Ya-Wen Lei

China’s Contentious Public Sphere

Air Date: March 17, 2018

Harvard University Sociologist Ya-Wen Lei discusses her new book “The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China.”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is assistant professor in the department of sociology at Harvard University. Ya-Wen Lei is author of the new Princeton University volume “The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China.” Lei investigates the emergency of public opinion across China, the intersection of media, particularly the internet, law, and society. How has the Chinese state responded to citizen actors and to the aspiration of free speech across the country? Those are the questions we’ll ask today. Lei writes, “After a post-Tiananmen decline, public opinion began to rise again around 1998 thanks to the key role of state controlled, marketized newspapers, and facilitating the formation of increasingly unruly public opinion, capable of escaping state control to set the public agenda.” She concludes, “The rising support of anti-system populous nationalists in Europe and the United States, seems to indicate the decline of liberal democracy and its decreasing moral appeal as a political model in the West, prompting Chinese actors to rethink and compare difference in political and developmental models.” That’s precisely what we’ll address today. Thank you, Professor, for joining me.

LEI: Thank you for inviting me.

HEFFNER: And, you know, in the response to that unruly public opinion, you write about the nature of cyber-sovereignty in the book that China has managed to contain the public sphere within its own cyber security, safe spaces.

LEI: Right.

HEFFNER: How, how have they been able to do that?

LEI: Well, because the Chinese government consider, on the issues related to public sphere as a domestic issue. So, they don’t want to have, I mean intervention from other foreign countries. And, China also, and in the beginning of the development of internet, China already invented a lot of very high-technology to really impose censorship. So, in addition to technology, the Chinese government has also established a lot of legal regulations to regulate people’s speech. So, with the help of law and also technology, the Chinese government has been able to control and to a large extent, speech and the internet.

HEFFNER: From the perspective of the US, it’s interesting to think about the Chinese internet experience, looking at the net-neutrality situation,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: To what extent are the Chinese government in operation with sort of, in concert with the Chinese economic business community,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Sheltering the internet in this way? Could they, could they mange to do it just as a state actor or, or do they have a lot of help doing that?

LEI: The Chinese government has help from corporations. So, a lot of actually US companies like Google and Facebook want to do business with the Chinese with China, right? And then the Chinese government always told them that they need to follow legal regulations in China. And then the Chinese government also actually instructed a lot of internet companies to do self censorship. So, major social media companies hire a lot of censors to regulate speech on a daily basis. And they also rely on some kind of technology, for example like a big data science, and also cloud computing, to easily see which speech, what kind of speech is allowed, and what should be censored. So apparently companies actually played a major role in helping the Chinese government to execute censorship.

HEFFNER: Within the Chinese corporate platforms,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: What kind of speech is allowable, and what’s not?

LEI: So the Department of Propaganda at essential level, so the propaganda department is actually the key government agency in charge of censorship. They will provide these companies a list of not OK topics. So, for example, that issue related to constitutionalism, and also civil society, these kind of issues are very sensitive right now, although this issue were, were able to be discussed in the past like before 2013. And this government is especially tough,

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

LEI: The current leadership. And this is more at the national, the central level. And at the local level, a lot of issues that could actually disturb social stability, for example issues related to protest, demonstration are not allowed. So if they actually see this kind of information, they would just remove information from the internet, or social media. And some,

HEFFNER: Is this true of, of the situation in Taiwan or Hong Kong?

LEI: No,

HEFFNER: They have more,

LEI: No, Taiwan is a very different situation because Taiwan already democratic, democratic, democratized the,

HEFFNER: So it’s, it’s in effect more like the US internet,

LEI: Right, right, so, and,

HEFFNER: And Hong Kong?

LEI: And Hong Kong has been, the situation in Hong-Kong has been getting worse and worse over time, especially in recent, three years.

HEFFNER: According to article 25 of the law, the Chinese state shall stop and punish unlawful and criminal activity on the internet, such as cyber attacks, cyber theft, and dissemination of unlawful and harmful information. It’s one of the central questions you look,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: At in this book, is the extent to which the internet has either liberalized or not,

LEI: Right.

HEFFNER: The Chinese sphere,

LEI: Uh huh.

HEFFNER: What is the public outlook, if you were to do a survey,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Of, you know, across socio-economic lines,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: In China, is the public outlook one that is concerned about the stymieing of, of open access, is there a hunger, for more access?

