Contingent Symbiosis: Social Media Companies and Local States in Contemporary China


Many studies have investigated different aspects of the Internet censorship regime in contemporary China. At the macro level, some studies have introduced China’s Internet management system, tracing its historical and developing trajectory (Qiu, 1999; Zheng, 2008). While others have examined how the authoritarian regime exercises its control over the Internet through legal, economic, technical and social means (e.g., Tsui, 2003). Still others, form a policy discourse perspective, unpack the discourse on the Chinese Internet by analyzing Chinese party-organ newspapers in detail (Cui & Wu, 2016). In addition, some studies have tried to outline the pattern of authoritarian leadership’s Internet censorship. For example, Mackinnon (2011) have identified the “networked authoritarianism” pattern, while Yang (2014; 2018) have found that the “red” ideology has returned and been reintegrated into the internet management policy and a “civilization” mode has taken shape to discipline Chinese netizens. At the micro-level, most of the studies focus on the hard approach to Chinese Internet censorship. For example, some studies have investigated censorship practices of all sorts (Feng & Guo, 2013; Gorman, 2005; King et al., 2013). Others focus on how these censorship practices reinforce netizens’ self-censorship (Guo & Feng, 2012), as well as netizens’ resistance practices such as strategies of circumventing the great firewall (Huang, 2016; Lee, 2016; G. Yang, 2009; Q. Yang & Liu, 2014).

These studies largely ignore two things. First of all, most of them viewed the censorship regime as a monolithic whole, largely ignoring internal differentiation of the censorship bodies and practices at different levels, especially the central-local dynamics. Secondly, most of these studies focused on the hard approach to internet censorship while paying disproportionate attention to the governmental bodies’ soft approach to relationship management through daily interaction practices.

Based on these considerations, in this research, we aimed at focusing on the local censorship regime and its relationship management practices. From an organizational perspective, this paper unpacks a particular form of relationship maintenance—a “contingent symbiosis”—between local censorship regimes and social media companies in that region. The city of Hangzhou is used as the case since Hangzhou has the most developed digital economy in contemporary China.

Based on our ethnographic fieldwork and our in-depth interviews with both the local government bodies and 30 social media companies in Hangzhou, we submit that the local censorship regime has adopted some proactive strategies to build a positive relationship with those social media companies at that region, forming a form of “contingent symbiosis”. On the one hand, the local censorship regime uses policy and economic stimulus to co-opt those social media companies, forming friendly relations with them and persuading them to distance from those politically sensitive issues. On the other hand, social media companies, as organizations, they have tried to refrain themselves from those politically sensitive issues for getting more governmental resources and ensuring survival in heat competition. In the end, we also discussed the theoretical and social implication and the generalizability of this form of “contingent symbiosis”.