Stockmann, Daniela and Ting Luo. Digital China: Managing Social Media and Political Behavior during Political Change, book manuscript.

When the Internet was introduced to China in 1994 this new communication technology was primarily aimed at fostering economic development by relaxing control over domestic and international communication flows in order to foster initiative, innovation, and economic growth. Relaxation of control was necessary to support digitalisation because the Internet connected computers (people) based on a decentralised network where information was broken down into packets for the purpose of preventing external intervention. Soon this posed a challenging puzzle to the Chinese Communist Party: How could the state support the development of interactive digital technology that required a certain degree of openness while at the same time also inhibiting its potentially destabilising effects?

Over time, Chinese leaders have developed different approaches towards solving this puzzle, moving from collective towards more personalist leadership between Presidents Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping while also moving from being merely a copycat towards a frontrunner in digital innovation. These changes have provoked concerns among observers that the Chinese government is evolving in the direction of “big brother” as envisioned in Orwell’s dystopian work “1984.” This book demonstrates that China in 2020 is radically different in practice to how Orwell envisioned a highly-digitalised totalitarian society in 1949. Original data collected during the Hu Jintao era in 2008 and the Xi Jinping era in 2018 reveals that the state manages digital platforms based on a combination of opening space for citizen participation required for technological development, while also developing technological and institutional infrastructure to manage and control participation in these participatory spaces, when necessary. The state thus can reap the benefits of digital transformation, while also keeping its destabilising effects under control. Even under the more tightly controlled and personalised leadership of Xi Jinping Chinese citizens perceive these developments as positive overall, emphasizing the power of digital technology for greater openness and convenience.

This book manuscript is based on extensive fieldwork conducted during the Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping era between 2008 and 2018. It involves a range of methods and sources, including unique public opinion survey data, online surveys and interviews with ordinary Chinese Internet users as well as IT experts from the largest Chinese tech companies. This 250-page monograph will be the first book that focuses on the user perspective of digital governance in China, providing the first nationally-representative data on Chinese Internet users to date.

Journal articles:

Stockmann, Daniela, Keri Hartman, and Ting Luo. 2020. The Political Position Generator: A New Instrument for Measuring Political Ties in China. Social Networks 63: pp. 70-79.

This paper proposes a novel instrument – the political position generator – for measuring individuals’ political ties or personal, affective connections to state officials and other political actors. It adopts and adapts the more general position generator framework in social capital research to capture three key dimensions of political ties – upper reachability, network diversity and tie strength. The measure is validated with data from a representative survey of the Chinese population and three scales representing the three political ties dimensions are created. In correlational and multivariate regression analyses, we find initial evidence of the instrument’s criterion-related (discriminant and concurrent) validity.

Working papers:

Stockmann, Daniela and Ting Luo. Online Political Talk in China: What do Citizens Make of Censored Political Discourse?

Online political discourse has been found to place pressure on governments. On the one hand, people argue that such pressure poses a potential threat for democracy. On the other hand, such pressure can also bring about social change and foster democracy. This paper examines the first nationally representative survey on informal political talk in China to investigate who discusses politics online and face-to-face and how citizens perceive space for online compared to face-to-face political discourse under conditions of strong control exerted over the Internet. We find that Chinese netizens are surprisingly active in talking about politics and tend to perceive online discussion more diverse than offline space, pointing towards the Internet’s role of increasing political engagement rather than diluting it. Our findings have implications for understanding informal political talk and the role of the Internet and particularly social media for political change.

Manion, Melanie, Viola Rothschild, and Hongshen Zhu. Viral Politics: What a Public Health Crisis Reveals about Government Credibility in Authoritarian China.

Crises can reveal governance failures that undermine regime authority. We analyse how citizens in a strong authoritarian regime respond to a harmful governance failure when they cannot punish the ruling party at the polls. Exploiting the coincidence of a public health crisis in China and the administration of a nationally-representative survey in summer 2018, we study the impact of crisis on how citizens consume information. We find that citizens who experience the 2018 crisis as a “second strike”—a recurrence of a crisis experienced recently—are significantly more likely to reject official information in favor of information from more intimate and diverse sources. We treat this citizen defection from official information toward social information as a behavioral measure of low government credibility. We also find that citizens who experience the 2018 crisis as a second strike are more likely to engage in various forms of political participation.

