Inside mainland China, some Anglophone social media such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked; as a result, savvy Chinese enterprises have invented alternative versions of these microblogging services—the best known being Weibo. Scholars have suggested that applications such as Weibo have created greater openness, transparency and engagement in the urban public sphere, and have contributed to a much deeper social change, in synergy with reforms in many social areas of contemporary China.
This thesis aims to examine the role of microblogging in the following dimensions: (i) the public engagement in civil discourse about particular issues; (ii) the status quo and development of the public sphere within the context; and (iii) the interaction, synergy and reciprocity among the state, the urban public sphere, and civil society. To this end, the issue of how microblogging is involved in every aspect of ordinary Chinese people’s lives is empirically investigated. Microblogging plays an important role in facilitating people making sense of what is happening in China through engaging in civil discourse about various social issues, and this civil engagement in return may exert profound impact on the country’s concurrent reforms and democratisation process.
Current new-media studies address only some aspects of the new-media use in some parts of the world, due to the strong historical association of the new technology with libertarian discourse, linguistic estrangement, and the reluctance of some Western researchers to learn from developments in other parts of the world. This thesis uses de-Westernised approaches and adopts a non-Western eye to examine the production, distribution and use of new media in a developing country, in an effort to boost intercultural collaboration in this field.
The theoretical framework applied in this thesis originates from civil society and Habermas’s conception of the public sphere, but emphatically focuses on its extrapolation to, and innovation in a Chinese context. A wide range of political, cultural and societal perspectives are employed to explain the uniqueness and non-replicability of microblogging’s impact on the process of constructing an online civil society in contemporary China.
This thesis uses two sets of methods: (i) case studies, all three of which involve Sina Weibo—one of the many Weibo services as the main platform and (ii) mixed methods of quantitative and qualitative approaches that combines content analysis and media discourse analysis to analyse the data collected in this research.
Drawing from the civil discourse practices in the three case studies, the thesis conceptualises three nuanced interactional modes of the Chinese state–society relations: confrontation, positive interaction and negotiation, and thereby concludes that the state–society relations should not be confined to a simple, static dichotomy, but rather be looked at in a more dynamic and diversified way. The “plasticity” of Weibo in facilitating an online public sphere provides many explanatory possibilities for subsequent researchers to diversify and expand the empirical data in this research and thus enrich the connotation of Chinese public sphere and civil society theories.