their shared experience during the Cultural Revolution. uses the Internet to coordinate Chinese tourists who travel to rural areas donate books and other supplies for children. Independent bloggers and podcasters may also create communities of readers and fellow writers. Don’t Think, a blog created in May 2006 by Beijing Sanlian Lifeweek journalist Wang Xiaofeng saw more than 30 million visits as of April 2008 and is now available offline through China’s online bookstores. The blog, connected with dozens of other intelligentsia bloggers, forms an alternative community of voices to mainstream media. In 2005, Antiwave won the Deutsche Welle& rsquo;s Best Podcasting Site for its sarcastic parodies of the establishment. The site’s name, Antiwave, communicates its creators’ rejection of tradition, mainstream radio programming, indoctrination by the official educational system, and government-controlled public discourse (Danwei, 2007). Its podcasting emphasizes critical thinking and public discussion where the Great Talk of the People (Renmin Dahuitan) replaces the Great Hall of the People5 (Renmin Dahuitang). Controversial issues such as how to view Chinese-Japanese history and freedom of expression in China are not excluded from their podcasting. These sites are examples of an alternative social space to the Chinese mainstream media.

Besides facilitating identity formation, information sharing and public discussion, online deliberation also supports collective action on civic and policy issues. utilizes its website to coordinate a volunteer network of travelers to deliver donated books and other school supplies for children in remote areas. Moreover, the boundaries between civic, government, and commercial spaces are increasingly collapsing as citizens move between them online. Collective Internet incidents (Wangluo Qunti Shijian), also known as massive online incidents, cyber activism, or cyber contentions are emblematic of this trend (Cai, 2008; Yang, 2008). Massive online petitions, protests, and Internet vigilantism (or the “human flesh search”) constitute “radical, claims-making communicative action[s]” (Yang, 2008, p. 126). Such actions often involve questions of corruption, socia l injustice, and nationalism (Yang, 2008).

A particularly powerful example was the death of Sun Zhigang. Sun was a college graduate who worked for a graphic design company in Guangzhou. He was detained for not having proper identification papers and died three days later in police custody. Sun’s death triggered a public outcry online. The online protests eventually resulted in the abolishment of the “Custody and Repatriation” system (China Net, 2003). As momentous as the response to Sun’s death was, it was not an isolated incident. In 2007, a Chongqin homeowner stared down powerful developers to defend her property rights. In 2008, Weng’an county’s police building and vehicles were torched during a riot over the cover-up over a girl’s death. Also in 2008, Chinese college students created a website to counter perceived distortions in the Western media’s coverage of the 2008 Tibetan unrest (CNN was a favorite target). An increasingly popular online collective action is the “human flesh search.”  In these actions, large numbers of individuals use the Internet, as well as offline sources, to identify a specific person or facts. “Human flesh searches” have targeted both major and minor issues, from exposing corrupt officials to publicly shaming individuals for undesirable, yet admittedly minor, activity (Yu & Shan, 2009; Zuckerman, 2009). In their often factional, nationalistic, and incoherent manner, these Internet-based examples of public deliberation and action both fuel and reflect the development of a more pluralized, stratified, and liberal society.

International Deliberative Spaces

Chinese public deliberation does not focus exclusively on domestic issues. International deliberative spaces bridge China and the outside world and mediate public opinion between them. Individuals, organizations, and government bodies concerned about China’s role in an increasingly interdependent global environment inhabit numerous deliberative spaces. Chinese public opinion is closely observed and monitored by actors with various backgrounds such as culture, politics, business, and academia.

The Chinese government adopts different measures of response to the various actors. Foreign content deemed undesirable is blocked by the Great Firewall of China (Zittrain & Edelman, 2003). Such filtering may not be perfect, but it is effective enough to maintain societal stability (Boas, 2006). The Chinese central government has also been aggressively building its international PR operations to counter foreign influences such as BBC and Voice of America. Among the government’s international efforts are English versions of government websites and image-shaping official media outlets such as CCTV International and China Radio International.