Wenfang Tang and Yuehong Tai. Revolution Derailed: The Struggle for Media Control and Media Freedom in China.

Drawing on data from the 2018 China Internet Survey, this paper analyses the channels through which Chinese citizens acquire political information. It finds that while many people particularly among the younger generations are using social media, an equally large number of people continue to rely on the officially controlled TV news for political and social information. As hoped by those who want to bring down the authoritarian regime through social media, the Internet contributes to questioning the government and developing liberal ideas among its users but fails to promote bottom up political participation. Interestingly, government-controlled TV programing meets its goals of improving regime support as well as mobilising mass political participation. The authoritarian government also seems effective in pushing social media into its orbit of political control.

Landry, Pierre. WHO IS ASKING? Dealing with interviewer effects in face-to-face survey in politically sensitive contexts.

The organisation of face-to-face political and social surveys is fraught with the risk of biased estimates.  “Interviewer bias” is particularly problematic in  authoritarian systems where citizens may feel the need to signal support of the regime. Meanwhile, face-to-face surveys often require dispatching interviewers to specific geographical zones for the sake of convenience. In this paper, we examine how to disentangle these effects, using information from a unique nationally-representative survey of China organized in 2018 within 75 localities. A parallel dataset answered by interviewers was conducted, enabling researchers to control for item-specific interviewer effect while accounting for local effects.  We demonstrate that the magnitude of these effects vary with the placement of items in the questionnaire, the cognitive difficulty of the item, and its degree of political sensitivity. Simultaneously, locational effects have substantive importance. We recommend that the analysis of face-to-face data should make use of both sets of controls in order to reduce estimation bias.

Ting Luo. The Internet and Electoral Participation in China’s rural villages.

Based on data from the 2018 China Internet Survey, this paper analyses the effect of Internet use on villagers’ participation in rural elections. It demonstrates that Internet use provides easy access to information about village elections, thus empowering villagers to participate in electoral activities. The results are also tested and validated by looking into rural respondents’ Internet activities. Findings suggest that the Internet has the potential to change the balance of power between authoritarian rulers and challengers under the context of authoritarian regimes by breaking the monopoly of information previously possessed by the authoritarian rulers. The findings also suggest that in rural elections, villagers have unequal access to the Internet and have different levels of ability to acquire and understand information from online sources and this digital divide also shapes the balance of power in grassroots elections.

Related publications:

Stockmann, Daniela, Felix Garten, and Ting Luo (2020). “Who is a PRC user? Comparing Chinese Social Media User Agreements” First Monday 25(8), 2020.

Social media companies rely on user agreements as one means to manage content produced by users. While much has been written on user agreements and community standards of US-based social media, surprisingly little is known about Chinese user agreements and their implications. We compare terms of services as well as privacy policies of WeChat and Weibo between 2014 and 2019 using their US-counterparts WhatsApp and Twitter as a benchmark. We find that Chinese user agreements reveal a territorial-based understanding of content management differentiating between PRC and Non-PRC users based on language, IP address and country of citizenship. Secondly, Chinese social media companies are surprisingly transparent about what content can be published, which has implications for self-censorship among users. Thirdly, changes in PRC User agreements reflect Xi Jinping’s tightening control of the Internet. Finally, US-based platforms have moved towards content management that differs by region, thus becoming increasily similar to the Chinese approach over time.

Stockmann, Daniela, Ting Luo, and Mingming Shen. 2019. “Designing Authoritarian Deliberation: How Social Media Platforms Influence Political Talk in China”, Democratization. 27:2, 243-264.

Discussion is often celebrated as a critical element of public opinion and political participation. Recently, scholars have suggested that the design and features of specific online platforms shape what is politically expressed online and how. Building on these findings and drawing on 112 semi-structured qualitative interviews with information technology experts and Internet users, we explain how major Chinese social media platforms differ in structure and motivation. Drawing on a nationwide representative survey and an online experiment, we find that platforms aiming to make users a source of information through public, information-centred communication, such as the Twitter-like Weibo, are more conducive to political expression, while platforms built to optimise social connections through private, user-centred communication, such as WhatsApp and Facebook-like WeChat, tend to inhibit political expression. These technological design effects are stronger when users believe the authoritarian state tolerates discussion, but less important when political talk is sensitive. The findings contribute to the debate on the political consequences of the Internet by specifying technological and political conditions.

