This study examines popular perceptions about the ruling state on the Chinese Internet before and along the state’s project of ‘online public opinion guidance.’ We chose two historical moments from 2011 and 2016, and systematically captured and analysed massive amounts of speech traces on Weibo that contain the term tizhi, a discursively flexible, yet distinctive, concept onto which sentiments related to the state are projected. Combining semantic network clustering and critical discourse analysis, our analyses have revealed, historically and macroscopically, the relative dominance of differing ways of evaluating regime legitimacy on the Chinese Internet. Among other things, the previously dominant legitimacy-challenging imaginary grounded in (Western) democratic references has imploded and become absorbed by a nationalist, ‘civilizational competition’ discourse that enhances regime legitimacy. Additionally, the legitimacy-criticizing imaginary within the party-state’s ‘reform framework’ has become depoliticized into administration-focused compartments. By exploring the ‘regime imaginaries’ held by ordinary people, this study complements the scholarship on Chinese state legitimacy that predominantly focuses on historico-structural analyses, policy initiatives, or the party elite’s normative justifications. It also makes methodological and conceptual advances for researching the complex cultural frames, political tropes, and repertoires of local references that comprise regime imaginaries.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Geography, Planning and Development
- Political Science and International Relations