China’s Authoritarian Regime in the Online Space: Reconsideration of the Concept of “Democratization via Social Media” in Academic Research on China

Main Article Content

Ray Ting-Chun Wang


The rise of social media in political deliberation generated great excitement in media research, with much research dedicated toward assessing the role of social media in authoritarian regimes. Traditionally, the theory of democratization has dominated this area of research, with many claiming that new media technologies such as social media would lead not only to a more diverse range of viewpoints, better quality deliberation between politicians and constituents, but also to democratization. However, the emergence of “authoritarian deliberation” in the research on China has raised questions about whether democratization is really the only outcome as social media become a more integral part of the political deliberation process in authoritarian regimes. This study conducted a bibliometric review and VOSviewer visualization of the key research on “e-government,” “authoritarian deliberation,” and “social media” in China. The findings indicate that, according to the academic research on social media, China is resilient to the disruption of social media and that political deliberation may not depend upon “democratization.” This study calls for a reconfiguration of the theoretical discussion around online political deliberation in authoritarian regimes, and a reconceptualization of important factors in the political deliberation of these authoritarian countries enabled by social media and of the definition of “quality” political discussion in these contexts.


Article Details



Bamman, D., O'Connor, B., & Smith, N. (2012). Censorship and deletion practices in Chinese social media. First Monday, 17(3). Retrieved from /index.php/fm/article/view/3943

Bush, R. C., & Whelan-Wuest, M. (2017). Another Hong Kong election, another pro-Beijing leader-why it matters. Brookings Institute. Retrieved November 28, 2018, from

Chadwick, A., & May, C. (2003). Interaction between States and Citizens in the Age of the Internet: “E-government” in the United States, Britain, and the European Union. Governance, 16(2), 271-300.

Chen, C. J. J. (2009). Growing social unrest and emergent protest groups in China. In Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao and Cheng-Yi Chen (Eds.), Rise of China (pp. 101-120). Routledge.

Chen, X. (2012). Social protest and contentious authoritarianism in China. Cambridge University Press.

Corrales, J., & Westhoff, F. (2006). Information technology adoption and political regimes. International Studies Quarterly, 50(4), 911-933.

Creak, S., & Barney, K. (2018). Conceptualising Party-State Governance and Rule in Laos. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 48(5), 693-716.

Dahlgren, P. (2005). The Internet, Public Spheres, and Political Communication: Dispersion and Deliberation. Political Communication, 22(2), 147-162.

Damm, J. (2007). The internet and the fragmentation of Chinese society. Critical Asian Studies, 39(2), 273-294.

Esarey, A., & Qiang, X. (2008). Political expression in the Chinese blogosphere: Below the radar. Asian Survey, 48(5), 752-772.

Fu, K. W., Chan, C. H., & Chau, M. (2013). Assessing censorship on microblogs in China: Discriminatory keyword analysis and the real-name registration policy. IEEE Internet Computing, 17(3), 42-50.

Haddow, N. (2008). Just doing business or doing just business: Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and the business of censoring China’s Internet. Journal of Business Ethics, 79, 219-234.

Hassid, J. (2012). Safety valve or pressure cooker? Blogs in Chinese political life. Journal of Communication, 62(2), 212-230.

He, B., & Warren, M. E. (2011). Authoritarian deliberation: The deliberative turn in Chinese political development. Perspectives on Politics, 9(2), 269-289.

He, B. (2014). Deliberative culture and politics: The persistence of authoritarian deliberation in China. Political Theory, 42(1), 58-81.

Herold, D. K., & De Seta, G. (2015). Through the looking glass: Twenty years of Chinese internet research. The Information Society, 31(1), 68-82.

Jiang, M. (2010). Authoritarian deliberation on Chinese internet. Electronic Journal of Communication, 20(3&4). Retrieved from 020/2/020344.html

Jaeger, P. T., & Thompson, K. M. (2003). E-government around the world: Lessons, challenges, and future directions. Government Information Quarterly, 20(4), 389-394.

King, G., Pan, J., & Roberts, M. E. (2013). How censorship in China allows government criticism but silences collective expression. American Political Science Review, 107(2), 326-343.

King, G., Pan, J., & Roberts, M. E. (2017). How the Chinese government fabricates social media posts for strategic distraction, not engaged argument. American Political Science Review, 111(3), 484-501.

Kluver, R., & Yang, C. (2005). The Internet in China: A meta-review of research. The Information Society, 21(4), 301-308.

Lessig, L. (1999). The limits in open code: regulatory standards and the future of the net. Berkeley Tech Law Journal, 14, 759.