“Bridge bloggers” (Zuckerman, 2008) are among those often subject to government filtering. These bloggers are bilingual or multi-lingual individuals who “cross” borders and traverse otherwise disparate online communities. Websites and blogs openly critical of the Chinese government and its practices are openly censored. Roland Song’s blog EastSouthWestNorth (, based in Hong Kong, is blocked within mainland China. Websites like MITBBS, very popular among overseas students and immigrant communities, are also blocked. Beijing’s censorship of general information sources such as Wikipedia and YouTube depends upon the sociopolitical situation of the moment. During a March 31, 2009 press conference, a reporter questioned the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the government’s blocking YouTube. The spokesperson res ponded, “The Internet in China is fully open and the Chinese Government manages the Internet according to the law. As for what you can and cannot watch, watch what you can watch, and don’t watch what you cannot watch” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2009).

Other bridge bloggers operate from within China without being blocked. Many choose some degree of self-censorship. The Chinese Economist translating team does exactly that to balance its existence and compliance with the government (Baio, 2009). A group of dedicated fans of the Economist newsmagazine have been translating each issue cover-to-cover. Volunteers collaborate out of pure interest in spreading knowledge and improving their own English skills. On touchy topics, the team puts the articles in a protected forum that blocks access to search engine and non-members. “There’s one general rule: If the article involves any sensitive topics, if you’re not sure whether it’s permitted or not, please don’t risk any chance by publishing it” (Baio, 2009). A similar project is run by a group of volunteers from Tianya community to translate Times magazine ( Tianya Bloggers, 2009).

Complete and organized international political deliberative discussions may not be accessible to Chinese netizens. The official view tends to support projects like anti-CNN to criticize problematic Western media reporting and cultivate nationalism although the founders of anti-CNN also vow to seek truth. Despite online censorship, Chinese people do have more freedoms than before and there is a growing interest in the access and understanding of foreign media content. The Internet may have a positive impact on assisting Chinese knowledge seekers to experiment and discover after all.


Managing everything Chinese netizens have to say is impossible. China is home to 420 million Internet users and 231 million bloggers. 277 million Chinese enjoy Internet access through their mobile phones (CNNIC, 2010). Modern authoritarianism relies on both patriotism and performance legitimacy for its survival. Realizing that economic growth is the regime’s ultimate raison d’être, Chinese government tries to leverage information technology to maintain growth while limiting people’s use of the Internet for political activities. The combination of marketization and political closure translates into the Party’s continued monopoly of political power while granting a measure of economic and cultural freedoms to individuals, groups, and regions (Yang, 2003). Modern Chinese authoritarianism, resorting less to sheer military might and downright oppression, instead relies on both patriotism and perfor mance legitimacy to gain the favorable compliance of its citizens. So the party-state has been adopting more refined and strategic use of economic resources and state apparatuses to maintain social order and stability. This opens up spaces for public deliberation in China’s cyberspace.

Public deliberation holds potential for an authoritarian society like China. The pursuit of better policy and governance is not limited to Western societies. Although authoritarianism can never be democratic, and China has yet to develop democratic institutions such as rule of law and civil rights, it is both possible and desirable to nourish public deliberation alongside other democratic institutions in such transitional countries. Societies need not choose between radical and incremental change to facilitate citizens’ participation in local, regional, and national affairs. The concept of authoritarian deliberation (He, 2006a) is a useful theoretical construct that recognizes both the reality of deliberative experiences in China and the limitations of such practices. Indeed, a variety of deliberative spaces exist on the Chinese Internet with different dynamics of state regulation and citizen participation.

It seems that both mechanisms of deliberation and control are expanding. Announcing the demise of the propaganda state (Lynch, 1999) is perhaps a bit too early. The Chinese state has successfully utilized information technology for political control. Central propaganda spaces enhance government surveillance, maintenance of social order, and government legitimacy through both e-government networks and official government online media, have managed to. At the same time, however, central propaganda spaces are also infused by political discussions of politics and general debate. Many government websites now provide citizens with more access to national and local politics. Citizens, on the other hand, are increasingly demanding government accountability. The lack of authenticity in such state-controlled deliberation begs the question of how effective the government’s strategic concessions will be if no substantial political reforms materialize.