LEI: I think it’s really some people actually demand freedom of speech and freedom of information,

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

LEI: And usually it’s people with higher education level tend to have this kind of demand. And actually analyze some kind of nationally representative survey data, and look at political attitudes, and also political behavior,


LEI: And that’s part of,

HEFFNER: And how has, how has the emergence of the internet,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: In China affected political behavior?

LEI: Right, so I found that actually, people who use internet more frequently tend to be more critical of the Chinese government, and also tend to be more likely to participate in some kind of collective action like protests and strikes. And I think the reason is because they have access to more information and also social problems in China. And I interview people who don’t use the internet and who use internet more frequently, and I found people who don’t use the internet actually for example, some like villagers, so they only know a lot of local problems. And they see the roots of problem, they see actually a lot of problem in China are caused by just like some individual people, it’s not systematic. But for people who use internet more frequently, who have more access to information, they tend to really see the existence of some kind of systematic social problem in China. So they become more and more critical. And they also know more about what’s happening outside of China. And they compare actually China and also other countries in many dimensions, for example the operation of the core system and also media freedom. And actually many Chinese people care about these issues.

HEFFNER: So, if they’re not able to,

LEI: Hmm,

HEFFNER: Tackle the systemic issue,

LEI: Right,

HEFFNER: That you describe,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Because those who do march in the streets,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Or in effect, set up the mechanism online to protest, is, is there a viable strategy right now,

LEI: Uh huh,

HEFFNER: For dissidents?
LEI: In the past, I am talking about the period between 2013 and 2014, so there was actually a golden period in terms of the development of the public sphere in China. At that time, the government was kind of, was more, relatively liberal. They cracked down, but not cracked down on such a, like, a large scale. And at that time, a lot of lawyers, and also journalists developed some kind of strategy. So they tried to, and they tried to use Weibo, which was one of the most popular social media in China, and to mobilize public support, and to make some like small issue into like a big events, contentious events that capture nationwide attention. So by, by mobilizing public opinion, they can actually set some kind of public agenda. And in some situation, they did succeed. For example, they actually sometimes when they actually talk this post exposed the misbehavior of government officials, the central government actually remove certain government from their position because of the wrong, because of their wrong doing.


LEI: And in some cases these activists influence core decisions, and in some cases they even influence law making. But this is what happened in the past, just precisely because I mean, these kind of strategy were so powerful in some situation, the current leadership feels very uncomfortable about,

HEFFNER: So what,

LEI: The consequences,

HEFFNER: I think our viewers would be interested,

LEI: Hmm.

HEFFNER: What, what was the explanation for the, the crack down?
LEI: OK. That’s an excellent question. So, so the current government, so under the Xi leadership, see there is some kind of ideological problems. So, he sees there is a ideological struggle between the West and China. And I think this is to some extent true. And, so at least before 2014, many Chinese and many opinion leaders were kind of sympathetic to the ideas of liberal democracy, and for the current, the current Chinese government, this is unacceptable, because this is a totally kind of opposition known to the official ideology. So they do see there is a really, really serious, like really ideological crisis. And I did analyze the ideological orientation of top 100 public opinion leaders in China in 2015. So this is actually after 2013, so after the government initiates a series of crackdown. And I look at how they think about politics.

So, I classified the top 100 public opinion leaders. So usually they have like tens of millions of followers. So they are actually more influential than a lot of news, like news organizations. And so I classified them into three categories, according to their political orientation. And the first category is, political liberal. So, who supports the notions of constitutionalism, and also universal values. By constitutionalism, I mean the government is supposed to be subject to the constitution. So this is kind of like basic ideal people would agree, I mean outside of China, right? But they, in China doesn’t like this idea. And also, universal values such as human rights. So I classify people who actually support these ideas,


LEI: As political liberals. And the people who openly express their opposition to these ideas as politically conservative. And opinion leaders who actually don’t express their view as like the other. So there is the third categories,

HEFFNER: Uh huh,

LEI: And my analysis shows that 58 percent of the top 100 political, sorry, public opinion leaders, are actually political liberals. And only 50 percent of the leaders are political conservative. And, so the remaining are the neutral one, but actually I analyzed their connections, the connection between different political, public opinion leaders, and I found the third category, category actually are closer to political liberal. So that’s really alarming.

