East Asia Workshop: Politics, Economy and Society

Nov 7, Yinxian Zhang | “Understanding Chinese Opinion Leaders’ Political Stances: What Does Democracy Mean in China?”






“Understanding Chinese Opinion Leaders’

Political Stances: What Does Democracy Mean in China?”


Yinxian Zhang

PhD Candidate, UChicago Sociology

Nov 7, Wed 12:00-1:30 pm

Pick Lounge, 5828 South University Ave.

Pizza will be provided



How would China’s public sphere function if China were democratized as it currently stands? This paper investigates the political values of Chinese opinion leaders, particularly their perceptions of liberal democracy, as they are the major players in the Chinese public sphere. I examine the variation in opinion leader perceptions and explore its implications for the potential cleavages in the political development of China. Combining computational methods and qualitative analysis, I examine a large-scale dataset of 4 million users’ social network ties and 1.28 million social media posts. I find that opinion leaders diverged between a pro-democracy pro-reform ideology and an anti-democracy nationalist/Maoist ideology. However, the pro-democracy ideology was the dominant value embraced by up to three fourths of the opinion leaders, and it effectively constrained the conservative and authoritarian values. As a result, nationalist and Maoist ideologies were subject to a legitimacy crisis. Moreover, even among the pro-democracy opinion leaders, people had different perceptions of liberal democracy, particularly about whether democracy should be pursued as an end in itself, or as a means to other public goods. If China were democratized today, we could expect to see political cleavages arise from such variation in people’s agendas and priorities.


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The East Asia Workshop is sponsored by the Council on Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences.

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