A Critical Assessment of the Uses and Limits of Social Media in China

Open Access
Kern, Julia Murdoch
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Curtis William Chandler, Thesis Supervisor
  • Martin Halstuk, Honors Advisor
  • China
  • social media
  • Renren
  • Weibo
  • WeChat
  • Tencent
  • Alibaba
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
When looking at China at the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, it would be hard to imagine that 50 years later the country would be allowing its citizens to sound off on public social networking sites about everything from what they ate for breakfast to their complaints with government corruption. Since the rise of the Communist party, information control has been a central feature of Chinese culture and China’s leaders’ maintenance of social and political order. But as China has become a major player in the 2014 world economy, the Internet — and the social media networks it has given rise to — have proven to be integral to China’s ability to compete on the global scene and — in some cases — been beneficial to both the government and the country as a whole. Chinese citizens have begun to use social media to expose the corruption of local officials, bringing to light certain societal ills like pollution, food safety, and human trafficking. Others have used social media to engage in e-commerce and consumer spending. For its part, the Chinese government has begun to use social media both passively and actively to mine and shape public opinion, reflecting a degree of sophistication that is consistent with the government’s understanding of the power and the impact of information. But while China has allowed its Internet and social media to exist, certain limitations have become apparent in the way that citizens use social media, particularly those who use it for the purpose of political commentary. In many cases, those limitations stem from the government’s inherent desire to control the flow of information, a tendency that has manifested itself through complex censorship techniques, including the removal of individual posts or users’ entire accounts. Going forward, the Chinese government is likely going to continue to walk a fine line when it comes to what uses of social media it does and doesn’t allow, and the permitted uses of social media in China are going to reflect the government’s willingness to allow uses that in some way furthers its own goals. For example, if average users are going to criticize individual officials for legitimate displays of corruption, the government will probably allow those posts to go uncensored. On the contrary, those uses that demonstrate a potential to spark collective action will likely face increasing limitations. This thesis will explore the many ways in which Chinese people are currently using social media and identify the demonstrated limitations to those uses.