Rethinking civic computing in China
First Monday

Rethinking civic computing in China by Yubo Kou and Bonnie Nardi

Civic computing research is concerned with the relationship of digital technologies to civic participation. We discuss Foucault’s work on the care of the self which considers how a person seeks a certain mode of being such as happiness, perfection, or wisdom. We describe our qualitative study of Chinese mainland citizens who used technologies to understand and participate in political events, in particular the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. We examine how care of the self offers an alternative, critical perspective for rethinking civic participation and civic computing.


Related work
Struggling with the media context
Care of the self
Care of others




Considerable research has focused on how digital technologies, such as Twitter and Facebook, can help mobilize and organize people to take civic action (Starbird and Palen, 2012, 2011; Sarcevic, et al., 2012; Semaan and Mark, 2012; Monroy-Hernández, et al., 2013; Wang and Mark, 2013; De Choudhury, et al., 2014; Huang, et al., 2015). Digital technologies enable people to communicate, coordinate, and organize during political events, and during crises such as natural disasters (Vieweg, et al., 2010; Qu, et al., 2011; Starbird and Palen, 2012; De Choudhury, et al., 2014; Huang, et al., 2015). While much research has focused on how citizens collectively take public actions to change society, little attention has been paid to how citizens as individuals think, choose, and act.

Civic participation involves not only public action in society, but the individual acting in a serious, constructive, and responsible manner (Tocqueville, 1839; Burtt, 1990; Robinson and Morrison, 1995). This mode of action requires a person to obtain knowledge about public issues in order to act responsibly. We discuss how and why persons may formulate knowledge about public issues, drawing on Foucault’s work on power relations and care of the self. Care of the self refers to “an exercise of the self on the self by which one attempts to develop and transform oneself, and to attain to a certain mode of being,” which includes “a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (Foucault, 1997b, 1988). The ultimate goal is to transform the subject’s mind and thoughts by gaining deeper understanding of the self and the world.

We discuss the relation of care of the self to civic participation and civic computing through a qualitative study of Chinese citizens’ technology use in civic participation. China is widely known for its sophisticated censorship and expansive propaganda. Mainland citizens often encounter serious constraints when attempting to understand public issues. For example, the Chinese government and Chinese Internet companies together maintain a list of sensitive words that are not allowed to appear online (MacKinnon, 2007; Wang, et al., 2015). Foreign-based social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, are blocked in China. The central government hires online commentators to influence public discussions (Calingaert, 2010). Facing such a complicated media context, how do Chinese mainland citizens use digital technologies to understand public issues?

To answer this question, we conducted a qualitative study of Chinese mainland citizens who sought to understand the “Umbrella Movement,” Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. We show how our study participants utilized a variety of social media platforms to cope with their media context to deepen their understandings of the Umbrella Movement. We consider their practices as an active form of resistance to political powers that tried to dominate narratives and discourses about the Umbrella Movement. We argue that the notion of care of the self is of special value to civic computing research in understanding such phenomena.



Related work

Foucault wrote extensively on how power and knowledge regulate and discipline personhood (Foucault, 2003, 2001, 1977). Power, or more specifically, power relations, refers to “a relationship in which one person tries to control the conduct of the other” (Foucault, 1997b). Power produces knowledge that influences people’s thoughts, activities, and existence. Knowledge reinforces and redefines how power is exercised. In the relationship between government and citizens, for instance, the government maintains and reinforces a certain ideology that explains and justifies its power over citizens. Media, including both mass media and social media, have become indispensable in mediating the production and circulation of knowledge in these power relations.

In his later work, Foucault loosened his emphasis on the influence of power relations that discipline and coerce people into certain modes of being. He began to attach more importance to a person’s agency in transforming himself or herself, while noting that this transformation still occurs within certain power/knowledge structures (Foucault, 1988). A person obtains a new mode of being both under the influence of complex power relations and through practices of care of the self (Foucault, 1997a). For example, a person becomes an engaged citizen through external power relations such as familial civic traditions (Andolina, et al., 2003) and civic education at school (Galston, 2007)

Care of the self does not denote a definite mode of being that a person has already achieved. Rather, it emphasizes the constant practices that he or she carries out to cultivate the self. Care of the self, according to Foucault (1980), is not narcissistic or selfish. It only occurs through the concern for truth. Cultivating knowledge enables a person to recognize her “rightful position in the city, the community, or interpersonal relationships” (Foucault, 1997b).




Hong Kong was a British colony for more than 150 years until its return to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. Since then, Hong Kong has enjoyed a high level of social, political, and economic autonomy as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the PRC. Hong Kong and the mainland share an international border. Citizens from both sides must acquire a travel permit to cross the border.

On 31 August 2014, the PRC’s National People’s Congress proposed a reform of the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive to take place in 2017. This reform is known as the 831 decision. It stipulated that a 1,200–member committee, rather than all of Hong Kong’s citizens, would nominate two to three candidates.

Many Hong Kong citizens perceived the 831 decision as undemocratic — they believed that every citizen should be able to nominate candidates. They were worried that the elected candidate might be more likely to conform to mainland policies rather than represent Hong Kong’s local interests. Their frustration and disappointment were a major motivation for the Umbrella Movement, which adopted the slogan: “We want real universal suffrage” (see Figure 1).


Figure 1
Figure 1: Movement slogan — “We want real universal suffrage.” Source: South China Morning Post.


The majority of the movement’s participants were scholars as well as high school and university students. They conducted a series of sit-in protests at Hong Kong’s major commercial districts as well as class boycotts from 28 September 2014 to 15 December 2014. “Umbrella” refers to protesters’ use of umbrellas to shield against the pepper spray and tear gas the Hong Kong police had reportedly fired 87 times during the first month of the movement (see Figure 2).


