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Democracy without Democratization: The Redefinition and Appropriation of Global Discourse in China’s Social Media

Mon, August 13, 10:30am to 12:10pm, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Level 4, 412

Abstract

Democracy is a concept familiar to most but defined in different ways. After the Third Wave of Democratization in the 1990s, democracy became the dominant ideology in the political realm. To achieve legitimacy and support in both domestic and international sphere, the authoritarian countries have to defend themselves by describing their political system as a democratic one. In China, as the comparison between China’s socialist regime and the Western democracy has become a popular topic in China’s domestic microblog, Weibo, the authority’s concern raised from the advancement and empowerment of Chinese cyber citizens. As a result, both the Weibo users and the officials were involved in a battle in interpreting democracy within the Chinese context.
This research aims to explore how Chinese Weibo users struggled in shaping the ideas of democracy in the public sphere, and how China’s authority strategically reacted to, adopted and appropriated the global norm of democracy on world’s largest social media platform, Sina Weibo. Drawing on computer-assisted content analysis of 100,000 microblog threads posted between 2009 and 2017, and 1,000 microblog threads that were blocked between 2012 and 2017, the findings reveal that Chinese officials have strategically appropriated the global discursive form of democracy by altering its definition to fit their political needs, whereas censor the resistance or alternative democratic discourse to monopolize the power of definition. On Weibo, the Chinese government has tried to strengthen its control over this rising democratic discourse through three ways. First, to monopolize the power of interpretation, the authority continues repressing counter-socialist expressions through administrative regulations and censorship. Second, aiming to conciliate the opponents and minimize the negative impact on its regime, the authority tried to incorporate the typical democratic codes with China’s existing political codes, claiming "there should be a 'third way' between social democracy and traditional socialism". Third, censorship was utilized as a symbol to signal the presence of coercive power, rather than a technical solution for information control. It helps to press individuals to internalize the official standards in understanding certain concepts, or even promote self-censorship.

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