(Un)civil Society in Digital China| Uncivil Society in Digital China: Incivility, Fragmentation, and Political Stability — Introduction

Min Jiang, Ashley Esarey


Once believed to empower a range of Chinese social actors, the Internet is increasingly linked to expressions of extreme incivility that violate the etiquette and norms of interpersonal and online communication. Moving beyond definitions of civility (or incivility) based on democratic norms of deliberation and reciprocity, this article argues that civility should be reconceptualized as respect for others’ communicative rights, including the right to self-expression in pursuit of social justice. This theoretical modification affirms that civility differs from politeness and allows for contextualized and comparative studies of civility and incivility across regions and polities. In China’s authoritarian online spaces, the state tacitly encourages incivility as a divide-and-rule strategy while masking its uncivil purposes with “civil” appeals for rationality and order in a society characterized by pluralism, fragmentation, and visceral conflict. The result, as contributions to this Special Section illustrate, is a toxic uncivil society in which the space for respectful civil debate is narrowed, the influence of social groups and regime critics is diminished, and state power becomes more concentrated and resilient.


civility, incivility, uncivil society, China, social justice, politenessice, politeness

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