For well over two decades, the Internet in China has been understood as a vital means of public discourse. Particularly western advocates have suggested that bottom-up modes of online communication would spawn social movements against the regime and give voice to underrepresented groups (e.g. Gerhards and Schäfer, 2010). Despite this, revolution has hardly been ignited from China’s online platforms such as WeChat or RED. Instead of inciting direct political action, most netizens use these platforms to navigate a “side-road” (Nordin & Richaud, 2014, p. 56) bending, but not breaking, the rules and norms around them. What is required is a theoretical reconceptualization of the historical and technological development of the Chinese Internet and its effect on contemporary social life, daily governance, and overall policy.
Our proposed paper does this by tackling one of the longstanding metaphors when it comes to the Internet: the “public sphere.” Rather than a rational-critical space for public discourse, we argue that the history and development of the Chinese online space should be characterized by a different sphere of public activity: the “magic circle” (Huizinga, 1971) of play. Conceived as a way to describe the antecedents of contemporary culture and technology, the magic circle suggests a space, made up of semi-arbitrary rules, that provides a special place and time for activities outside of the norm. However, the players sometimes have to move among multiple circles based on the needs and must pull themselves away from the distinct space of the magic circles and return to ordinary life eventually.
While seemingly a radical shift in viewing online communities, play is embedded within Chinese Internet scholarship (e.g. Repnikova and Fang, 2018; Han, 2018). Instead of stripping Chinese netizens of agency or power, this approach reorients the focus toward and clarifies their position vis-a-vis the state and the system within which they subvert, innovate, and ultimately comply.
After situating play as an alternative conceptual frame to Habermas’ concept and the “subversive” Chinese Internet, the paper uses the case studies - the recent social media activity surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus - to illustrate the iterative interactions that manifest Internet as various actors play with and against each other. This case demonstrates the capacity of the online sphere to function as a source of both political and non-political information and foster discussion and civic messaging (Shah et al, 2005) without necessarily leading to outright change.
Ultimately, the paper puts forth play as a theoretical concept to further our understanding of the public sphere by recognizing the largely irrational forces of cohesion, chaos, and adaptability that are central to the Chinese cyberspace and to comprehend the interplay between technology and governmental policy control over the years of development in China.