by Angela Xiao Wu
Dissent is an opinion, philosophy, or sentiment of non-agreement or opposition to a prevailing idea or policy enforced by a government, political party or other entity or individual in a capacity of contextual authority.
Before the Lunar New Year, Beijing’s winter was brutal. I bicycled daily from my college dormitory to an intensive class for the GRE test required for US graduate schools. In the camp, a talkative guy named Luo Yonghao was responsible for coaching vocabulary sessions. Buried in piles of workbooks, 200 students listened to his venting, jokes, and meandering comments about silly Chinese norms in culture and politics. It was 2004, and I was a sophomore. Much of my college days had gone into ploughing through commentaries and memoirs chaotically dumped in online forums. These materials were too “sensitive” for broadcast media. With this inoculation, I found Luo’s extracurricular offerings delightful and amusing. But I was oblivious to what came next from him.
Locating the Chinese Dissent
China entered the “Year of the Blog” in 2005. In 2006, as blogging underwent rapid commercialization, Luo Yonghao left his GRE coaching job and founded an independent blogging platform called Bullog. About the same time, I started my M.Phil. studies in Hong Kong. Each day sprawling networks of online writers engaged in endless fierce disputes. Rivalry aside, their implicit addressees were always the faceless readers on the other side of the screen. Some readers extolled, some quarrelled, and numerous others, including myself, kept lurking.
In summer 2008, the Great Sichuan Earthquake killed nearly 90,000, including thousands of children buried under shoddy public school buildings. Within a couple of weeks, led by Luo Yonghao, “Bulloggers” organized its own disaster relief initiatives and received 2.4 million RMB (then about 400 thousand USD) donation from its reader-base scattered across China. As Bullog marshalled massive civic support, it also came under attack on many sides for relentlessly demanding government accountability in school construction work and for pushing back against the patriotic fervour sweeping the country at the time. This was one of the highlights of China’s so-called “liberal dissent” that had been blossoming online.
What increasingly troubled me was the gap between my personal observations and the academic vocabulary that I had newly acquired. The dominant framework in the Anglophone research literature over Chinese politics and digital media, much informed by mainstream American political science, was one that juxtaposed liberal resistance with authoritarian rule. It focused on how people use the internet to criticize and protest. Left out were questions so prominent on my mind: Where did the protesters come from? How did they develop their dissent? The Chinese online world was a vast restless landscape of self-complacency, genuine confusion, existential exasperation, and tragic posturing of the lone enlightened thinker. What truly fascinated me was instead the emergence of discontent in a cultural/media environment instituted to hinder it. In hindsight, the issue boils down to how perceptions of a regime’s illegitimacy may grow in a population.
After I arrived in the US for Ph.D. in 2008—during the Beijing Olympics—the puzzle began to expand. What constituted dissent in China in the first place? In mainstream political science, attention to nonliberal regimes focuses primarily on factors and forces fostering formal democratization. This agenda contrasts sharply with critical theories (emergent in liberal democracies) that explicate how liberalism and neoliberalism ideologically underpin forms of oppression and exploitation.
In fact, similar tensions underlay much of the intellectual debates within China since the 1990s, known as the “right vs. left” opposition between “liberal-rightists” (e.g., many Bulloggers) and the so-called “neo-leftists.” These labels were profoundly confusing, because in post-reform, post-socialist China, being “leftist” was not perceived as radical, but as conservative, for its association with the Maoist politics of the past. The Chinese right, in turn, inherited the legacy of being persecuted under Mao. Being “rightist” was not equated with conservatism—as in clinging to traditional Chinese values such as Confucianism—but with political dissention critical of the current regime of Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
But what really divided the Chinese right and left? On the one hand, the ways in which contemporary China narrated Maoist politics were passed onto the contemporary Chinese leftist position. Was it about supporting powerful state apparatuses, economic egalitarianism, the disregard for formal procedures, or some combination of each? In the eyes of their critics, Chinese (neo-)lefts were complicit with authoritarianism. On the other hand, claiming to “speak truth to power,” the Chinese liberal-rightists targeted the party-state as the embodiment of power. The leftists accused them of propagating ideas that ultimately served the interests of capital, abandoning social groups already marginalized in China’s economic reforms, which were orchestrated by none other than the current regime. Indeed, I saw strands of liberal ideas, including market fundamentalism, circulate among many Bulloggers.
