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Challenging the Regime, Defending the Regime: Contesting Cyberspace in China


Drawing on twelve months of fieldwork and over two years of in-depth online ethnographic work, the dissertation examines state management and popular activism on Chinese internet forums as a window onto China's authoritarian state. Through examination of state management and popular activism on Chinese internet forums, I find not only a conventional cat-and-mouse censorship game in which the party-state, intermediary actors and forum users struggle over the limits of online expression, but also discourse competition in which the regime, its critics and netizens engineer popular opinion to their advantage.

I find that censorship is more complicated than the usual picture of state-society confrontation. It involves the fragmented state, many intermediary actors and netizens with diverse purposes and motivations. To understand the mechanism of the censorship, I trace the evolution of the state censorship system, and explore its external challenges and internal fragmentation (Chapter 2). I also examine forum managers' censorship responsibilities and their "discontented compliance" as a response to state control and netizens' demands (Chapter 3). My examination of netizen activism shows that forum users engage in "pop activism" that blurs the boundary of political participation and popular entertainment (Chapter 4). In the censorship game, though state coercive power establishes the basic logic of censorship, technological know-how and expressive creativity enable forum managers and netizens to counterbalance state control.

In discourse competition, both the regime and its critics have attempted to engineer popular opinion through anonymous public relations strategies. The state's attempts to turn propaganda into public relations through mobilization of paid internet commentators - popularly known as the "fifty cents army" -frequently backfire and chip away at its legitimacy (Chapter 5). However, regime critics' efforts in discourse competition have produced the political framing of regime challengers as saboteurs of the nation rather than freedom fighters (Chapter 6), leading to the rise of pro-regime netizen communities that voluntarily defend the authoritarian regime. By examining how these regime-defending netizens adopt their identity, construct a community and sustain pro-regime discourse, I challenge assumptions about the internet's democratizing power (Chapter 7).

My dissertation presents a nuanced picture of internet politics and a complex pattern of state-society interaction in a reforming authoritarian regime. Unlike earlier work which assumes a control-liberalization relationship between the state and the netizens, both of which are implicitly treated as single entities, my dissertation highlights the internal fragmentation of Chinese state and challenges the assumption of a monolithic internet that is inherently liberalizing and democratizing.

These findings also speak to both the literature on authoritarian resilience as well as recent work on technological empowerment. As scholars devote more attention to understanding varieties of authoritarianism and authoritarian resilience, my work suggests that the "authoritarian resilience" literature focuses too heavily on the regime's adaptability without sufficient attention to the nature and impact of challenges towards the regime. My findings also propose that work on "technological empowerment" overemphasizes the emancipatory character of the internet while neglecting the limitations of internet mobilization.

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