Between Participation and Paternalism:A Study of Weibo-based Networked Crisis Communication in China between 2010 and 2019

Chen, Lixiong (2022) Between Participation and Paternalism:A Study of Weibo-based Networked Crisis Communication in China between 2010 and 2019. PhD thesis, UNSPECIFIED.

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The sheer volume of natural disasters that have occurred in the twenty-first century has turned the spotlight of research upon crisis communication (which may be understood as any significant human effort to communicate to mitigate the negative impact of such disasters on society). Remarkably, the evolution of networked crisis communication, facilitated by social media platforms, has been seen to reshape modern crisis communication. In its first decade of integration, Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, has catalysed substantial changes in networked crisis communications in China. In this research, I use a three-stage research design and a unique and original database to explore changes in the online participation of the government and the public in Weibo-based networked crisis communication between 2010 and 2019. The database comprises a quantitative dataset (133,440 Weibo posts collected from six earthquakes of a magnitude of 6 or above, all of which occurred in mainland China between 2010 and 2019) and a qualitative dataset (41 semi-structured interviews). This research reveals three notable empirical findings regarding Weibo-based networked crisis communication in the context of China’s paternalistic governance. First, through descriptive analysis and social network analysis of the entire quantitative dataset, I reveal a phenomenon of ‘crowding out’, where the Chinese government has not only increased significantly the number of governmental users and their posts but has also acted as an influential distributor of crisis information, while there has been a reduction in public online participation. Moreover, a collective and cooperative relationship between the government and the public has been established because public members have become the disseminators of governmental crisis information. Second, having sampled the quantitative dataset (5,358 posts), I construct logistic regression models and qualitative analysis of specific posts. I argue that the Chinese government has come to deploy a performative form of paternalistic governance in Weibo-based networked crisis communication. I note that the performative form has promoted negotiated public online participation and allowed members of the public to act as skilled and experienced participants, rather than directly resisting paternalistic governance. Moreover, a mechanism of ‘informative cooperation’ has been found that reflects a cooperative and collective relationship between the government and the public in Weibo-based networked crisis communication. Third, from the perspective of the public, I identify two main modes of relationship between the government and the public: cooperative and frictional. I make this identification through the analysis of 13 semi-structured interviews sampled from the qualitative dataset and take the 2018 Shouguang flood as a case. Critical friction points include the timing of the government’s release of crisis information, the description of the crisis situation, and liability and responsibility for risk. When governmental crisis information satisfies the public, negotiated public online participation will be generated, promoting a cooperative relationship. If the opposite happens, the relationship will be frictional, and the public will contest online for governmental crisis information, which also tends to reduce the motivation of public online participation in later Weibo-based networked crisis communication. This thesis makes a few theoretical and empirical contributions by considering China’s contextual differences from Western settings that have thus far dominated the research. Engaging with research fields of crisis informatics, paternalism, and the public sphere, I provide new perspectives regarding the relationships between the Chinese government and the public under paternalistic governance and tease out changes in their respective online participation in Weibo-based networked crisis communication between 2010 and 2019 through analysing multiple crises. The contributions of this thesis include novel material and insights that will prove valuable to the development of future social media-based networked crisis communication.

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20 May 2022 09:25
Last Modified:
21 Nov 2022 12:19