Government-Dominated Governance and the Double-Edged Sword

Ran Liu, a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses her most recent research on Internet policy scholarship in China.

In recent years, academia’s interest in the Chinese Internet, especially its potential for promoting social movements, democracy and human rights, has increased. However, when it comes to Internet policy and governance scholarship, Chinese scholars are overshadowed by the English-dominated academic world. Compared to their Western counterparts, articles published in Chinese are found to be more conservative, less theoretical, and less focused on the political consequences of the Internet (Qiu & Bu, 2013; Wei, 2009).

To enrich global narratives of Internet policy with an often-overlooked angle, I recently critically examined and analyzed current scholarship on Internet policy written in Chinese and published in Mainland China. Using a research sample of 226 Internet governance articles developed from the Chinese National Knowledge Institution Database (CNKI), [1] my findings address major questions including: What is the major discourse constructed around Internet policy, and who are the major architects in Chinese scholarship? Is there a debate happening among Chinese scholars as China is an authoritarian regime? Does Chinese scholarship provide a different story from international narratives about Internet?

Overall Chinese academic discourse on Internet governance is highly coherent. Scholarship generally considers the national government the dominant Internet governance player, while other stakeholders and the global actors are largely neglected. The Internet is predominantly viewed as a “double-edged sword”with both advantages and problems. This duality is used to justify the government as the major player in the Internet’s regulatory framework.

The construction of Chinese academic discourse involves both scholars and a variety of government institutions. Of the 226 papers sampled, government officials or researchers in government apparatuses authored 55 articles, 24.3% of the sample (see figure 1). Articles from government sectors were written by the Central and Regional Communist Party Schools, Police Training Schools, the Propaganda Department, the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT), and research institutions under the Ministry of Information Industry. Compared to a similarly sized random sample of articles from all academic topics, the sample of Internet policy articles produced a much higher percentage of authors from state apparatuses and lower percentage of authors from academic institutions. A two-sample z-test showed that this difference was statistically significant and not simply within normal standard deviation parameters.

figure 1

This demonstrates that the national government is a key player in Chinese Internet policy scholarship. But what Internet policy frameworks are key players building? To uncover this I identified the regulation topics discussed in the articles (see figure 2). Nearly one third (32.74%) of the articles regarded the Internet as a whole, discussing the management of the overall system. 23 articles (10.18%) specifically discussed the regulation of online information (its creation and diffusion). Similarly, 18 articles (7.96%) focused on the management of online videos, and 15 articles (6.64%) focused on the supervision of new media and the development of information technology. 20 articles (8.85%) primarily discussed necessary approaches for cyber security, while 10 (4.42%) emphasized the protection of youth and college students online. Other topics of Internet regulation mentioned, though not to a significant extent, included copyright, e-commerce, online medicine trade and advertisement, privacy issues, cybercafés, and the IT industry.

figure 2

By identifying the topics discussed in each article, I uncovered key themes within my sample. A majority of sampled papers (71.68%) emphasized administrative supervision, discussing regulation approaches directly implemented by administrative sectors. A variety of administrative strategies are mentioned, including website and BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) registration and licensing systems, the real name registration system in Cybercafés, information censorship and self-censorship systems on public websites, the establishment of a unified administrative institution for Internet regulation, and the enforcement of current laws and policies. 70 articles (30.97%) discussed the legal regulation of Internet. This included current domestic legislative statuses, overseas legislative experiences, and possible new laws specifically regulating subfields of the Internet. Additionally, 36 articles (15.93%) mentioned some form of technical control as a regulation method, such as the Great Fire Wall, censorship software such as the Green Dam, filtering system at the routers, techniques for identifying sensitive words or images, and Denial-of-Service (DoS) Attacks.

These themes illustrate that a key Internet policy framework for Chinese scholars is the supervision and regulation of the Internet. Scholars from both academic and government affiliated institutions share similar standpoints and offer policy suggestions to relevant government apparatuses. It seems that researchers are directly conversing with the government, while some actors found in Western scholarship are absent from Chinese discourse.

Compared to the robust discussion on government-dominated regulation frameworks, the roles of the IT industry and civil society are largely neglected. Although 28 articles (12.39%) mentioned the role of the IT industry, scholarship mostly emphasizes the industry’s obligation to “self-regulate,” rather than its participation in the process of Internet governance. Only 18 articles (7.96%) mentioned the existence of civil society, citing civil society’s supplementary role in assisting the government in Internet regulation without specifying any concrete and practical strategies.

Table 1: Regulation frameworks




Administrative Supervision



Legal Regulation



Technical Control



Industry Self-regulation



Civil Society Participation









While Chinese Internet policy scholarship is fairly cohesive, there was some variation in the tone authors used when discussing the Internet (see figure 3). Most interestingly, 82 articles (36%) viewed the Internet as something inherently intricate, with a dual character and urgent need to be regulated.[2] These articles emphasized the Internet’s positive and negative components, and often utilized the metaphor of a “double-edged sword” to explain the importance of Internet control. This was achieved by outlining how there is no inherent control mechanism for the Internet’s negative aspects, therefore necessitating a powerful outside regulator—the government. The government’s dominating role in regulating the Internet is consequently rationalized and legitimized.

figure 3

Interestingly, international Internet regulation was a popular topic among sampled articles. International regulation examples functioned to further Chinese scholarship’s regulation discourse. For example, German regulation regarding pornography, violence, racist remarks, and Nazism online was cited to further arguments for punishing illegal information. Singapore is mentioned as a typical government-led regulation system. Even the U.S. Patriot and Homeland Security Acts are frequently cited to prove the necessity of legal and administrative regulation for national security. While other countries including the United Kingdom, Australia, France, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam are mentioned, no articles discussed global actors and forums such as ICANN, WSIS or IGF.

This research is a preliminary study of current academic discourse with a limited sample of articles. Going forward, scholarship should focus on the role of authors affiliated with government institutions. In-depth interviews with such authors, and other Chinese scholars, would be helpful in understanding their influence and contribution to the construction of current Chinese academic Internet policy discourse. Additionally, a more detailed comparison of government participation in the field of Internet governance studies and other social science disciplines is essential to further explore the focus and intention of different government sectors. Moreover, future research should conduct in depth comparisons between global academic Internet governance discourse and Chinese scholarship to examine both connections and divergences within the Internet policy arena.

 //Ran Liu


[1] My research sample was developed from the Chinese National Knowledge Institution Database (CNKI) by combining the word “Internet” with different sets of keywords. Keywords used included: management (guanli), surveillance (jianguan), policy (zhengce), censorship (shencha), freedom (ziyou), and governance (zhili). My initial queries returned 1373 entries. To ensure the sample’s relevance to Internet policy and academic quality, I manually excluded articles on irrelevant topics, and only kept scholarship cited at least once at the time of the query. My final sample included 226 articles directly related to Internet governance, published between 1996 and 2013.

[2] 36 articles (16%) discussed the Internet with a positive tone, regarding current problems as minor issues, while 21 articles (9%) mainly presented a negative tone, focusing on the risks and consequences of the Internet.

Qiu, J. L., & Bu, W. (2013). China ICT Studies: A Review of the Field, 1989–2012 . China Review, 13(2), 123–152.
Wei, R. (2009). The state of new media technology research in China: a review and critique. Asian Journal of Communication, 19(1), 116–127. doi:10.1080/01292980802603991


Featured Photo Credit: chenyingphoto


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