The Evolution of Regime Imaginaries on the Chinese Internet

Journal of Political Ideologies (2020,

25 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2018 Last revised: 11 Jan 2021

See all articles by Angela Xiao Wu

Angela Xiao Wu

New York University (NYU) - Department of Culture and Communication

Date Written: September 23, 2018


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 analyzed massive amounts of speech traces on Weibo that contain the term tizhi 体制, a discursively flexible, yet distinctly Chinese 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. We found that, 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.

Keywords: China, Legitimacy, Political Ideology, Semantic Network Analysis, Internet, Weibo, Critical Discourse Analysis, Censorship, Public Opinion, Regime Support

Suggested Citation

Wu, Angela Xiao, The Evolution of Regime Imaginaries on the Chinese Internet (September 23, 2018). Journal of Political Ideologies (2020,, Available at SSRN:

Angela Xiao Wu (Contact Author)

New York University (NYU) - Department of Culture and Communication ( email )

239 Greene St., 7th Floor
New York, NY 10003-1836
United States

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