Chinese Social Media as a Dominated Public Sphere: A Case Study of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Sina Weibo


The Internet has long been the focus of Utopian arguments proposing its democratic potential. Most recently, social media has been proposed as facilitating the Arab Spring and other political changes toward democratic ideals in authoritarian societies. While many observers are fascinated by the revolutionary potential of social media, others are skeptical of this excessive optimism. This paper investigates the most significant Chinese political event of 2012, the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in which China's new leadership was elected, through the twin lenses of social media and traditional media. It empirically compares and contrasts depictions of the event in the most popular Chinese social media service, Sina Weibo, against those from three most circulated traditional mass media outlets, People's Daily, Xinhua News Agency and The Southern Weekend. Through a combination of computational text analytics and content analysis, we observe a remarkable topical similarity between the two media spheres, albeit a distinctive narrative pattern and some subtle resistance in Weibo posts. It is argued that, insofar as China still retains a restrictive approach to press and internet freedom, social media is more inclined to be dominated by traditional media in framing certain major political events, where the mediasphere is critically censored, and the public discourse heavily swayed by institutional accounts representing the official orthodoxies. In such circumstances, social media's purported power thus has a substantial boundary that constrains itself from serving as an obvious quasi-revolutionary facilitator of dramatic institutional changes envisioned by Western commentators. The impact of social media on Chinese society is, therefore, an extremely complex and long-term evolutionary issue.

Author Information
Yanshuang Zhang, The University of Queensland, Australia
John Harrison, The University of Queensland, Australia
Sean Rintel, The University of Queensland, Australia
Daniel Angus, The University of Queensland, Australia

Paper Information
Conference: MediAsia2013
Stream: Media Studies

This paper is part of the MediAsia2013 Conference Proceedings (View)
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