An Old Dance with New Moves: Modern China’s Digital Civil Society

Designed by Emily Zhong

China’s attitudes towards its digital civil society is merely an old dance with new moves.

At the beginning of every June, the VPNs in China flicker off.

Social media and video-sharing sites shut down: “System Maintenance.”1 

This year, the microblogging platform Weibo, a Chinese variant of Twitter, removed its commenting function. The candle emoji—a sign of remembrance—disappeared. A man who had posted a bottle of wine (the word for which, ba jiu, sounds similar to the word for “89”) found police at his door.2

2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests, during which thousands of student protestors died and civilians were shot in the streets.3 Yet China has done nearly everything in its power to erase the event from memory. In the three decades since June 4, 1989, the event has been effaced from history books and cyberspace alike.4 

On the surface, China’s civil society appears nonexistent, squashed beneath layers of sophisticated censorship tools and government crackdowns. The aim of this article is to offer a more nuanced analysis. Although the central government retains ultimate control over media and selectively quells protests, activism thrives between the cracks. The result is a civil society that is fragile, complex, deeply divided—yet very much alive.

China has a long tradition of vibrant political activity. Its civil society took shape in local gatherings of the sharp-minded. Imperial China’s teahouses and wine-shops served a “catalytic function,” fostering debates on the day’s public issues.”5 Citizen-run organizations maintained an active local scene. The shantang of the late Ming, or “societies for sharing goodness,” were charities initially founded in the wake of natural disasters.6 However, they took on a life far beyond their founding incidents: as they became more widespread and powerful, shantang were “loci of criticism of government policy.”7

Crucially, Chinese civil society also developed under the influence of centuries-long centralized governance. Since the state’s raison d’être was mandated from Heaven,8 it governed with a strongly interventionist style. Indeed, the Imperial Chinese government often used the tactic of subsuming civil society activities into the government. For example, the Song and later dynasties took on “the paternalistic obligations of the ruler to his people,”9 setting up state-sponsored organizations to care for the elderly, impoverished, and disabled. The state even went so far as to sometimes draft talented local leaders into government service. Thus, individuals who otherwise would have been influential in civil society instead became bureaucratic officials. This system of bureaucratization “relied on local elites to help…implement a common agenda for promoting domestic order, an agenda that included social persuasion, surveillance and welfare.”10 The state’s relationship with civil society was thus a delicate dance; civil society’s very existence depended upon government supervision, and it could easily be snuffed out if it threatened the state’s view of harmony. 

Ultimately, this attitude toward civil society is an important historical backdrop for  understanding its modern-day status. While China is noted for its now-famed “Great Firewall”, the Chinese government also allows a substantial amount of political dissent to flourish online—discourse rich with “mockery, parody, jokes, humor, symbols, and creative visuals to make sophisticated political critiques on social media.”11 In 2010 alone, 180,000 protests occurred in China,12 and the incidence of protests is rising,13 from parents demanding to send children to more nearby schools to farmers irate at government land seizures. Civil society and government tactics have co-evolved with technology. As civil society develops new technology-mediated mobilization techniques, the government develops new censorship tools—and civil society, in turn, creates new ways to evade said censorship.

The Chinese government and the country’s civil society groups are locked, as they ever have been, in a delicate dance: it is the same dance as between the Ming and the shantang that threatened their power; it is the same dance as between the prominent local leaders and the imperial governments that drafted them into bureaucracy. China’s attitudes towards its digital civil society is merely an old dance with new moves. It extends the same features that had been characteristic of its offline civil society—attempts to maneuver and subsume it—and it poses both new and analogous challenges.

A watershed moment in China’s online political discourse came in 2011. On July 23, a high-speed train collision in the Zhejiang province killed 39 passengers and injured 200 more. This event soon catalyzed a wave of social media protest—and powerfully exemplified the Internet as a mobilizing agent. The Chinese government blamed the crash on a lightning strike, but citizens later recorded video footage of officials moving the wrecked train cars from the crash site—an act seen as manipulation of the evidence.14 Written posts on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging site, openly criticized the government agency responsible for the crash. The movement soon spiraled beyond merely discussing the event, sparking a wider conversation about “similar deep-rooted social issues,” such as inequality and government corruption, “of which the accident was merely a manifestation.”15

The online response exemplifies social media’s catalytic role in mobilizing political discourse. As social media takes on a growing role in Chinese citizens’ lives, it has also become a critical piece in the success of organizations and protests. Yunkang Yang’s 2016 analysis of social movements in China notes that social media use correlates strongly with protest success; “the organizational effect of social media is embedded in the…opportunity structure in China.”16