Whereas mass media used to be part of the state structure, the commercialization of the Chinese Internet has undoubtedly helped establish a platform for public discourse. This is not to evoke technological determinism or overstate the participatory nature of the Web, but rather to acknowledge that citizens have used the available self-publishing tools and social media for both entertainment and civic purposes. Bulletin boards, online forums, blogs, and social networking sites have all been used to both ends. Although individuals are not allowed to publish newspapers, personal blogs have become private papers for many Chinese bloggers. Citizens have grown accustomed to using both emotionality (qing) and rationality (li) in public spaces to defend their rights and seek social justice. As a result, those spaces heavily influenced by state and commercial interests are also the very spaces where private lives and the larger political world are bridged and where public opini on is formed.

Limited as they are, emergent civic spaces on Chinese Internet reflect the slow evolution of values and beliefs during three decades of industrialization, urbanization, liberalization. Zhou (2008) dubs the grassroots movements for increased civil liberties “China’s long march towards freedom.” Growing pluralism has led to diverse group formations both offline and online. Social groups, often from the margins of the society, gain access to public discourse, articulate their problems and opinions and in some cases, drive public debates. Although the state apparatus reacts to monitor and control these groups, the nearly unlimited possibilities of group formation afforded by network technologies and driven by diverse social interests are not likely to wither away. Instead, widening social inequalities are likely to instigate civic discourses and collective actions challenges to the regime’s legitimacy. Exposure of corruption and violations of the rights of vulnerable individuals are likely to be intertwined with bursts of state-orchestrated nationalism as various social groups press their reform agenda.

International deliberative spaces may also expand. More border-crossing groups discover means to exchange information, become more adept at using circumventing technologies, and acquire experience in negotiating the balance between self expression and censorship. As economic, cultural, and political ties continue to strengthen between China and the outside world and as the population of sophisticated Chinese Internet users continues to grow, censorship becomes harder for the state, not easier.

In these various spaces, the state is both repressive and adaptive at the same time. The state’s methods of monitoring and controlling discourse vary depending on the relationship between the civic space and Beijing. The regime must adapt as the civic space shifts further from center of authoritarian control (the central propaganda spaces) to the periphery (international forums). While technical infrastructures such as the Great Firewall of China and censored domestic search engines help the state filter Internet content, different kinds of legal and personnel resources are also devoted to regulating online spaces. State employed Internet police delete content directly. Commercial websites censor themselves. Both civic and commercial sites are required to register with the government.

Yet the effect of the government’s presence on deliberation is not always predictable. Debate in spaces such as the Strengthening the Nation Forum (Qiangguo Luntan accessible at is sometimes more lively and robust than other commercial and civic spaces where government presence is less palpable. While some online activities on Qiangguo Luntan are rigged by state-employed web commentators, citizen participation is active and genuine (Yang, 2003). Known for policy debate, Qiangguo Luntan regularly attracts citizens who share strong nationalistic sentiments or deep concerns for social issues, encouraging them to petition the government. It is a space where participants feel they have an audience and that what they say matters. Some even feel that top Chinese leaders take notice of people’s plight and, in some cases, take action.

Such online dynamics speak to a number of constraints for civic and political participation in Chinese society: (a) the dominance of a strong state over a weak civil sector; (b) a paternalistic political culture; and (c) the lack of institutional and legal means to resolve social injustices, forcing citizens to appeal to higher authorities outside the justice system (Minzner, 2006). It is, thus, not surprising that these online instances of demand- and complaint-making are often brought by individuals rather than groups. Groups are more threatening to the regime. Such complaints often target lower-level officials rather than the party-state in general (Nathan, 2003). This kind of resistance against men, not principles, argued O’Brien and Li, is paradoxically more system-supportive than system-subversive (2006).

