The Internet in China. Unlocking and Containing the Public Sphere

Johan Lagerkvist

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (compilation)


The aim of this dissertation is to address a paradox: government control and social freedom on China's Internet are growing simultaneously. The study, which is based on fieldwork conducted between 2002 and 2006, and 48 interviews, seeks answers to the following two questions: 1. How can Internet use contribute to an unlocking of the public sphere, making it more independent from party-state control? 2. While generally promoting the Internet use throughout the country, how are agents of the Chinese party-state explicating containment of this use, for themselves and to the larger population, as part of their efforts to maintain control over politics in a locked-in public sphere? Four empirical chapters constitute the core of this investigation and respectively address different issuespertaining to Internet freedom and Internet control in China. Chapter 2 probes how an alternative and popular agenda on Chinese networks influences the sanctioned agenda setting of official and state-controlled media. Chapter 3 discusses the need for effective countermeasures against the Internet's "unhealthy tendencies," as perceived by various intellectual voices and party-state officials and cadres. Chapter 4 focuses on the rationale behind China's launch of e-government projects, and whether e-government helps to build legitimacy for the party-state, through the provision of online services to the people and/or by communicating persuasive messages about the political system in place. Chapter 5 highlights the introduction of news production in the online format and the possibility of new formations of online public opinion that might contribute to an environment conducive to the democratization of society and politics. The final chapter, chapter 6, elaborates the findings and frame them within a social contract of Internet use in China, which contributes to a new understanding of how use, control, social pluralization, and the political dynamics of China's online media landscape are evolving in the contemporary setting. The current social contract on Internet media development between the party-state and society is enabling democracy, but it is also containing its pace and guiding democratization in a path-dependent direction. A theory of public sphericules under authoritarianism is proposed, engaging debates and theories on political culture, social control, public opinion, and propaganda. These sphericules aid the unlocking of the public sphere in China. The dependence of and constraints on the mass media and the locked-in public sphere can be circumvented and negotiated from the core of the media system and the bureaucracy.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Chinese Studies
  • Ragvald, Lars, Supervisor
Award date2006 Sept 15
ISBN (Print)978-91-628-6919-9
Publication statusPublished - 2006

Bibliographical note

Defence details

Date: 2006-09-15
Time: 13:15
Place: Konferensrummet, Centrum för Öst- och Sydöstasienstudier, Scheelevägen 15D, Lund

External reviewer(s)

Name: Rosen, Stanley
Title: Professor
Affiliation: University of Southern California, Los Angeles


Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • History and Archaeology

Free keywords

  • Political Culture
  • Public Sphere
  • Social Control
  • Public Opinion
  • Freedom of Speech
  • Democratization
  • Humanities
  • Humaniora
  • Samhällsvetenskaper
  • Social sciences
  • Propaganda
  • Internet
  • New Media


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