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Weibo communication and government legitimacy in China: a computer-assisted analysis of Weibo messages on two ‘mass incidents’

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This article, based on a computer-assisted analysis of Weibo communications about two recent ‘mass incidents’ in China, offers a model for understanding online communication's influence on government legitimacy. This study explores the discourse of Weibo discussions on social protests and what impacts this discourse may have on the legitimacy of Chinese government in the digital environment. The Weibo discourses on the two mass incidents suggest two modes of online communication: one-way communication, where local residents have taken the initiative and two-way communication, initiated by both local residents and national elites. Different themes the discourses have touched suggest different types and levels of impacts Weibo discussions have on government legitimacy. More precisely, the discourse in which there is a critique of the current national political system in China is more challenging to government legitimacy than the one in which there are only demands for local changes. The online discourse about the Haimen incident on Weibo even can be seen as reinforcing government legitimacy. Therefore, the impact of online communication on government legitimacy is relative and depends on specific cases. To understand the power of online communication requires us to analyse the nature of online discourses about specific cases and then examine them within external social and political contexts and by comparing them with one another. Contextual dynamics such as social problems and tensions can function as an indicator for understanding the type and level of impact of online communication on government legitimacy.
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Keywords: China; Weibo; computer-assisted data analysis; government legitimacy; online communication; social protests

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Media and Communication, University of Leicester, 132 New Walk, Leicester, LE1 7JA, UK 2: IT Consultant and Data Scientist,

Publication date: January 2, 2014

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