Stockmann, Daniela and Ting Luo. (2017). “Which Social Media Facilitate Online Public Opinion in China?“. Problems of Post-Communism 64, Issue 3-4: pp. 189-202.

Why does online public opinion emerge in some social media more easily than in others? Building on research on authoritarian deliberation, we describe spaces for political discussion in Chinese cyberspace in terms of interactivity, which results in different forms of political discussion. Drawing on semi-structured qualitative expert interviews with information and communications technology professionals at Tencent, Weibo, and Baidu, we explain how major social media differ in terms of their structure and the company’s motivation. We specify which features are more likely to facilitate the emergence of online public opinion in Chinese social media and provide preliminary evidence from 92 semi-structured interviews with Internet users.

Stockmann, Daniela and Ting Luo. (2019). “Authoritarian Deliberation 2.0: Lurking and Discussing Politics in Social Media in China” in Michael Delli-Carpini, ed. Digital Media and Democratic Futures, University of Pennsylvania Press (2019).

This chapter studies the impact of online discussion on political engagement by exploring differences between people who read (lurkers) and people who comment (discussants), and the motivations and concerns for censorship that may influence these respective behaviors on social media in China. Relying on in-depth qualitative interviews, online survey data – including an experiment and a case study of an online discussion – we focus on social media users in China. We find that lurkers tend to seek information about politics online and do not join the debate out of higher concerns for privacy. Discussants tend to voice their views as a means to socialise and be recognised. Comparatively lower concerns for privacy facilitate the expression of views online, though discussants adjust their views and use fake accounts when openly expressing opinions. Our findings have implications for the role of social media in China and perhaps other authoritarian states.

Stockmann, Daniela. (2015). “Responsive Authoritarianism in Chinese Media.” In Avery Goldstein and Jacques deLisle, eds, 2015. China’s Challenges. Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

China is following a general global trend toward commercialising media and introducing new media technology that has not been confined to democracies. This chapter concludes that market-based and new media pose a major challenge to China’s regime stability, but that the Chinese central leadership is able to cope with these challenges in ways that are beneficial to its rule. Chinese media remain embedded in the Chinese political system and through this institutional infrastructure the Chinese Communist Party can maintain the balance between liberalisation and control, which together have a stabilising effect on the overall political system. In doing so, China resembles other one-party regimes that have a greater capacity to restrict information flows and thus can use market-based and new media to their advantage.

Stockmann, Daniela. (2015). “The Chinese Internet Audience: Who Seeks Political Information Online?.” In Hanspeter Kriesi, Daniel Kübler, and Lisheng Dong, eds, 2015. Urban Mobilization and New Media in Contemporary China. London: Ashgate.

This chapter explores who is using the Internet to lurk in and participate in online political discussion in China. To place Internet use within the broader context the chapter first introduces different forms of active engagement with domestic media in China. Based on the China Survey 2008, a unique public opinion survey drawn from a random national sample that includes migrants, the chapter lays out patterns of information seeking and political discussion among Internet users in cities and the countryside. Depending on which communication channel people turn to, Chinese users express different opinions regarding public affairs. More broadly, the chapter challenges common assumptions about who engages in politics online, such as that they belong to a growing Chinese middle class, exclude weak groups of society (ruoshi qunti), are nationalistic or favour democracy.

Stockmann, Daniela. (2013). Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China. New York: Cambridge University Press.

In most liberal democracies commercialised media is taken for granted, but in many authoritarian regimes the introduction of market forces in media represents a radical break from the past with uncertain political and social implications. This book argues that consequences of media marketisation depend on the institutional design of the state. In one-party regimes such as China, market-based media promote regime stability, rather than destabilise authoritarianism or bring about democracy. The Chinese state is able to retain one-sided political messages in the news via the interaction between institutions and the market. Yet at the same time, media marketisation makes a great difference to audiences. Chinese people seek out and believe market-based media that appear credible in the eyes of citizens. A comparison with over thirty countries reveals that market forces are unlikely to undermine the rule of the Chinese Communist Party in the near future.