The ability of the party-state to dominate and “guide” public opinion on social media platforms has increased in comparison to our last study. Official narratives effectively penetrate social media, not only through posts authored by party-state actors, but also through an increased amount of reposted party-state media articles by seemingly private users.
Whereas private social media users often support official narratives, their opinions differ from party-state media in two ways: First, many display strong nationalistic sentiments or a feeling of superiority over other countries. Second, a minority of users (still) feels comfortable to criticize the government for either being too hesitant and weak (in the case of North Korea) or being too hegemonic, rude and unprepared (in the case of BRI). Still, quite a number of commentators on both the BRI and North Korea argue for the protection of China’s national interests.
Given the stricter control of social media, the degree of pluralism in these debates is remarkable. In the visible public sphere, the Chinese government still gets pressure from both ends of the spectrum: from the hot-blooded nationalists and from globally orientated, liberal voices.
One could argue that despite their sophisticated censorship system, the Chinese government will never be able to fully control the public online sphere – only if they decided to shut down all forums and/or heavily punish many authors.
However, for the following reasons, we find it more likely that the Chinese government pragmatically choses to ignore a certain spectrum of dissenting opinions.
First, as our analysis has shown, the party-state ideology, with the help of internal censors, algorithms and manipulated statistics, can control large parts of the discourse. Chinese authorities have managed to root out what they have perceived as threats from online public sphere endangering their own legitimacy and survival. They closed down pluralistic, highly professional online platforms like Gongshiwang (共识网) which could potentially align people from different backgrounds and interests, and they undermined efforts to organize bottom-up online (and potentially offline) protest by heavily punishing key political opinion leaders on Weibo, pressuring (and likewise punishing) IT companies if they don’t comply with control and censorship mechanisms even for private chat channels.
Therefore, going after too many different opinions is not necessary and might even prove counterproductive. Deleting every slightly dissenting post might mean larger numbers of angry, cynical social media users who would feel personally affected by the CCP’s censorship policies.
Second, by allowing a certain spectrum of debate, the Chinese government has the ability to monitor and test popular sentiment – always ready to censor if authorities feel debates are becoming too threatening.17 As earlier studies on censorship strategies have described, the CCP balances the so-called ”responsiveness benefit” (knowledge about popular sentiment in order to calibrate communication/propaganda on sensitive topics or crises) with potential image harm and risks for collective action deriving from non-censored opinions and debates.18
As our research has shown, in the case of North Korea there is evidence that the CCP chose to allow more space for critical debates to provide an outlet for frustration with the Kim regime, which had even built up within its own ranks.19
Third, as studies on media discourse in the context of central-local relations have shown, central government institutions can use publicly voiced critique to pressure other institutions or individual actors in the name of “the people,” diverting attention away from their weaknesses and/or boosting their own legitimacy.20
Looking at the results of our case studies, one might even ask to what extent the dissenting voices might have been planted or actively supported by parts of the political elites. For example, actors within the Chinese military might want to create popular support for a much tougher foreign policy vis-à-vis North Korea and/or the United States, potentially even pressuring the central government into military action. Or, taking the BRI case study, critical economists or private companies not profiting from this initiative might want to see a public discussion on wrong assumptions or underestimated risks.
One thing is certain: Despite the CCP’s efforts to establish ideological conformity, there is still a critical number of citizens who are not (yet) convinced or scared enough to offer alternative perspectives and moderately dissenting opinions.