Chinese social media opening up public debate, university study finds

By on 27/04/2017
Yinjiao Ye, associate professor, Department of Communication Studies at the University of Rhode Island

Chinese social media systems are fostering a more open public debate within the country on political and social issues such as corruption, new research from the University of Rhode Island has found.

Yinjiao Ye, an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the university, who co-produced the study, told Global Government Forum that: “Social media are providing a platform for Chinese citizens to monitor and discuss state corruption and other political issues.” People using social media feel relatively safe to criticise decisions on corruption and policy, she added; and the increasing use of social media may suggest that people’s freedom to criticise state decisions is growing.

The study was based on a survey of 1202 Chinese internet users, and analysed by Ye along with fellow researchers Ping Xu and Mingxin Zhang.

The Chinese government’s internet censorship systems bar residents from access to western social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, but native systems such as Wechat, Weibo and Baidu Tieba enjoy huge audiences. “The research found this kind of platforms to be positively associated with public discourse and civic engagement, while users with higher political interest tended to favour a heavier social media use,” said Ye. “Social media are used by Chinese citizens as a space for a relatively free public debate, and are providing a platform for them to monitor and discuss state corruption and other political issues.”

For instance, she said, in August 2015 subscribers of the popular online portal of the People’s Daily, Qiangguoluntan, shared heated discussions on issues such as the anti-corruption movement, territorial disputes with Japan, health care reform, the reform of state-owned enterprises and pollution. And a discussion panel named ‘Monitor by the People’, which called for ordinary Chinese citizens to expose misconduct by government officials, attracted over 200 responses.

The Chinese government has long tried to influence public debate via social media. The first systematic study of China’s online propaganda workers, known as the Fifty Cent Party, which was led by Harvard University, found that the government fabricates about 488 million social media comments a year in a massive effort to draw citizens’ attention away from “unsettling” news and delicate political debates.

“Propaganda in China including social media posts by the Fifty Cent Party members will likely distract people from bad news and sensitive political debates,” commented Ye. “However, not everybody will be fooled by these posts. Some citizens, especially those who are highly interested in politics, might even dislike or be tired of these types of posts, which may end up having a reverse effect from their intended goal.”

The report by Ye and her colleagues, entitled ‘Social media, public discourse and civic engagement in modern China’, was published in Telematics and Informatics journal.

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About Stav Dimitropoulos

Stav Dimitropoulos is a writer who has reported for CBC and CBS Radio about the Greek crisis and written for major international outlets. She holds an MSc in RCDM and a Diploma in Journalism among others, and has attended seminars in Micro/Macroeconomics, Political Theory and EU Institutions.

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