Written by Zixue Tai.

Social media activism has taken root in China in recent years. In its numerous manifestations, it has has redefined the contours of China’s grassroots activism and collective action. Through its invasive presence in China’s cyber world, the formula usually works as follows: a certain individual with an axe to grind vents out a grievance via one of the numerous popular social media outlets, often subtitled in inflammatory comments that easily raise the eyebrows of fellow netizens; an online outrage spreads like wildfire through re-posts and forwards via social networks; the buzz turns into an uproar when conventional reporters, who are always hard-pressed to look for the next headline, jump on the bandwagon; this finally gets the attention of the top dogs, who, by occupying positions of authority in the rigid Chinese power echelon, decide to dispense justice and appease the enraged public. The finale is then endorsed by the state-orchestrated propaganda apparatus as further proof of how the Chinese state can rectify transgressions and maintain social harmony.

There is an unmistakable tone of vengeful populism in the pervasiveness of these highly charged anti-establishment and anti-elitist messages. The specificity of these dynamics can best be understood in the context of several intimately interconnected factors.

The first noticeable thing about China’s social media is its sheer size. For instance, QQ, the leading instant-messaging service across PC and smartphone platforms, now boasts over 800 million active user accounts. Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblogging platform, has an active user base of over 280 million and is being accessed by 76 million individuals on an average day. Weixin, the fast-rising smartphone-based text and voice messaging social networking service, reaches over 600 million users, 100 million of whom are outside of China. The magnitude of the network size poses an enormous challenge for state censors, and makes it possible for various contentious activities to exist and thrive across Chinese network space.

The second consideration is the highly controlled nature of China’s conventional media environment. Granted, decades of reform have shifted the Chinese media from the old state-supported model to its current market-based financing system, and the media are more responsive to audience demands and interests. The Party-state, however, has never relinquished its ideological control on the media business, and media professionals periodically receive directives on how to fulfil critical state functions. Understandably, in order to keep propaganda officials off their doorstep, the media tend to shy away from controversial issues and state-proscribed topics. It is no surprise then that boring content propagates conventional media and media-operated online space.

Consequently, leading state media outlets have low credibility among Chinese readers in general and the netizens in particular. Information released by the Big Three – China Central Television (CCTV), People’s Daily, and Xinhua News Agency – often turns into primary source material for popular ridicule and contempt. Here is one telltale example. On 8 February 2014, CCTV aired an investigative expose on the rampant prostitution industry in the Southern City of Dongguan, which forced a swift and heavy-handed clampdown by the local authorities. In response to this event, the vast majority of Chinese netizens swarmed social media in sympathizing with the sex workers and lashing out at CCTV for picking on this particularly vulnerable group while avoiding what they deem as more serious social woes such as official corruption, environmental pollution and high unemployment. In another instance, on 28 December 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping was spotted eating steamed stuffed buns and conversing with commoners in a popular restaurant in Beijing, a rarity in Chinese political life, as the expected routine for top officials is to confine their activities to well-protected and carefully crafted domains the sight of which is only available to the populace through state television news and press photos. Also worthy of note is that this news was first microblogged as a chance encounter, accompanied by a few photos from carefully positioned angles. Some astute netizens quickly noticed that the news flow was not as spontaneous as it was claimed, as the Big Three were actually the first to repost the original microblog, minutes after it was published, in disseminating the news to a larger audience. Nonetheless, the unusual nature of this news made it the No. 1 trending topic on Weibo for days. It is highly suggestive that the state media, instead of following the usual practice of packaging the event as “protocol news” of state dignitaries, would resort to reporting this as a social media story.

Social media content, due to its user-centered and user-contributed nature, assumes a special place among Chinese netizens. Compared with their counterparts in most other countries, Chinese individuals display a much higher propensity to contribute to and rely on user-generated content. They are also more inclined to believe in their ability to effect change through online participation. The tightly controlled and closed nature of the conventional information environment, therefore, has the effect of channeling user interest and activities to the more free-wheeling online space.

Clay Shirky made the observation that digital media allows for the power of “organizing without organizations.” This is especially empowering in the context of social activism in China. The main reason is that an effective strategy that Chinese regime has adopted in recent decades has been to target and isolate (and sometimes punish) a small number of leaders and dissenters in derailing social and political movements that may be perceived incendiary and threatening. Collective action through mass collaboration and coordination without identifiable leaders, therefore, makes social activism achievable and sustainable in China in the networked era in which the authoritarian state still maintains a palpable and sometimes formidable presence.

An ancillary factor that has turned China into a hotbed of digital activism is the changing sociopolitical conditions in the wake of decades of marketization. Widening disparities among various sectors and social groups as well as divergent and often contradictory demands from different interest groups all increase the likelihood of popular contentions and mass protests.

Finally, the Chinese regime has largely turned a lenient eye to the emerging forms of digital activism, and, under many circumstances, self-organizing individuals have been successful in negotiating government accountability and extracting official reactions in redressing grievances and punishing selective offenders. It is worth highlighting that the focal points have been in relation to specific issues and local in scope in all these cases. Any type of effort to challenge the central authority or the legitimacy of the Party-state (i.e., calling for regime change), however, has not been tolerated thus far, and will likely be continuously dealt with in a heavy-handed manner in the foreseeable future.

Zixue Tai is Associate Professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications, University of Kentucky, and author of The Internet in China: Cyberspace and Civil Society. Image credit: CC by TransCam/Flickr.