From Online Mass Incidents to Defiant Enclaves: Political Dissent on China's Internet

2022 CCCS Webinar #1

Tuesday 22 March 2022


This study examines political criticism and oppositional discourses on China's Internet from 2012, near the end of Hu Jintao's era, up through the current Xi Jinping administration. We focus on two main types of Internet activity in which criticism and discourses emerge—online mass incidents and defiant enclaves—and compare their discursive elements. The findings show that both types of political dissent are alive and persist, but the potential for them to connect various social grievances has declined in recent years, as state control over the Internet and digital spaces has significantly tightened. The occurrence of online mass incidents has dropped significantly, and the discursive enclaves can be expected to turn into smaller "bubbles" in the years to come. Meaningful political criticisms can be expected to be restricted to relatively small, semiclosed, and mostly "underground" circles, while beyond these circles the spread of political dissent risks the possibility of a game of labeling and blaming. Moreover, with the explicit and implicit support of the state, pro-regime Internet users can mobilize to inflict severe punishment on others who use the memes and keywords attached to identifiable oppositional discourses. In this sense, social control under Xi is effective and has pushed Chinese society back to a deeply cellularized stage. with dissenting discursive activities confined to marginal digital spaces.

Speaker biography

Dr Fengshi Wu is Associate Professor of political science and international relations. She specializes in environmental politics, state-society relations, civil society, and global governance with an empirical focus on China and Asia. She is the inaugural Series Editor of Environment and Society in Asia, Amsterdam University Press. Her recent academic works have appeared in Environmental Politics. China Journal, VOLUNTAS, China Quarterly, and Global Policy. Her edited book China's Global Conquest for Resources (Routledge, 2017) examines China's overseas investment in and acquisition of natural resources.

Dr Terry Shen Yang is an Assistant Professor at the School of Graduate Studies and Department of Political Science, Lingnan University. Previously, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard-Yenching Institute (2018-2019) and an Assistant Professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (2019-2021). He is trained to be a comparative political scientist with special expertise in the politics of mainland China and Hong Kong. His research interests cover comparative politics, contentious politics, and governance. He has published articles in peer-reviewed journals including China Journal, Law & Social Inquiry, Social Movement Studies, and Voluntas.

Further reading