HEFFNER: So there’s a majority,

LEI: Right, so that’s a majority,

HEFFNER: Of political liberals,

LEI: And can you imagine a communist authoritarian country? I mean can a government really tolerate, I mean they are a majority of public opinion, and who openly support the idea of like single sympathetic to liberal democracy? That’s kind of totally unacceptable to the Chinese government.

HEFFNER: And this list includes,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Public opinion leaders, people who are both, have online and journalistic personas?

LEI: So,

HEFFNER: Non-elected officials, right?

LEI: So, so,

HEFFNER: This is,

LEI: This article,

HEFFNER: They’re, they’re really,

LEI: So I just…

HEFFNER: Appointed officials,

LEI: Select these people based on the numbers of their followers, so their influence,


LEI: They’re on some kind of index calculating a person’s, influence on the internet, especially, on Waibo, one of the most popular social media in China. And, so among the, these 100 people, the public opinion leaders, 30, around 30 percent are media professionals. So, because they have access to, they actually know the news and know the media very well,


LEI: So they actually have a lot of followers. And only 6 percent of them are government officials. So actually the propaganda officials. So the Chinese government, they want to use some kind, they also want to use social media to promote their own official discourse. So they will have propaganda officials operating their own accounts, social media accounts to attract people’s…

HEFFNER: So what,

LEI: Attention.

HEFFNER: So what’s happened, what’s happened with the folks you’ve interviewed since the crackdown? Has,

LEI: That’s,

HEFFNER: Has that number turned from,

LEI: Uh, uh,

HEFFNER: Majority liberal to majority conservative?

LEI: I only analyze data in 2015. That’s actually,


LEI: Already two years,


LEI: After the crackdown. So, and so but now the crack, crackdown actually focus on people with high centrality, high level of influence,

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

LEI: So the government kind of effectively control the group who are the most powerful in terms of facilitating the creation of contentious events.

HEFFNER: Is there a difference right now between,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Journalistic rights in the newspaper industry,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Which is sometimes coopted by state authorities,

LEI: Right,

HEFFNER: Right, and the, the opportunity for free expression online?

LEI: Mm-hmm. In the past, journalists had a better opportunity in writing something using their own social media. For example I mean it’s, so they actually do a lot of reports on the daily basis, but sometimes because of the censorship. So, in each news organization, they have censors in their organization. So sometimes, even they spend a lot of time doing a report. The report was actually not allowed to be actually appear in newspaper. And in this situation sometimes, journalists actually disclose the information online. So they actually, they use their true identity to write something on the social media. So in the past they are able to do this. But the government really, just the department of propaganda realized this kind of strategy. So they actually kind of enacted a new law to regulate this kind of professional behavior.

HEFFNER: And how has the Department of Propaganda,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Evolved since, if you look at the long picture of history, since Tiananmen?

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: How, how has that body changed?

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Adapted to the new technologies?

LEI: Oh, they really, really catch up with the recent development of technology.

HEFFNER: It sounds like it.

LEI: Right. For example, they hire a lot of, or they ask a lot of different government agencies, and to hire something called public opinion analysts. And with the rise of public opinion in China, the Department of Government think it’s really important for them to be able to monitor and also analyze public opinion in a very precise way. So these people actually learn like big data science and even they draw on artificial intelligence. So they really, really want to really draw on technology to make censorship more efficient.

HEFFNER: Do you see, in this country.

LEI: Hmm,

HEFFNER: Based on the current net neutrality debate, the same idea of the communist control,

LEI: Hmm,

HEFFNER: And corporate control in the sense that once these rules have been revoked, which they have now,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Corporations will have outsized influence,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: To potentially control how people use new media, and if they even have access to it in the first place, and when you mention the villagers,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: You know there are a lot of people who are like the villagers here in the United States,


HEFFNER: In, in, in rural and urban communities who, who don’t have access.

LEI: Obviously I think the US corporations really have very bad reputations. [LAUGHTER] And I think,


LEI: It’s actually is, is easily subject to a lot of outside influence, influence of money,

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

LEI: Influence of power, and I think it’s also, an international issue, because nowadays the Chinese government actually influence public opinion outside of China. And for example, I mean Australia. A lot of people actually receive money from Chinese business people. So I think with the re(p)eal of net neutrality, I guess everything could happen. So every, like bad things, there could be a very, very negative consequences.

HEFFNER: Are the folks there able to have access to this?

