This research project investigates the role of authoritarian law in, counter-intuitively, developing and consolidating an online public sphere in ways that facilitate the expansion of narratives that challenge existing power structures. The research plan includes textual analysis and comparison of material produced online between January 2008 and April 2010 by an existing selected website and the reports of the major Chinese news agencies as they reported on public scandals. Data analysis of this material includes social network analysis on the reported information.

The theoretical insights obtained in this study extend our understanding of public spheres and legal understanding in authoritarian contexts in the Information Age.

Project Report

My research begins with a puzzle: How is it possible that a nationwide counterpublic sphere has developed in China? By "counterpublic sphere," I’m referring to the ability of citizens not only to form opinions that challenge the state, but to express those opinions and have them be influential. The very idea of this kind of sphere in China goes against most people’s understanding of politics and the public under an authoritarian regime. What makes it sociologically puzzling as well is that existing theories about the public sphere assume the need for a strongly developed civil society so that a counterpublic sphere can emerge and flourish. In such a civil society, individuals have the liberty to control their own affairs, for example, join NGOs, and acquire the ability to participate in politics. But in China, a well-developed civil society doesn’t exist – instead, what is famously present in China is an extremely strong, capable authoritarian state. I argue that while civil society plays a key role in enabling and facilitating the development of the public sphere in Western contexts, in the Chinese case it is the state that is – unintentionally and paradoxically – the architect of the counterpublic sphere. While continuing to suppress public opinion and restrict civil society, the Chinese state responded to the legitimation crisis it faced in the late 1970s by creating legal institutions and transitioning to a market economy connecting China with the rest of the world. In doing so, it inadvertently contributed to the social-cultural foundation for a counterpublic sphere. In the process of institution-building at both local and global levels to address the state’s crisis and enhance its legitimacy, state actors rebuilt the legal field and reconstructed the media field. In the process, the state unwittingly created symbolic resources for resistance and facilitated the overlap of the media and legal fields, leading to the formation of collaborative networks that connected media professionals, legal professionals, other elites, and ordinary citizens. State and non-state actors embedded in these social networks appropriated the institutions built by the state to form and spread oppositional discourse that challenges the state and the dominant discourse. Certain state actors, particularly certain newspapers, intentionally contributed to this counterpublic sphere; others did so unwittingly. In this respect, part of what we think of as civil society in Western contexts actually exists within the Chinese state as these state agencies helped citizens to build the same symbolic structure to communicate, develop a collective identity, and understand their rights and responsibility to participate in politics. Furthermore, as the social-cultural foundation of the counterpublic sphere has been sustained by the institutions built by the state, the state, in turn, cannot completely crack down on this counterpublic sphere to the extent that it cannot fundamentally change these institutions.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Susan Sterett
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University of Michigan Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor
United States
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