Regulating Social Media in China

Foucauldian Governmentality and the Public Sphere

by Bei Guo (Author)
©2018 Monographs X, 198 Pages


Regulating Social Media in China: Foucauldian Governmentality and the Public Sphere is the first in-depth study to apply the Foucauldian notion of governmentality to China’s field of social media. This book provokes readers to contemplate the democratizing potential of social media in China. By deploying Foucault’s theory of governmentality as an explanatory framework, author Bei Guo explores the seemingly paradoxical relationship of the Chinese party-state to the expansion of social media platforms. Guo argues that the Chinese government has several interests in promoting community participation and engagement through the internet platform Weibo, including extending the presence of its own agencies on Weibo while simultaneously controlling the discourse in many important ways. This book provides an important corrective to overly sanguine accounts that social media promotes a Habermasian public sphere along liberal democratic lines. It demonstrates how China, as an authoritarian country, responds to its citizens’ voracious hunger for information and regulates this by carefully adopting both liberal and authoritarian techniques.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. Theoretical Foundations: Public Sphere and Governmentality
  • Chapter 3. Background of China’s Internet and Social Media
  • Chapter 4. Transformative Regulatory Measures of Weibo
  • Chapter 5. Weibo Broadcast of the Bo Xilai Trial
  • Chapter 6. Patriotic Citizenry in China’s Weibo Community
  • Chapter 7. Conclusion

← vi | vii →


This book began as a doctoral research project at the University of Adelaide, and that long PhD journey does have particular meanings in my life. I suffered the great loss of my father and welcomed the birth of my son during that time. Fortunately, many people have offered considerable support and help to me both in study and life. Therefore, I would like to thank colleagues, friends and family members who supported me in different ways in the process of conducting this research and the production of this book.

My most profound thanks go to Associate Professor Peter C. Pugsley and Dr. Ying Jiang, for their patiently listening to my plans, constantly encouraging me and offering me advice when I was in need. I have benefited tremendously from their excellent academic guidance. I have also been enriched by many scholars in the Department of Media at the University of Adelaide, whose comments, inspiration and support made me feel encouraged in this big environment. I’m grateful to my colleagues and friends, who have offered generous support during the journey, Dr. Weiming Zhang, Dr. Minghua Wu and Dr. Margarita Flabouris. Their help and friendship to me is unforgettable.

Special gratitude goes to colleagues in the School of Journalism and Communication at Shaanxi Normal University in China. Sincere thanks also go to Editor Farideh Koohi-Kamali, Editorial Assistant Megan Madden and ← vii | viii → Commissioning Editor Na Li at Peter Lang, for the patient and considerable support making this work finally came to fruition.

My heartfelt thanks go to my parents, for their unconditional love, understanding and encouragement during my growth. They do not only play the role of parents in my life, but also mentors and friends to me. Thanks go to my parents in law, who gave me great support during my difficulties and helped me to look after my son. Finally, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my husband, Liang Yan, who embarked on his own PhD journey together with me, while always giving me care, love and tremendous support whenever I was in need.

← viii | ix →


China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC)

China Central Television (CCTV)

Chinese Communist Party (CCP)

Human Flesh Search Engine (HFSE)

Internet Content Provider (ICP)

Non-Government Organizations (NGO)

World Health Organization (WHO)

People’s Daily Public Opinion Monitoring (PDPOM) ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →

· 1 ·


Online activism is a microcosm of China’s new citizen activism, and it is one of its most vibrant currents. In this sense, online activism marks the expansion of a grassroots, citizen democracy. It is an unofficial democracy because the initiatives, both in thinking and action, come from citizens. (Yang 2009, p. 223)

Aims of the Research

The advent of the internet has made the Chinese communication landscape more vibrant and complex. China had long been criticized for its strict information control and internet censorship. However, the Chinese authorities were quick to seize the advent of the internet to deliver the benefits of the information revolution which they saw as crucial to China’s modernization and the rise of China in the international community, despite the clear potential threats to longstanding information regulation. This dynamic is reflected in current scholarship, with some scholarly works focusing on the Chinese government’s continuing rigid censorship to maintain the status quo and ensure state security, particularly through the various measures taken by the government to reinforce internet control (MacKinnon 2008). Others show interest in online activism and smart strategies used to counter censorship ← 1 | 2 → against political participation (Yang 2009). The most contested question in the existing literature since the arrival of the internet relates to its role in Chinese state-society relations, and whether the internet and its related technologies represent a crucial step in the development of civil society. The internet, after all, is said to carry the potential for the development of a public sphere, and even the eventual democratization of China (Rosen 2010). In recent years a number of technology-driven revolutions have taken place across the world, with many Western media reports and scholarly works placing a great deal of emphasis on the political implications of the internet in China; as elsewhere, the thriving use of the internet and new communication technology has given birth to the myth of cyber democracy.

Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform that combines the features of Twitter and Facebook, has channeled new energy into the Chinese social media landscape. The anticipated political significance of the internet has been intensified by Weibo, with its unique functions of allowing real-time communication and the attraction of wide audiences. Weibo has quickly become the most powerful form of social media in China, and it has brought a number of significant changes to the Chinese media and society. According to the China Internet Network Information Centre, the total number of Weibo users comprises 40.9 percent of the total internet population by end of 2017 (CNNIC 2018). Just as the arrival of the internet in China had challenged official information control, Weibo’s revolutionary potential lay in its opportunities for citizen and social activism, requiring new responses from the government. This has been especially the case in the public opposition to government corruption in recent years (Diamond 2010). Consequently, Weibo has indeed posed a new and serious challenge to official information control. A common assumption is that the rise of social media will have the potential to undermine China’s Party controls. The particular threats Weibo invokes can be attributed to a number of factors: greater user participation, instantaneous communications drawing on citizen witnessing of events and its potential for the subversive exchange of information within 140 Chinese characters. With their enriched meanings as singular or part-word forms, Chinese characters have the potential to convey multiple meanings compared with English letters (Tong & Lei 2013). Many scholars declare that Weibo is able to create a more democratic communication space in Chinese society. This book, however, develops a more nuanced and critical perspective about the common equation of Weibo and democratic communication and argues that these discussions underestimate the Chinese government’s skills in ← 2 | 3 → managing this new technology and oversimplify China’s sophisticated internet culture. In other words, China is pursuing a distinctive response to Weibo based on a sophisticated and constantly evolving relationship between the Chinese government and the medium of Weibo.

Previous studies have documented the Chinese authorities’ success in the historical management and control of information in the mass media. However, in the internet era, particularly in the Weibo era, will the government be as successful in controlling the flow of information as before? If so, how? While the significant role that the Chinese government has played in expanding the internet in China is rarely explored, this study aims to examine the Chinese government’s simultaneous efforts to strengthen the scope of the internet, along with its governance and at the same time to fulfill the official political agenda, particularly through managing Weibo and in the way it deals with politically sensitive events.

Efforts to control internet information in the past have been characterized by mechanisms such as the state-controlled blocking of sites that became widely known as the “Great Firewall of China”. Many scholars from various disciplines have established how this technical solution, together with other containment strategies, including specific laws and regulations, have helped the Chinese government to successfully maintain control over the internet (Boas 2006; Bandurski 2010; MacKinnon 2008). However, with the fast development of recent technologies, especially in the Weibo era, it is now almost impossible for the Chinese government to overtly shut down access to information and to block outside threats, simply by using the Great Firewall. This research newly contends that Chinese regulatory strategies have evolved far beyond these straightforward, often punitive measures of the past, and have become varied and multiple, strategic, sophisticated and successful.

The social media industry in China is dynamic and rapidly evolving. Scholarly analysis therefore needs to understand the impact of China’s new social media applications and the efforts of the Chinese authorities to control them. Some scholars view the way an authoritarian regime embraces and adjusts to the changes brought by digital communications as “networked authoritarianism”, where the ruling Party still remains in control while allowing a range of conversations to take place (MacKinnon 2011; Hassid 2012). This book acknowledges that the Chinese government does not exert complete control over Weibo, instead, adopting a proactive attitude by allowing selective freedoms. In contrast to an extreme view of the false dichotomy between an ideal freedom and total control on Weibo, a space in which much ← 3 | 4 → scholarship currently takes place, the reality is that the Chinese government has been successful in both opening up the Weibo platform for public discussion, while also retaining the ability to regulate Weibo. This book argues that both the opening up and closing down of information occurs on Weibo, sometimes simultaneously, but always strategically, as the later case study chapters illustrate. This formulation should be understood as a new type of governance, with the ultimate outcome always to sustain government control. In other words, the political implications of Weibo cannot be understood solely by looking at users’ participatory practices, but should be revisited to consider the networked conditions that enable it. It is too simplistic a question to focus only on whether or not Weibo expands public communication as a basis for political reform; a more significant focus considers how the state accommodates and manages the openness of public expression on Weibo for its own purposes.

By providing an outlet for increasingly information-rich and contentious public expression, the Chinese government has developed updated versions of regulation through selective and targeted responses or by subtly using the medium to deliberately set the public agenda on certain issues. This is not to say that the authorities have abandoned their more overt control measures, including coercion, censorship and persuasion to make sure that events conform to the political agenda. Rather, the new spectrum of strategic and subtle government controls of public expression and thought on Weibo confirms that Weibo represents its most serious challenge to date, requiring different and highly skilled management. As a result, the rise of Weibo has not fundamentally undermined the party-state’s control, but rather, served as a new tool for building consensus and fulfilling the interests of various sectors.

This book therefore examines the dialogues appearing on Weibo as a complex picture based on interaction and constant negotiation between public expression and official control. In addition to elaborating this paradoxical picture, the study argues that in this practice, the Chinese government is more successful and effective in attaining its intended goals to bolster its legitimacy, and that this has been largely overlooked by scholars to date. This book highlights the central role of the Chinese government in developing such a method for dealing with ever-evolving Weibo dynamics.


X, 198
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. X, 198 pp.

Biographical notes

Bei Guo (Author)

Bei Guo is a lecturer at the School of Journalism and Communication at Shaanxi Normal University (China). She acquired her PhD in the Department of Media, School of Humanities, at the University of Adelaide (Australia). Her research focuses on political communication, public relations, and new media.


Title: Regulating Social Media in China
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
210 pages