The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China

January 5, 2017
Ya-Wen Lei stands in front of a wood and glass doorway

Conventional wisdom imagines political life in authoritarian contexts to be bleak and suffocating, and popular understandings of China are no exception. Nonetheless, since the mid-2000s, a nationwide contentious public sphere has developed in China—providing an unprecedented forum for Chinese citizens to influence the public agenda and demand government accountability.

The Chinese state has increasingly, if reluctantly, come to recognize this emergent public sphere as a force it must reckon with, but it is important not to overstate the stability or permanence of this political space. Indeed, it has encountered serious opposition and setbacks, particularly since 2013. Seeing the rise of such a sphere as a threat to national security, the Chinese state has taken comprehensive and combative measures to contain it.

Ya-Wen Lei's new book, The Contentious Public Sphere (forthcoming in fall 2017 with Princeton University Press), aims both to demonstrate and understand these political, social and cultural transformations. It asks: How can we explain the formation and development of China’s contentious public sphere, particularly in light of ongoing state control and repression? How did a political culture of contention emerge and extend to various social groups? And how durable is China’s contentious public sphere?

The book contextualizes and explains the development of this sphere using interviews, newspaper articles, online texts, social media data, official documents, and national surveys. Lei argues that the rise of China’s contentious public sphere was an unintended consequence of the state’s own modernization project. In its efforts to institutionalize but also contain modern law, marketized media, and the internet, the Chinese state set in motion processes beyond its control. Citizens came to understand themselves as legal subjects, legal and media professionals began to collaborate in unexpected ways, and already existing conditions of political and economic fragmentation created unintended opportunities for political critique, particularly with the rise of the internet. Weaving all these strands together, Lei provides an account of how a state-directed campaign of modernization and Chinese citizens’ everyday practices led to a contentious public sphere the state must now endeavor to control. She also argues that the future of this sphere remains unclear. Inadequate institutional protection means the state can still use law, media, and information technologies for punishment, surveillance, and propaganda. How different political and social forces work together over the years to come in a changing global context will determine the future of the contentious public sphere.

Departing from existing studies that would deny the emergence of this public sphere in China or attribute its development to single factors such as the internet or media, Lei's work traces the connection between multiple institutional processes and locates these within the broader historical and global context of authoritarian modernization.