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Derailed emotions: The transformation of claims and targets during the Wenzhou online incident

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Social media have both enabled and reinforced a shift towards the personalization of politics and collective action that is also occurring in China. In addition to street actions, the country is seeing a continuously growing number of so-called online mass incidents. While they have been attracting growing scholarly attention, most analyses have been based on anecdotal evidence and have treated netizens as a uniform group without evaluating the event's internal discursive dynamics. In order to assess such micro-blogging incidents' actual potential for political change, we investigate the case of the largest ‘online mass incident’ in China since the advent of Chinese micro-blogging services in 2009, prompted by the crash of two high-speed trains near the city of Wenzhou in July 2011. Drawing on the systematic content analysis of more than 4600 micro-blog posts published in the aftermath of the accident, we analyse the events' discursive dynamics, focusing on the composition, transformation, and radicalization of claims and targets. Our analysis demonstrates that the level of radicalism of the Wenzhou online mass incident is rather moderate and that no radicalization took place before the debate levelled down. While the incident significantly enhanced the tendency in Chinese online activism towards the broadening of the critical debate on national affairs, expectations about a democratizing impact of online debates might be premature.
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Keywords: China; Internet; contention; micro-blogs; online mass incidents; social media; social movement

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Institute of Asian Studies, Rothenbaumchaussee 32, Hamburg, 20148, Germany

Publication date: January 2, 2014

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