Mapping Chinese Disagreements
No singular line of division defined the purported left-right antagonism in China. But both sides strategically downplayed the latent multidimensionality in order to denounce each other. This resembled the level of complexity in political ideologies that is taken for granted for studying liberal democracies. In China, as in other societies, no popular struggles can play out without enacting the local ideological magnetism and rhetorical devices. In fact, China’s lack of institutional consolidation of partisan division through voting, political organization, education, and media might make ideological articulations even more fluid.
In the early 2010s, an opportunity led me away from the vertigo of convoluted intellectual debates to think about where ordinary web users stand amidst a constantly morphing Chinese web. Some folks created a Chinese version of the Political Compass quiz. In absence of cultures and institutions formed around partisan politics, but with a raucous web filled with ideational conflicts, people resorted to this online quiz to understand their own political positioning. Between 2008 and 2011, hundreds of thousands of Chinese took it out of curiosity. In a country where formal survey design was highly policed and survey responses unreliable due to fear and discomfort, this immense cumulation of anonymous answer sheets regarding 50 ideational statements were invaluable. They recorded what an individual simultaneously agrees and disagrees about, which in aggregation can be used to map, bottom-up, the “indigenous” political belief system.
My analysis found that, in the popular mind, while statements reflecting political liberalism (e.g., it’s OK to make jokes about state leaders) tended to come with those of cultural liberalism (e.g., supporting gay marriage), none of these had a systematic alignment with economic liberalism (e.g., opposing certain government subsidies). This is not surprising given China’s lack of education and political socialization on abstract principles guiding economic policymaking. This also means that among its broad online population, unlike within intellectual discourse, views about the economy were yet to become a prominent factor informing their political positioning.
The data shows that, between 2008 and 2011, the popular line of division was not even views about the political system. Instead, it was about whether one was for the vision of China rising to be a global superpower, something not aligning neatly with the intellectual left-right division. In other words, it is fair to say that a significant portion of Chinese web users had formed their opinions in ways that systematically rejected this aggressive nationalist craving. Such a rejection came with an embrace of plural cultural values and critical views of the political system. This was confirmed by my oral history interviews of Bullog readers. A large portion of my dissertation (2014) explored their changing subjectivities—how they groped their way out of nationalism over time. Much of this transformation hinged not on political values per se, but on them acquiring folk theories about the power of media environments in moulding one’s existing thinking. Many developed a paranoia of having been brainwashed, in sharp contrast to our broader climate where calling one’s opponents “brainwashed” is commonplace.
Regime Legitimacy as Shifting Perceptions
The Chinese government banned Bullog in early 2009, the same year that Weibo, China’s much-larger-than-Twitter platform, was launched. With technical features enabling unprecedentedly wide and swift public participation, Weibo in its beginning years was expected to further augment “liberal dissent” in China. In the summer of 2011, amid its fast growth, the propaganda department called to better “guide online opinion.” Additional to targeted censorship, this push leaned much on mobilizing government agents and legacy media outlets to encourage and amplify desirable content on Weibo. Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012. Toward the mid-2010s, China scholars and observers alike began to note a broad waning of online protests.
What makes the Chinese party-state legitimate? Plenty has been written with a focus on the CCP’s official claims and China’s historical, structural propensity (e.g., the government's economic performance was the last resort when neither a charismatic leader like Mao Zedong, nor a genuine socialist conviction, remained alive). Yet ultimately, it comes down to how ordinary Chinese conceive these issues. If emerging dissent amounts to growing perceptions of regime illegitimacy, the observed conservative turn of China’s online cultures may boil down to changing perceptions about what constitutes regime legitimacy. These perceptions exemplify how people experience and evaluate the regime—I call them “regime imaginaries.”
One way to explore regime imaginaries is to investigate how tizhi is popularly spoken of. Tizhi is an umbrella-concept difficult to concretize. Its dictionary definition is ‘form and structure, system (of government, etc.).’ Today, tizhi often invokes some aspects of Chinese establishments. The term’s extraordinary breadth, ambiguity, and opacity effectively alludes to party-state’s fraught roles in national politics, culture, and social life, which distinctly characterizes China’s sociopolitical configuration. When people talk about tizhi, what are they talking about? Coexisting ‘regime imaginaries’ are discernible from analysing massive amounts of Weibo posts containing tizhi to identify recurring semantic contexts surrounding the term. Analysing datasets from 2011 and 2016 respectively, changes were also evident.
First, the most prevalent regime imaginary in 2011—let us call it “Critical-Reform”—attributed various social ills accompanying China’s economic reform to the regime’s negligence and incompetence in governance. In 2016, vocabularies used in Critical-Reform broke down to formulate two discrete imaginaries focused on governance over economic and judiciary matters, respectively. With this change, the permeating sense of crisis and urgency for structural overhaul had waned, and in its place emerged specific issues to be addressed professionally and bureaucratically.
Second, another major regime imaginary in 2011—which can be called “Liberal-Democracy” reflected a critique of Chinese regime legitimacy according to Western liberalism. Unlike Critical-Reform, Liberal-Democracy harboured a rejection of the existing party-state system. In 2016, many of its vocabularies, such as “liberty” and “democracy,” were absorbed by the most predominant regime imaginary that I call “Civilizational-Competition.” These terms were simultaneously discredited, as Civilizational-Competition was about revelations about Western hypocrisy and calls for national solidarity. Also entailed was pride over traditional cultures and suspicion of global capitalism. In the Civilizational-Competition imaginary, the regime at once represents and protects China's prowess. Moreover, this imaginary resulted from populist sentiments, because it dominated the semantic landscape of individual user accounts on Weibo, much more than that of organizational accounts.
In short, under the Xi Administration, the two legitimacy-challenging imaginaries—Critical-Reform and Liberal-Democracy—morphed drastically in five-year’s time. On the one hand, interconnected social conflicts became pigeonholed into domains of law and administration. On the other, the liberal democratic persuasions crumbled as the sense of foreign (Western) threats heightened. Characterizing the general trends at China’s political and ideological conjuncture, the discursive landscape in 2016 was much more in the regime’s favour.
Cut to 2020, the year Covid-19 and xenophobic populism ravaged China and the rest of world. Like the Great Sichuan Earthquake of 2008, the pandemic created a moment of national crisis and in its wake sweeping waves of patriotism. Courageous individuals again emerged, with support from numerous strangers online, contending that patriotic mobilization could be blinding and oppressive. But Bullog is long gone. And there are no similar hubs for comradery and coordination, toward which alternative voices can gravitate. At any rate confidence in the current political system is peaking. But this is not solely an outcome of authoritarian coercion and censorship.
It should be clear by now that in Chinese popular imaginations regime support is intricately entwined with nationalist sentiments and impressions of Western democratic systems. Already evident in 2016, the crumbling of liberal democratic ideals boosted favourable perceptions about regime legitimacy. What 2020 witnessed in the US and other Western countries, especially through the relay of Chinese media field, further hollowed domestic visions of liberal democratic rule as a viable, let alone desirable, option.
Meanwhile on the Chinese web, quite a few erstwhile prominent Bulloggers, together with many other Chinese liberal-rightist intellectuals, openly cheer for Trumpism and deride U.S. public policies that address social justice. The human rights lawyer once enamoured on Bullog, Chen Guangcheng, who in 2012 escaped to the US from state persecution, urged US citizens to vote for Trump to “stop CCP aggression.” Luo Yonghao, Bullog’s founder and once my GRE coach, became a tech entrepreneur manufacturing smartphones in the early 2010s, and then, after his business failed in 2019, joined legions of celebrities to live stream and sell goods, which were worth hundreds of millions of RMB at a time.
In shifting global geopolitics, continuing capitalist perversion, and our desperate search for transnational solidarity, the Chinese dissent cannot be assumed as the purported “liberal resistance” to authoritarianism, cannot be delegated to persons of heroic deeds, and cannot be pinned down to any binary framework. What we need is sustained attention to how popular political discourses warp, how some convictions become cozy together while repelling others, and how these changing formations relate to larger structures of power.