Lynch, M. (2011). After Egypt: The limits and promise of online challenges to the authoritarian Arab state. Perspectives on Politics, 9(2), 301-310.

Macintosh, A. (2004). “Characterising E-Participation in Policy-Making.” Proceedings of the 37th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 1-10.

MacKinnon, R. (2008). Flatter world and thicker walls? Blogs, censorship and civic discourse in China. Public Choice, 134(1-2), 31-46.

MacKinnon, R. (2009). China’s censorship 2.0: How companies censor bloggers. First Monday, 14(2). Retrieved from

MacKinnon, R. (2011). China's "networked authoritarianism." Journal of Democracy, 22(2), 32-46.

Meng, B. (2010). Moving Beyond Democratization: A Thought Piece on the China Internet Research Agenda. International Journal of Communication 4, 501–508.

Meng, B. (2011). From steamed bun to grass mud horse: E Gao as alternative political discourse on the Chinese Internet. Global Media and Communication, 7(1), 33-51.

Morozov, E. (2009). The Internet: A room of our own? Dissent, 56(3), 80-85.

Papacharissi, Z. (2002). The virtual sphere: The internet as a public sphere. New media & Society, 4(1), 9-27.

Qiang, X. (2011). The battle for the Chinese Internet. Journal of Democracy, 22(2), 47-61.

Rauchfleisch, A. (2017). The public sphere as an essentially contested concept: A co-citation analysis of the last 20 years of public sphere research. Communication and the Public, 2(1), 3-18.

Rauchfleisch, A., & Schäfer, M. S. (2015). Multiple public spheres of Weibo: A typology of forms and potentials of online public spheres in China. Information, Communication & Society, 18(2), 139-155.

Schwartz, M. (2019). 'Umbrella' Protesters Sentenced For 2014 Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Demonstration. NPR. Retrieved 12 May 2019 from 2019/04/24/716628971/umbrella-protesters-sentenced-for-2014-hong-kong-pro-democracy-demonstration

Shirky, C. (2011). The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere, and political change. Foreign Affairs, 28-41.

Stockmann, D. (2010). Who believes propaganda? Media effects during the anti-Japanese protests in Beijing. The China Quarterly, 202, 269-289.

Stockmann, D., & Gallagher, M. E. (2011). Remote control: How the media sustain authoritarian rule in China. Comparative Political Studies, 44(4), 436-467.

Sullivan, J. (2012). A tale of two microblogs in China. Media, Culture & Society, 34(6), 773-783.

Sullivan, J. (2014). China’s Weibo: Is faster different? New Media & Society, 16(1), 24-37.

Tufekci, Z., & Wilson, C. (2012). Social media and the decision to participate in political protest: Observations from Tahrir Square. Journal of Communication, 62(2), 363-379.

Tsui, L. (2003). The Panopticon as the Antithesis of a Space of Freedom: Control and Regulation of the Internet in China. China Information, 17(2), 65-82.

Van Eck, N., & Waltman, L. (2009). Software survey: VOSviewer, a computer program for bibliometric mapping. Scientometrics, 84(2), 523-538.

White, H. D., & McCain, K. W. (1998). Visualizing a discipline: An author co‐citation analysis of information science, 1972–1995. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 49(4), 327-355.

Wong, A. (2018). Beijing is upping the pressure on Taiwan: 'Expectation of reunification is certainly increasing.' CNBC. Retrieved 1 December 2018 from

Yang, G. (2003). The co-evolution of the Internet and civil society in China. Asian Survey, 43(3), 405-422.

Yang, G., & Calhoun, C. (2003). Media, civil society, and the rise of a green public sphere in China. China Information, 21(2), 211-236.

Yildiz, M. (2007). E-government research: Reviewing the literature, limitations, and ways forward. Government Information Quarterly, 24(3). 646-665.

Zhang, K., Choi, M., & Lum, A. (2019). More than 1,200 protesters join rally outside Hong Kong’s legislature ahead of showdown meeting over controversial extradition bill. The South China Morning Post. Retrieved 12 May 2019 from

Zhang, J. (2002). Will the government ‘serve the people’? The development of Chinese e-government. New Media & Society, 4(2), 163-184.

Zhou, X. (2009). The political blogosphere in China: A content analysis of the blogs regarding the dismissal of Shanghai leader Chen Liangyu. New Media & Society, 11(6), 1003-1022.

Zupic, I., & Čater, T. (2015). Bibliometric methods in management and organization. Organizational Research Methods, 18(3), 429-472.