In the wake of the Weibo backlash, authorities changed their tune from blaming lightning to launching an official investigation. The resulting report found “serious design flaws in control equipment” and accused 54 officials of corruption. Authorities subsequently placed a temporary halt on new high-speed rail projects and implemented speed restrictions for trains.17

The events of the ‘7.23 Accident,’ as it was referred to online, are among the most prominent mobilizations in the Chinese networked public sphere. In the 8 years since the incident, social media in China has driven further political discourse. Applications such as WeChat broker connections between potential protestors, serving as “the channel for communicating protest information and for organizing offline protest” across a vast network of acquaintances.18 Social media transforms fragmented movements into a single nationwide phenomenon—thus upending state attempts to fragment online civil society as it had done with offline ones.

WeChat in particular stands at the forefront of China’s networked public sphere. Media scholar Lance Bennett notes that these “flexible social ‘weak tie’ networks” can enable dynamic expressions of identity. On WeChat, users communicate primarily through group chats with friends and posts shared within one’s circle, thus creating an intimate, personal backdrop for content. Groups may consist of a mix of friends, acquaintances, and strangers, making each one a separate microcosm for self-expression. As users share information through a personalized lens, individuals contribute their own identities to the collective. Political labels take on personal meaning as they are shaped through stories and shared by trusted friends.19

As it always has, Chinese civil society has grown in the cracks of the central government’s grip. When the government evolved new tactics for controlling it, civil society counter-evolved. This cat and mouse game, this pas de deux, meant that there was never total suppression of civil society. But they meant, in turn, that the government would dance the next phrase: turning social media itself into a political agent.

Indeed, social media platforms are rarely politically neutral. Even when a platform appears unbiased, its very design prompts “a type of sociality based on predefined activities… Social media services have also assumed the role of policing and ‘politicking their users.’”20 This phenomenon is true of Facebook and Twitter, whose algorithms determine the political content that surfaces on your feed, but it is especially salient for WeChat, a platform that is deeply embedded in the CCP’s system of political control. Even its “free” speech is, in some sense, designed: the government simply understands that some amount of criticism, particularly at the local level, works in its favor. New tactics for managing civil society thus sought to transform social media from an avenue of empowerment to a mechanism of entrenching state power.

For example, in 2006, as it became clear that the Internet was a growing space for civic organization and discourse, the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference initiated their own blogs, encouraging citizens to bring discussions to government-run platforms.21 This act was the first digital instance of a longstanding government attitude—that vocal community leadership should be subsumed into its bureaucracy and given adequate supervision. 

The policy follows the logic of analogous offline trends. In rural villages, for example, the central government has recently encouraged more competitive elections. Elections were seen as the safer alternative to demonstrating on the streets; “any potential radical social movement, therefore, can be turned into a constructive force to build an orderly society in rural China. Social protests thus constitute an essential process of state building and an instrument in the art of governance.”22 Accordingly, the Chinese state has recognized that turning a blind eye to online protests—even, to some extent, allowing protests to be successful—is itself a political tool. By allowing disgruntled citizens to slowly “let off steam,”23 a thousand small protests may diffuse tensions enough to prevent a single massive revolution.

Thus democracy and ‘civic engagement’ became the unofficial tactics of the Chinese Communist Party. Censorship in China often does not filter criticisms of “the government, its associated institutions, or its policies, as long as such criticisms do not lead to offline actions…and especially when they primarily target governments below the level of state authorities.”24 The state is well aware that such criticisms are self-contained, and are therefore unlikely to pose a substantial national threat. 

The state is even surprisingly light-handed in implementing its “Great Firewall.” Though the Chinese government certainly performs its fair share of deletions—one crackdown event in 2018 saw nearly 10,000 accounts removed from WeChat and Weibo in a single month25—a considerable amount of political content slips through the cracks. Google, Twitter, and Facebook are easily accessible via VPN. Some politically controversial websites will even load normally, with only a slightly slower Internet speed. Margaret Roberts terms this inconsistency porous censorship—“frequently circumvented by savvy Internet users, accidentally evaded by citizens wasting time on the web, and rarely enforced with punishment.”26 Just enough information remains accessible to generate the illusion of a free Internet, yet these slight manipulations enable the Party to create an extensive system of self-censorship at minimal cost.

