Between legitimacy and political efficacy : Feminist counter-publics and the internet in China

Iam Chong IP, Oi Wan LAM

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3 Citations (Scopus)


This chapter analyzes the dynamics of state feminist counter-publics and independent feminist groups in China, based on a conception of a public sphere as a space for political debate that is both nation based and postnational. Examining the concept and empirical reality of a counter-public sphere in the context of an authoritarian state may seem peculiar to those who are familiar with the centrality of democracy to Habermas’s concept of the public sphere. Although the Western model of modernization combines a market economy with constitutional democracy, China contradicted this established paradigm throughout the 1980s, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, in that a fast-growing, successful market economy developed without a transition to democracy. Since then, changes such as the disintegration of the highly centralized social system and the diversification and class stratification of Chinese society have become more apparent (Hu 2007). These characteristics are indicative of a unique Chinese model that cannot be explained by established political paradigms based on Western concepts of liberalism, conservatism, political right, middle and left, public interest, democracy, rights, freedom, and individualism (Hu 2007). Because of this unparalleled dimension of the Chinese social context, our approach diverges from the largely Western project of focusing on the struggles for transnational public spheres to emerge and thrive in a context of cosmopolitan democracy (Fraser 2007; Kidd 2003; Habermas 2001). Instead, we argue that Chinese feminists’ new cosmopolitanism features their creative appropriation of global feminist ideas for local and national uses. Our work also diverges from scholarship on the impact of the internet in China and elsewhere in the world, which tends to frame discussion in terms of a civil society simply defined by its opposition to a repressive state regime (Yang 2003; Xiao 2004). Feminist counter-publics not only contribute to the civil rights movement but also engage in more subtle struggles against state feminism and for trans-institutional spaces within the state. Exploring this largely neglected dimension in the literature on Chinese politics is crucial for understanding the tension between legitimacy and efficacy facilitated by the new political-economic realities of authoritarian countries. We avoid adopting a technophilic understanding of new ICTs as necessarily being the conduit for oppositional politics in the interest of social change. On the one hand, ICTs enable the proliferation of counterpublics battling for political legitimacy (Dean 2003; Dahlgren 2005). On the other, as many critics point out, digitally mediated collective opinion, despite its intensiffied passion, neither guarantees that those in authority will be held accountable for their actions nor ensures policy change (Dean 2003; Gladwell 2010; Morozov 2010). The arena of gender equity and women’s rights in China illustrates this argument. The regime’s championing of women’s liberation largely endorses this field as an acceptable area for social engagement. However, women’s rights are not outside the scope of state or intergovernmental intervention. Instead, state organizations, civic groups, and supranational interests collide, compete, and cooperate with one another. The issues of political legitimacy and effectiveness, rather than confined to the scope of state governance and civic domain, must be addressed and evaluated in the transnational context (Fraser 2007). This chapter focuses on the Guangdong provincial branch of the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) and the Gender Media Action activist group, both based in the city of Guangzhou. These groups’ members regularly engage in online political discussion. We consider the history and development of both groups by examining archive documentation and unstructured interviews with core organizers, whose names have been anonymized. The groups’ organizational structures and political positions help assess the extent of their political legitimacy and effectiveness in fostering political change.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Media and Gender
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781135076955, 978203066911
ISBN (Print)9780415527699, 9781138849129
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2013


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