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Regulating Social Media in China

Foucauldian Governmentality and the Public Sphere

Bei Guo

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.

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Chapter 2. Theoretical Foundations: Public Sphere and Governmentality


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This chapter provides the theoretical foundations for the book by exploring the changing notions of the public sphere in contemporary China and the ways in which the concept of governmentality, as developed by Foucault, can be applied to it. In other words, it will outline the changing status of freedom and control in China, based on theories of the public sphere and governmentality. In recent decades, an important new dimension for the public sphere in China has been the fast evolving online world, and in particular, the social media platform of Weibo. Many scholars have looked to Weibo in China as offering the potential for transformation from great control to great freedom. Through this social media platform in contemporary China, one could begin to see a liberalization of freedom of speech in a reportedly illiberal society; Weibo has developed into a vital public communications arena for a lively and dynamic exchange of information, contentions, accusations and scandalous revelations. The emergence of Weibo has heightened people’s expectations of technologies in promoting democracy, and has often been considered as a “micro revolution” (Hu 2010) in offering a seemingly freer channel for ← 29 | 30 → individual-to-individual communications. In this way, a version of what has been historically known as ‘the public sphere’ is opening up in China.

The concept of the public sphere has been defined by Habermas as the provision of social arena/s...

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