LEI: I don’t think so. And, I, I think the book could not be translated into Chinese, because this book cannot really, this book cannot pass censorship. And recently, the Chinese government also began to censor academic journals. And, so there is a very, very a top academic journals on China, called China Quarterly, which was published by Cambridge University,

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

LEI: And because these university presses want to do business with China. So recently the Chinese government asked Cambridge University to remove some of the articles from their database their server in China. And in the beginning Cambridge University agreed to remove all this articles. And these articles are related to, for example, Tibet,


LEI: And also, Tiananmen,


LEI: Democratic movements. So you can see, there are academic institutes. But when they have business interests, I mean in China, it’s really difficult, really to expect that they would really honor their values.

HEFFNER: What does it say about the contentious public sphere that this book,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Would not be permitted, would not be read? I think your notion of a public sphere,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Implies that there is some collective public good that’s emerged, but it may be, maybe that conception has not been made yet.

LEI: My conception of a public sphere also, is related to public discussion or public interests,


LEI: So, actually in China’s public sphere, many people actually discuss issues related to public good, public interest. For example, the protection of marginal groups in China.

HEFFNER: They’re discussed,

LEI: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But they’re, they’re discussed in, to some extent, a vacuum, without the access to the literature, like your book.

LEI: Uh,

HEFFNER: So there’s a,

LEI: But it’s very difficult to say, because sometimes, I mean Chinese students and, and Chinese scholar actually translate,

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

LEI: Your work.

HEFFNER: Mm-hmm.

LEI: So, for example, I have an article talking about censorship of, of newspaper articles. And then when I was doing China fieldwork in China two years ago, I realized actually they translate my,

LEI: My English article into Chinese. So by doing this kind of translation, people can see your work. But I think, in terms of like a formal,


LEI: Publication, it’s kind of impossible. But I still think there’s some possibility that people can read your work.


LEI: And also, nowadays, I mean the higher education in China has been spending. So there are so many talented people who can read English,


LEI: Literature.

HEFFNER: Well I, isn’t the key question, Professor,

LEI: Hmm,

HEFFNER: Whether or not the censored know they’re being censored? In the sense that, if you have a society where folks are being censored,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: And they don’t know they’re being censored, they’re not gonna probe, they’re not going to inquire, they’re not going to ask,

LEI: Mm-hmm.
HEFFNER: The questions.

LEI: Right.

HEFFNER: So I get the impression, from what you’re saying,

LEI: Hmm,

HEFFNER: That they have the, the Chinese people have enough access right now, to that global perspective,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: To know that they are under threat,

LEI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Their public discourse is stymied as a function of,

LEI: Yeah, they know,

HEFFNER: Some degree of censorship. The question is whether that should be tolerated, or how much of that should be tolerated.

LEI: Yeah, the, I think, I mean, the majority of netizens which means internet users, know the existence of censorship. And, and in the past, in some kind of contentious events, people did request freedom of speech, and have access to free information. They did try to push the government, but it has been very, very difficult. And when they actually mobilize the whole entire security system, the state’s apparatus to improve and maintain social stability, then what Chinese people can do is really, really limited.

HEFFNER: If you do discuss,

LEI: Uh huh,

HEFFNER: You might disappear from the forum,

LEI: Yes, yes. Yeah, so, that’s, so,

HEFFNER: That’s the risk.

LEI: Right, so,

HEFFNER: Huge risk,

LEI: Yeah. So a lot of, a lot of dissidents, and also public opinion leaders, usually use the, the word, disappearance. For example, there is, there was a big fire in Beijing recently. And 19 migrant workers died in the fire, because, and they live in very bad housing. And, and so after the fire, the Beijing government tried to evict these poor migrant workers, and cut their heat, because they, they just think these people actually cause their problems. I mean, like having 19 people die in Beijing, not good for the government, right? And so there is a artist who actually reports, who went to these villages to, the nearby Beijing to actually record their protest everyday. And then this person just talk about, OK, if you don’t see me on YouTube, that means I disappear. So a lot of people have the fear of, [LAUGHTER] disappearing, [LAUGHTER]

HEFFNER: On that fearful thought,

LEI: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I want to thank you for joining me today, Professor,

LEI: Mm-hmm. Oh, My pleasure.

HEFFNER: “The Contentious Public Sphere,” out by Princeton University Press,

LEI: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind, to view this program online, or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook, @OpenMindTV, for updates on future programing.