Online Nationalism and Sino-Japanese Conflict
During August and September, 2012, Sino-Japanese conflict over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands escalated. Alongside street demonstrations in China, public sentiment surged on China’s leading micro-blog Sina Weibo. Using human and computer-assisted content analysis, Allen Carlson and I exploit original Weibo data to measure how public sentiment in China fluctuated over the dispute, and ask two questions. First, how cohesive, and volatile were online nationalist sentiments? Second, we measure government censorship of Weibo in order to ask: which sentiments did authorities allow to be expressed, and when? We first find that many micro-bloggers’ harshest invective was directed not at Japan, but at their own government. Second, while censorship remained high across topics for most of the dispute, it plummeted on August 18 – the same day as bloggers’ anti-Beijing anger peaked. These observations suggest three theoretical explanations: two instrumental-strategic (“audience costs” and “safety valve”) and one ideational (elite identification with protesters).
Air Pollution and Social Media:
Despite China’s robust censorship capacity, commentary critical of government policies on Chinese social media is ubiquitous. Why would an autocratic regime not fully censor these critiques? Elizabeth Plantan and I argue that authoritarian leaders periodically relax control to persuade the public that the regime acknowledges citizens’ concerns and will address them. This affords state actors a responsiveness benefit to weigh alongside other factors, including collective action risk or reputational harm. To illustrate, we use a combination of human- and computer-assisted coding techniques to statistically model censorship of relevant posts on the Chinese microblog Weibo during a high-profile air pollution controversy in 2012. We find two distinct trends in censorship around a crisis event during which the state largely relaxes control. After the crisis, leaders adjust to allow some limited critiques, while blocking directly disparaging remarks. This suggests that the state changes censorship in order to signal responsiveness to citizens’ legitimate concerns over governance.
Social Media Management and the Downfall of Bo Xilai
The Chinese Communist Party's decision in 2012 to investigate Bo Xilai, a member of the elite Politburo, on charges of corruption sent shockwaves through both official and social media channels right before a crucial leadership transition during the 18th Party Congress that year. Through both qualitative and quantitative content analysis of posts taken from Sina Weibo, I consider the interplay between blogger expressions of anger and discontent at the high-ranking official corruption they saw Bo as representing, and a central state eager to allow ordinary bloggers to help tarnish his reputation but concerned that online discussion might spiral into a broader critique of the Party and leaders themselves. Analyzing several “topic bursts” or surges in online discussion surrounding Bo’s downfall throughout 2012, I find that Internet censors were quite active throughout the year in deleting related Weibo posts that broadly questioned the Party-state’s legitimacy. However, they still allowed a surprising amount of criticism directed at Bo himself, especially during various scandalous milestones that marked his undoing. This surprising finding points to greater flexibility than is commonly assumed on the part of Party leaders in how they manage social media during controversial events.