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Social Groups and Media

Chinese society has grown increasingly varied over the years: people’s incomes, working environments, lifestyles and personal values now differ from one another more than ever. New technologies and social media are making new kinds of communication and information possible as well as helping people develop and share opinions about issues in a novel way. The friction and demands created as a result have been putting the Chinese Government under growing pressure, however.

The urban middle class, particularly the ‘urban professionals’ (i.e. lawyers, journalists, IT experts and scientists, among others), have developed increasingly high expectations regarding their personal quality of life. They criticise shortcomings in the way the country is run, e.g. China’s serious problem of widespread environmental pollution, and the lack of food safety. Anyone who is in a position to do so will try and move their assets and their family abroad if possible – or at least ensure they gain the right to permanent residence there.

Groups of people living on low incomes such as rural migrant labourers and farmers are still struggling with a system granting unequal access to education and social services. Expropriation of land and property, environmental damage and employment disputes are the main reasons for an increasing known number of protests in the PRC increasing.

To ensure the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party in the twenty-first century, Xi Jinping needs to have a society exhibiting both economic dynamism and political conformity at the same time; enthusiastic and innovative private entrepreneurs are meant to help China on its way to becoming a high-tech, digital nation. In contrast, Beijing rigorously suppresses independent organisations representing private citizens’ interests and any divergent notions of political order.

At a time when the economy is showing signs of weakening, the Chinese state could mobilise nationalist sentiment to divert people’s attention away from domestic problems. The Government would then find itself under pressure to show citizens that its verbal threats were not just empty rhetoric, however.

MERICS’ Society programme analyses the political challenges posed by increasing social friction and focuses on two main issues:

Chances and limitations for societal organisation

Despite seeing increasing surveillance and control, the internet still makes it possible for users to network with other people in various ways. Religious groups, demobbed soldiers and discontented workers, in particular, have developed an amazing ability to mobilise the like-minded for their causes through such virtual channels and then meet one another in the real world. Research focuses especially on two questions:

  • What ideas and organisational resources do the individual groups possess?
  • What direct or indirect influence do they exert on Chinese politics? 

(The) Struggle on information control and credibility (between state and society) 

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

  • How exactly do China’s netizens shape debates on relevant political, economic and social topics?
  • And how does this influence the Chinese Government’s communications policy at home and abroad?

Research Team

  • Stiftung Mercator