Written by Stephen D. Reese.

The communication landscape in China includes many contradictions, with a government bent on control of that communication while promoting the digital infrastructure that supports it. Despite political surveillance and periodic warnings from party leadership about the dangers of civil society, these digital platforms—necessary for participation in the global economy—have created new forms of civic engagement and public deliberation. To better understand these developments, my colleague Wenhong Chen and I convened a group of young scholars last year at the University of Texas to share their research. Their work, some examples of which I mention below, will be published shortly in our edited volume: Networked China: Global Dynamics of Digital Media and Civic Engagement.

For many China observers, communication issues have centered on censorship and authoritarian controls, especially when it comes to well-publicized cases involving news organizations like the New York Times or technology companies like Google. Although the state’s enormous power to manage the flow of information cannot be denied, this top-down focus understates what is happening closer to the ground and in the flow of everyday life. China may not have a political and legal civil-sector tradition, but one has developed—constituted by bloggers, social media users, and grassroots NGOs. They all contribute to a discursive space and a more participatory culture, one that often erupts dramatically online in the form of mass incidents, fueled by concerns over corruption, public safety, and environmental threats. Fudan University’s Baohua Zhou’s representative national survey shows that internet use is associated with expressing opinions and joining voluntary associations, especially among those already having political interest.

Chinese citizens have become media-literate netizens, which has empowered them to add their efforts to those of more traditional professional journalists—who in Western societies have been the traditional foundation for civic engagement. Chinese journalists also play that role, albeit with different constraints on what can be safely reported. Even there, though, digital media have facilitated their work. In my own research, I observed the case of Greenpeace, which attempted to publicize environmental consequences from a 2010 oil spill at Dalian Beach. Local news organizations were reluctant to carry its reports, but by distributing that information on their own Weibo networks, journalists were able to get the story out with a velocity and reach that eluded would-be censors. Indeed, giant internet companies themselves, such as Sina.com and Tencent, have helped sponsor annual awards in recent years for outstanding journalism regarding the environment, an issue that has enjoyed greater discursive latitude from the government.

More specific consequences are revealed in a variety of settings. In her analysis of anti-corruption cases, for example, Jia Dai (Tsinghua University) shows how Chinese netizens join with traditional media to create a “mediasphere,” contributing to the downfall of targeted government officials. Of course, she notes, this “networked anti-corruption” lacks an institutionalized structure, and proceeds to the extent it serves the interest of the regime (targeting “flies” rather than “tigers”). Digital media bring private concerns into public view, producing powerful effects when they align with other institutional interests.

Close ethnography outside the major urban areas, shows that although villagers are often limited in their access to information and communication technologies (ICTs), they can use them when given the opportunity to get action from the government. Rong Wang (University of Southern California) shows in her study of environmental collective action how, alerted by the mainstream media, NGOs assisted residents of one village in using ICTs, especially mobile phones, to document evidence and search for information—resulting in greater trust in the local government and the relocation of a chemical factory.

Mobile phones, as examined by Jun Liu (Lund University, Sweden), are particularly effective in promoting civic activism, including in the form of public demonstrations. Protest-related messages are more likely to be passed via mobile phones than by other digital media, because they are well suited to reliable, personal “Guanxi” networks, where they enjoy greater trustworthiness. In the example of the controversial death of a student, Liu shows that people continued to circulate this trusted information even after the government had tried to dispel the story as rumor. Understanding how digital networks interact with cultural norms shows the conditions under which risks of activism are undertaken and political control circumvented.

Digital networks have also enabled wider communication among political candidates. Fei Shen (City University of Hong Kong) examined the Weibo campaign messages of independent candidates running for district-level People’s Congress seats–finding that, even though few of them were successful, a quarter of them received mainstream media coverage, and 60 percent were mentioned in online media—including blogs and discussion forums. The digital space made possible for these candidates, although precarious and closely monitored, nevertheless made it possible for them to overcome traditional barriers facing independent candidates.

And, of course, digital networks by their nature help connect Chinese citizens to the world, and vice versa. Chinese “bridge blogs,” for example, have become a form of global journalism, spotlighting important local issues and translating them into English for an overseas audience. Nan Zheng’s (James Madison University) network analysis of these blogs shows how they occupy an important liaison role in the networked public sphere and fill gaps in international news coverage.

Finally, although we tend to think of public affairs media when it comes to civic engagement, the political is also embedded in more playful, entertainment-oriented media, and the fandom surrounding them. Weiyu Zhang (National University of Singapore) has taken a look at the fan communities for foreign reality programs, such as “American Idol” and “Britain’s Got Talent,” which these fans have creatively accessed in spite of political and economic impediments. These communities help their members translate, subtitle, and share information, and express their identity through interactions with others. In the process, they participate in online critique of cultural products, cultivating a more critical and engaged audience, whose media decoding skills and participatory culture need not be confined to foreign programs–or excluded from the political arena.

The recent Hong Kong “Umbrella Revolution” has brought renewed interest to the potential for social change in China, but internet-based, digital media networks will not in themselves cause revolution or bring democracy. Their impact, as we can see, is more subtle, contingent, and unpredictable, as they bring new negotiated relationships between social institutions and the emerging civil society. They do certainly allow new forms of contentious politics and deliberative spaces, which emerge and close in ways that we still need to better understand.

Stephen D. Reese, is Jesse H. Jones Professor of Journalism & Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Moody College of Communication, University of Texas. Image credit: CC by MyEyeSees/Flickr