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Social Groups & Media

Chinese society has become increasingly diverse over the past few decades: People’s incomes, working environments, lifestyles and personal values now differ more than ever. New technologies and social media have opened new ways of communicating and help people develop and share opinions in a novel way.  However, the resulting frictions and demands have put growing pressure on the Chinese government. The urban middle class, particularly “urban professionals” (e.g. lawyers, journalists, IT experts and scientists,), have growing expectations regarding their personal quality of life. They criticize systemic shortcomings such as widespread environmental pollution and the lack of food safety. Many try to move their assets and families abroad if possible – or at least try to obtain the right to permanent residence in other countries.

Old and young chinese person sitting on bench. Jens Schott Knudsen via Flickr

Low paid or low skilled workers such as migrants and farmers still struggle with a system that gives them unequal access to education and social services. Expropriation of land and property, environmental damage, and employment disputes are the main reasons for an increasing number of protests in the PRC.

To ensure the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party in the 21st century, Xi Jinping needs a society that shows both, economic dynamism and political conformity. Enthusiastic and innovative private entrepreneurs are needed to help China become a high-tech, digital nation. At the same time, Beijing rigorously suppresses independent organizations representing private citizens’ interests and divergent notions of political order. At a time when the economy is showing signs of weakening, the Chinese state can mobilize nationalist sentiment to divert people’s attention away from domestic problems.

MERICS’ Society Program analyzes the political challenges posed by increasing social friction and focuses on two areas:

Chances and limitations for societal organization:

Despite increased surveillance and control, the internet still makes it possible for users to network in various ways. Religious groups, former soldiers and discontented workers in particular, have developed the ability to mobilize for their causes through virtual channels and organize meetings and occasional protests.  The research focuses especially on two questions:

  • What ideas and organizational resources do individual groups have?
  • What direct or indirect influence do they exert on Chinese politics?

Information control and credibility:

What the general public learns and thinks about an event in China is currently influenced more by social networks than by state-controlled media. The Chinese leadership has realized that it can’t get public opinion on its side by censorship alone. Two questions are of special interest:

  • How exactly do China’s netizens shape debates on relevant political, economic and social topics?
  • How does this influence the Chinese government’s communications policy at home and abroad?
Gathering of Chinese students. V.T. Polywoda Flickr

Publications and News in this Program

Research Team