Most people know that social media has played an important role in the spark and maintenance of protests across the globe and that, as a result, authoritarian governments attempt to censor these platforms. What is less clear, however, is the point at which this censorship becomes repression. Mary Gallagher, professor of political science and director of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan, discussed China’s repression progression, specifically since the rise of social media.
In the 1990s China underwent an important socio-political shift. Prior to that point, Gallagher characterizes Chinese dissenters as involved in “unorganized collective action,” meaning that even though calls for protests were largely unplanned and uncoordinated they were still successful since there were so many people across the country that shared the same State-threatening views. In a time of instability and desperation, the ubiquity of these State-threatening views prompted harsh sanctions from the government.
In contrast, the 1990s brought more of a focus among the public to “lifestyle” issues like labor laws, the environment, and urban development. As a consequence, public dissent in this period wasn’t a threat to the State. Accordingly, the State’s response to dissenters became less harsh and more targeted to those who wield a lot of influence. Gallagher describes this phenomenon as “responsive authoritarianism.”
Before the advent of social media, responsive authoritarianism played out more predictably. However, the ease of information access on the Internet presents a new problem for responsive authoritarianism: a virtual space where people in different areas and with different level of clout and influence (defined by number of followers) allows for the possibility of people in different spaces to see that what they presumed to be local issues are actually part of a larger country-wide issue, which in turn can lead to organized dissent.
Given her studies and the mechanics of social media censorship, Gallagher characterizes repression in 21st century China as more concerned with preventing potential explosions of dissent than with quashing every message, since not all are equally as important when it comes to social and institutional stability.
Looking at the progression of repression in China leads us to question who really controls our voices and who hears our voices in the United States. Thanks to this third installation of the Women in Political Science series, co-sponsored by the Kirkland Endowment, the Dean of Faculty, and the Government Department, attendees were encouraged to think more critically about who has access to our media and what they stand to gain by manipulating it in any way.