The unique pressures on public online discourse in China forces Chinese Internet users to structure their discourse in other ways. Many civic-minded Chinese users employ sarcasm, parody, and humor when criticizing the government. A fine balance between self-expression and self-censorship is critical. Many strategically choose to criticize local government officials and isolated incidents rather than directing their criticisms at the central government or national policies beyond the state’s tolerance (Esarey, 2008). This tendency has grown more common as people realized that edgy commercial and emergent civic websites like Bullog (now Bullogger accessible at Fatianxia (Legal World formerly now accessible at were ordered to close their business oper ations or move their servers overseas (Liu, 2008). To continue their operations, many websites and individual bloggers have toned down their criticism. However, they persistently test and push back against restrictions, motivated by the optimistic conviction that “history is on their side” (MacKinnon, 2007, p. 46).


In order to harmonize social frictions and channel online public discourse to support government policies and agendas, the Chinese government has consciously allowed for a limited sphere of public discussion and deliberation on economic, social, and political affairs. At the same time, with expanding economic and cultural freedoms, Chinese citizens are actively seeking greater political freedom in order to secure other forms of liberty. Such demands have increasingly made their way into Chinese cyberspace. Granted, many citizens may not demand democracy or elections but more and more are willing to use every means possible to defend their personal rights and property against institutional abuse (Benney, 2007). These defenses serve as the foundation of citizens’ increasing demands for civic and political participation online. Individual citizens and civic groups have increasingly learned to effectively garner social attention and mobilize public opinion.

To study the Internet’s role in fostering democratization in China, a dichotomy between “democratic” and “non democratic” or “free” and “not free” is too simplistic. In fact, many countries occupy a place on a continuum between the two. I suggest that it is more pragmatic and productive to consider China as a case of authoritarian governance where there are degrees of economic, cultural, and even political freedoms within the system while, at the same time, the state expects and ensures the consent of its citizenry. The citizens’ consent is increasingly negotiated online in the context of growing personal freedoms and liberties. The state’s legitimacy is never complete or unchallenged. Online discourses are important for precisely this reason; it is where the government’s claim to power is contested.

It is also useful to differentiate the various spaces of online public deliberation in China for both theoretical and practical reasons. While some studies tend to view the Chinese Internet from the standpoint of censorship and control (Boas, 2006; Chase & Mulvenon, 2002; Qiu, 2000), others emphasize the Internet’s potential to foster civil society (Yang, 2003, 2006, 2007). And in certain cases, a somewhat uncritical use of concepts like public sphere and deliberative democracy renders China’s unique political and social contexts almost irrelevant (Zhou, Chan, & Peng, 2008). These different foci and assumptions about the Chinese Internet tend to assert certain characteristics or potentials of the Web at the sacrifice of others. As a result, different programs, a gendas, and policies are proposed or implemented without enough attention to how they may affect or be affected by an opposite or complementary set of dynamics.

The contexts of public discourse and opinion formation online are critical to gaining a better understanding of the Internet’s potential role in public deliberation. I reject a one-dimensional view of the Chinese Internet. It is not a uniform environment but rather a varied collection of interrelated spaces embodying multiple dialectics of government control and citizen participation.

In the case of China, the spaces for public deliberation are often factional, nationalistic, and incoherent. There are several factors that likely encouraged these characteristics and point to some implications for future research in online public deliberation.

First, while there are clearer distinctions between the government, business, and civil society in more mature democratic societies, those lines are less distinct in China due to the government’s permeating influence on the fabric of political, economic, and social life. Engaging the government to change its institutional behavior, policy, and practices is therefore crucial to promoting public deliberation in China. Baogang He believes “it is impossible to develop any form of deliberation without backing from governmental officials” (2006a, p. 138). Significant changes to public deliberation mechanisms may require identification and engagement of reform-minded Chinese bureaucrats and elites in order to push social justice agendas forward. Perhaps, as Leib remarked after a deliberative democracy in Hangzhou of Zhejiang Province, that “those governing simply were more in touch with the reality that the democratization project needs to be as top-down as it will invariably be bottom up, as local grassroots activism finds ways to engage Chinese citizens” (2005).

