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Call for Proposals: Special Section of IJoC

(Un)civil Society in Digital China
Special Section for Publication in the International Journal of Communication


Civil society’s role in furthering democratization and the development of a public sphere has long attracted scholars whose work has traced the historical roots of civil society in China and celebrated its emergence offline and online. While decades of economic reforms have empowered myriad civil society organizations, volatile contention has arisen among social groups along ideological, class, ethnic, racial and regional fault lines. Uncivil exchanges, amplified by the Internet and social media, often work at cross purposes and fail to produce consensus or solutions to public problems. These disputes, and the underlying social/political/cultural schisms, threaten to undermine constructive citizen engagement and the promise of civil society in China. They also challenge the notion of a unified civil society standing in solidarity against a monolithic, authoritarian state.

Consider the following examples of new sociopolitical contention:

The Internet flame war between Han Han and Fang Zhouzi that delegitimized the notion of “public intellectual” in China
Left-Right debate among China’s intellectual communities that spill over into street brawls
Vigilantism and breaches of privacy (i.e., instances of “human flesh search engine” and the Guo Meimei Red Cross scandal)
Online conflicts between “haves” and “have-nots” amidst extreme inequality
Virtual contention between Han and ethnic minorities over the status of Tibet and Xinjiang
Racial discourse on mixed-race Chinese and immigrants
Clashes over Taiwan’s “sunflower movement” expressed on the Internet
Divergent online opinions about the “umbrella movement” in Hong Kong
This special section invites contributors to unpack the multilayered, multidimensional reality and contradictions that define the Chinese Internet, focusing on the big-picture ramifications of online contention. With a population of nearly 650 million, Chinese Internet users are more diverse than the tech-savvy, liberal elites who first went online two decades ago. The groups active online today include politically conservative, nationalistic, apathetic, and even reactionary individuals. They also evince complicated attitudes towards the state, business and other demographic segments. The complex make-up of Chinese civil society and the nature of its self-representation thus challenge, on the one hand, an idealized notion of civil society that is independent from the private sphere, government and business, and on the other, the implicit assumption prevalent in Chinese Internet studies of a liberal subject demanding social justice, media freedom and political reform.

Questions for contributors:

What are the characteristics of Chinese civil society? What is its potential or limitations? Does the proliferation of the Internet in China necessarily empower civil society in China? Is the opposite possible?
Is civil society always civil? Can it be uncivil, fractious and even reactionary? How does the Chinese Internet amplify or mitigate (un)civil tendencies? To what extent is online public debate or collective action becoming more fragmentary, working at cross purposes, or resulting in “echo chamber” effects and polarization? Do nationalistic, jingoistic and even reactionary forces overwhelm and dominate “civil” discourse?
Are the “uncivil” tendencies of the Chinese Internet inevitable in a society composed of increasingly diverse groups? To what extent do commercial and state institutions influence uncivil tendencies online through intervention or even manipulation? What roles do powerful Internet businesses and elite personalities play?
Under what circumstances might incivility online prove advantageous for political or social change?
What evidence do we have for (un)civil society in China? Examples might include the formation of informal groups and formal organizations, discourses, and their intersection with collective action, social movements, and other social behavior.
Contributions to this special section will map a spectrum of key actors, issues, and orientations of a contentious civil society that has been submerged under a larger body of research on China and established democracies that assume state-society confrontation and fail to explore intra-societal tensions. Collectively, the contributions promise to produce a theoretically-interesting and empirically rich body of work that expands and deepens Chinese Internet research dominated by work focused on such topics as Chinese Internet censorship and propaganda, online activism, civic associations, deliberation and online culture. Insights generated from this special issue will in turn inform and advance research on civil society by debating its essence and examining the conditions conducive or unfavorable to its growth, with implications going beyond China. Although contributions will emphasize what polarizes Chinese society and sometimes seem to tear it apart, we welcome contributions that analyze the prospects for rising above incivility, bridging sociopolitical schisms, and building consensus without compromising self-expression and personal security.

Proposed Schedule for IJoC Submissions

Abstract Deadline: July 1, 2015
Notice of Abstract Acceptance: August 1, 2015
Full Paper Deadline: January 1, 2016

Paper Guidelines

Abstracts submitted for pre-screening should be less than 500 words. Please send your abstract to Min Jiang ( and Ashley Esarey (
Submitted papers will go through double-blind peer review.
The maximum word count is 9,000 words (including the abstract, keywords, images with captions, references, and appendices, if any). Submitted full papers are not guaranteed acceptance.
Formatting of the special section follows the general guidelines of the International Journal of Communication (IJoC). Articles will be returned to authors if not APA (6th edition) compliant. See “Author Guidelines” at: