American Sociological Association

Ya-Wen Lei

Ya-Wen Lei, University of Michigan
“Uncovering the Roots of the Nationwide Counterpublic Sphere in China”

Ya-Wen Lei’s dissertation analyzes a critical transformation of political culture in China. It tells the story of how a nationwide contentious public sphere has emerged and persisted, despite the absence of a relatively vibrant civil society and the presence of an interventionist authoritarian state. This unruly public sphere is capable of generating contentious issues and agendas not set by the Chinese state, and increasingly considered by the state as a force with which it must reckon and negotiate. The dominant theory of the public sphere, derived mostly from experiences in Western Europe, asserts that a robust civil society creates the possibility of existence for a public sphere. This theory cannot explain the contentious public sphere that has emerged in China. However, rather than completely abandoning the dominant theory, Lei identifies and preserves its central proposition—namely, that a social-cultural foundation is needed for a public sphere to grow and persist—and she then examines how such a foundation did emerge in China.

Drawing on newspapers, in-depth interviews, survey data, online texts, and official documents, Lei develops a multi-faceted comparative and historical analysis. She argues that the complex, multi-stage institutional processes the Chinese state sets in motion to sustain its authoritarian rule inadvertently led to China’s nationwide contentious public sphere. The Chinese state responded to the legitimation crisis it faced in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution by transitioning to a market economy in 1978 and creating legal institutions to facilitate that transition. While this solution addressed the state’s legitimacy crisis, the transition to a market economy also brought with it various dilemmas—in particular, about how to monitor and regulate corrupt local officials and market actors seeking to capitalize unduly from the transition. In an effort to manage problems and discontent, the central government mobilized state-controlled media organizations to disseminate the law to the Chinese public, and encouraged people to report on a limited range of local problems. This solution came at a price, however. It lead to the formation of new legal identities for citizens, the creation of new cultural and social connections between various actors—in particular, pro-liberal journalists in certain media organizations and lawyers—and increased citizen expectations vis-à-vis the state. With the popularization of the Internet, relations between the state and citizens eroded, forcing the former to recognize and respond to a sphere of public opinion that was no longer completely within its control. These processes culminated in the rise of a nationwide contentious public sphere in the post-2004 period.

Positioned at the intersection of political sociology, law and society, cultural sociology, and economic sociology, Lei’s dissertation makes several important contributions. The dissertation’s findings shed new light on theories of the public sphere and its relationship with the state, market, and civil society. Particularly notable, is the theoretical framework Lei develops to investigate complex institutional process that take place at the macro-, meso-, and micro-level, and in the interactions among the different levels. In addition, Lei’s dissertation has illuminates the consequences of the authoritarian rule of law project by showing how different actors responded to and participated in it. The dissertation also contributes to debates about the relationship between media, information communication technologies, and political liberalization. Ultimately, Lei’s dissertation both challenges and deepens our understanding of authoritarian rule, state-society relations, and political liberalization.