Second, state monitoring and control over expansion of an emergent civil society stymies potential growth. Under the government’s restrictions, public deliberation has not been able to organize or institutionalize itself in order to broaden its audience and be more effective. Instead, current online public deliberation tends to be restricted to informal, dispersive, and sporadic exchanges. As the state carefully guards against the formation of large groups based on political and ideological agendas, it is perhaps worthwhile, for the short term, to nurture the development of humanitarian, environment, health, and community services in China where citizens acquire the experience and skills of civic action. The social morale and social capital generated in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake, for instance, is a great resource to be tapped into. Exchanges with nonprofit institutions across borders may provide more energy to China’s emergent civil society.

Third, as public deliberation often occurs online nowadays, it is paramount to understand the mechanisms of information sharing, civic discussions, and collective actions. Of particular interest is the explication of how massive sharing of news and information and everyday online political talk coalesce into Internet collective incidents that press demands for reforms at the institutional level. Furthermore, one may ask in what ways the availability of networking tools has helped or deterred citizens to share, connect, and act together. Furthermore, one may inquire what specific social, cultural, and political factors may have mediated the ways Chinese citizens utilize such technologies.

Fourth, the fact that two thirds of Chinese Internet users are people under the age of thirty invites researchers and policy makers to gain a better understanding of China’s digital generations. It is feared that as Chinese media increasingly gravitate towards commercialization and entertainment (Zhao, 1998), a large proportion of China’s digital population may choose to ride along the “entertainment superhighway” for entertainment and consumerism rather than engage in public affairs (CNNIC, 2007; Morozov, 2008). Discovering ways to engage younger users in civil society may be crucial to China’s political future in the long term.

Finally, online public deliberation’s broader and long-term implications for authoritarian China need to be considered. Granted, government networks and popular online protests reduced rampant corruption, but can an authoritarian government learn to discipline itself? What mechanisms can be built (online or offline) to discipline the abuse of political power and restore a degree of social justice? How long can the central government keep faulting local, low-level officials for corruption while maintaining public confidence in the top leadership? And as the regime uses the Internet to win popular support, fend off criticism and social antagonism, and give the people a way to let off steam, to what extent will the government’s political PR and theatrical performance of “openness” appease forces of significant social and political change? Are the Chinese people gradually losing their fear of the state as its reliance on patriotism and legitimacy a ppears quite fragile at times of mounting economic and social problems?

It may be that the Chinese government prefers to remain in the authoritarian twilight zone forever, somewhere between totalitarianism and democracy. In order to maintain power, the regime has implemented various measures to include citizens in local and national politics. Online authoritarian deliberation instills much-needed legitimacy in this process. At the same time, however, online public deliberation may improve civil liberties and political participation as participants acquire knowledge, skill, and experience sharing information, building connections, and engaging in collective actions. If there are different routes to improve governance, solve social problems, and promote civic and political participation in a complex society like China, democracy may not be a precursor to public deliberation. Instead, public deliberation, even in an authoritarian society, may flourish as a viable route to better governance and democracy in China.


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1 A recent Chinese Internet national survey (CNNIC, 2009b) reports 35.3% of blog owners update their blogs every six months.

2 For instance, Rebecca Mackinnon (2009) examined how censorship is decentralized among Chinese blog service providers with great variation from company to company.

3 The Great Firewall of China refers to a technological filtering system built by the Chinese government to monitor and block foreign Internet content deemed harmful to Chinese society.

4 The Three Represents is a set of ideological principles introduced by former Chinese president Jiang Zemin in 2001 which then became the guiding ideology of the Chinese Communist Party at the 16th Party Congress in 2002. It stipulates that the CCP must represent the most advanced social productive forces and culture in China as well as the interest of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people.

5 The Great Hall of the People is used for legislative and ceremonial activities by the Chinese government. It is the site of National People’s Congress.

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