Porous strategies are also surprisingly effective. The several minutes to set up a VPN for Facebook causes users to switch to WeChat. Twitter’s lagging load time leads users to post instead on Weibo. “Because information is widespread and has many substitutes, small impediments to reading information and even silly distractions can significantly affect users’ consumption of political information.”27 Making information slightly more difficult to access (a tactic that Roberts calls friction) thus causes users to naturally choose applications that load faster—and which happen to be tightly monitored by the CCP. 

In 2014, WeChat and several other Chinese-based social media companies had signed an agreement to “identify and clear rumors on their applications.”28 WeChat is a platform with its own heavy political baggage. While citizens may genuinely choose WeChat as a tool for mobilization, the state ensures that users realistically have few other options. Movements that do take place across the platform then become subject to the CCP’s close watch.

The move to nudge users toward WeChat is simply a more sophisticated version of the state-run blogs and discussion forums of 2006. These tactics are themselves situated within a long history of monitoring and centralization—done not only by the Chinese Communist Party, but pursued over centuries of Imperial history. 

The Chinese online civil society is a walled garden, over-pruned and over-plucked under the Communist Party’s careful watch. Perhaps the greatest casualty of a civil society that grew under such conditions is the vast class divides in accessing it. In seeking out pockets free from government control, civil society has been driven into corners that are accessible mostly by the elite: VPN-shielded social networks; WeChat circles small enough to escape government infiltration; charitable organizations led by the wealthy few. Accordingly, the social issues most likely to gain traction often represent the experiences of the comparatively privileged. It should not escape notice that the ‘7.23 Accident’ would likely have had a far less viral impact if its victims had not been “from China’s middle class, and could afford the sizable price for a speed-rail train ticket.”29 As the government and civil society continue their centuries-long dance, the strategy of porous censorship—and leaving only pores large enough for the well-off—constricts the supply of dancers.  

Yet with every motion, there is a counter-motion; though the ‘7.23 Accident’ originated as a middle-class issue, it sparked discussion across all social classes. This moment of public crisis “brought people together from different social strata in voicing their grievances about the failures of China’s system.”30 Despite the government’s attempts to fracture movements along social classes, the personalized nature of online activism allowed lower-class individuals to re-interpret middle class politics on their own terms. Technology in China may appear to step on civil society’s toes; in fact, the people have gained momentum to dance on.

With the advent of digital networks, a new realm of civil society has opened in China. Political resistance in this realm is mixed—at times, resistance occurs surreptitiously, in the form of coded language and satire that escapes content filters. At other times, acts of democracy are encouraged by the state to bolster its own perceived legitimacy. Still other times, as with attempts to remember the Tiananmen Square Protests, activism is met with immediate police action. There is no easy characterization of the Chinese digital civil society.

The central government and the vocal citizens, locked in an endless pas de deux, have shaped a civil society like no other. But one thing is for certain: this dance is a duet, not a solo. The Chinese central government cannot quite snuff out the people’s political voices. Its tactics have even backfired. Attempts to keep protests local actually gave activists more opportunities to voice concerns to local officials and scholars. Local labor rights organizations, for example, have organized seminars that create a platform for grassroots workers to directly engage with policymakers.31 In villages where the central government promoted open elections, the number of candidate nominations skyrocketed from a handful of Party-approved individuals to 959 candidates for 57 open seats.32 As it turns out, the gaping loophole in using feigned democracy as social control is that, sometimes, feigned democracy results in actual democracy. When the state turns a blind eye to political speech, it creates opportunity for social rights groups and civilian thinkers to shape a new area of civil society.

Moreover, the particular nature of social technology makes the traditional techniques of fragmenting civil society far more difficult to sustain. Whereas outlawing citizen-led organizations had been an effective way of stifling in-person collective action, social media activism requires no brick-and-mortar institution. Even deleted posts cannot be fully erased, for, “before a post was deleted, it may have already gained enough attention” to have delivered an impactful message.33

There is even some hope for lessening divides between the privileged and marginalized. Social media have been known for “providing social support to China’s marginalized and underprivileged, such as online support groups for people living with HIV/AIDS.” The technology, fueled by powerful personal messages, has generated empathy between “those born in the 1980s and 1990s to parents who were first-generation migrant workers… and higher social classes.”34 While it is true that many avenues of information online are available primarily to the privileged, other aspects of social media generate a unifying force. 

Of course, it should be lost on no one that China’s censorship tactics remain powerful. The Internet is as much a democratizing force as it is a coercive and authoritarian one. When the VPN’s flicker off in June, it is a sober reminder that there is no fully escaping state power.

But in a networked, technological age, digital civil society has proven its existence equally inescapable.

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