Figure 1
Figure 2: Protestors used umbrellas to shield against tear gas and pepper spray. Source: Associated Press.





To investigate how mainland Chinese citizens came to understand the Umbrella Movement, we conducted an observational study of Weibo, China’s most common micro-blogging service, along with in-depth interviews with 35 mainland Chinese citizens from September 2014 to May 2015. We observed and archived Weibo discussions about the Umbrella Movement from its inception of the movement. We identified Chinese mainland citizens who were concerned about Hong Kong, struggling to understand the situation, and engaging in online discussions. We recruited study participants by contacting them directly through Weibo’s private message service, and then by asking those who agreed to introduce their mainland connections (in a snowball sampling methodology). We conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 20 men and 15 women between the ages of 18 and 53. We asked them how they became interested in and understood the Umbrella Movement, and what motivated them to discuss the movement online. The first author, a native speaker, translated the interviews from Mandarin Chinese. In this paper, we use pseudonyms to anonymize participants.



Struggling with the media context

Our study participants struggled to take advantage of their media context. Their media context was comprised of the mainland mass media, Chinese social media such as Weibo and forums, the Hong Kong media, and Western media.

The mainland mass media, including television news channels and newspapers, were a primary Chinese-language source. Most of these media are state-controlled and under heavy government influence. Mainland journalists struggle for balance with government agendas. Previous studies have reported how censorship constrains information diversity and flow of information in China (MacKinnon, 2011).

Cangqing, a 34-year-old engineer in our study, expressed his dissatisfaction with the mainland mass media:

Mainland news television channels have been vague about the Umbrella Movement. They only briefly mention it. So far, I have not seen one in-depth report on television. It seems to me that these channels have some unspoken concerns and do not dare deliver all the information in a clear, straightforward way. When the term “occupy central 占中” first appeared in mainland news, I could hardly understand what it meant! I did a lot of online research to understand the context and causes of this event ... I used Baidu and Google ... I definitely used Weibo ... I also visited ifeng, BBC, and lots of other news Web sites.

Cangqing found that mainland sources only hinted at the Umbrella Movement, failing to provide enough information. He needed additional alternative sources to enrich his knowledge and gain deeper understandings. He used multiple sources such as Weibo, search engines, Hong Kong-based news Web sites, and Western news Web sites.

Weibo was a major online source for our participants. However, they did not completely trust the information on Weibo. Ming, a 26-year-old programmer, said:

Part of the reason I enjoy reading Weibo is that I can read and analyze a variety of standpoints. In China, people’s opinions and motivations are extremely diverse. There is the 50-cent party, which works hard to speak for the government and the party. There is the half dollar party, which works for the Western governments. There are public intellectuals who only criticize the government and our country. There are liberals who only speak in terms of freedom and democracy. There are conservatives who miss the Mao era. These people have very different interpretations of the Umbrella Movement.

Ming’s words exemplified participants’ common perception of the many, diverse, and competing voices on Weibo. Individuals, organizations, and countries with different interests and ideologies attempted to influence ordinary citizens’ understanding of the movement through Weibo. Study participants valued the diversity in opinion, especially compared to the mainland mass media’s monotonous voice, even though they were also aware of the agendas behind comments on Weibo and took them with a grain of salt.

Participants expressed concerns over unverifiable information. For example, Leiyu, a 21-year-old college student, said:

I do not fully trust the information in the [Weibo] posts. The government or Weibo’s administration team has censored and tailored a lot of it. If I were interested in particular topics, such as the Umbrella Movement, I would rather check out the original information in other venues.

Leiyu was not content with reading only opinions and unverifiable information on Weibo that he assumed had undergone heavy editing. Many of our participants preferred Weibo posts and news reports that included pictures and videos, which they considered more trustworthy. (They assumed the pictures and videos were not altered.) Our study participants visited other Web sites, including sites from Hong Kong and Western media, for further information.

Mingli, a 23-year-old accountant, compared Weibo with other venues. She said:

Weibo serves as an easy entry into a particular event. After all, it provides abundant information for me to browse through on a daily basis. However, I do not completely trust the information. Weibo’s information only gives me a hint of what might be happening. To know what has really happened, I will go to other venues such as forums, Facebook, and Twitter.

Like Mingli, participants valued Weibo as an initial information source, confident they could find out about the existence of events, but checking other sources for further information.

The Hong Kong media have enjoyed greater autonomy than mainland media, and have been less prone to censorship. Dazhi, a 38-year-old government employee, commented:

Their reports are indeed more vivid [than the mainland mass media]. I have seen pictures taken during the Movement. Many of them were about student strikes. I feel those students are very sincere about their struggles and they truly care for the future of Hong Kong. I have watched videos documenting some incidents during the movement. I can still remember the video showing police throwing tear gas into the crowd. I was shocked and worried about those innocent students.

For participants like Dazhi, pictures and videos were vivid evidence and contributed to the credibility of news reports. Narratives based on such evidence encouraged Dazhi to understand Hong Kong students as genuine, innocent protestors, and the Hong Kong government as violent and repressive. Such understandings prompted Dazhi to sympathize with the movement participants.

However, our study participants did not consider the Hong Kong media to be flawless. Laoli, a 26-year-old graduate student, said:

I began to have some doubt about their accounts of the Umbrella Movement ... They always imply that the Movement is genuine and represents Hong Kong, and that the Hong Kong and central governments are repressive and violent. I believe there are certain truths in these statements. However, I think there must be some problems or weaknesses in the Movement, since political events are messy. Unfortunately, I am not able to find that kind of information from those people.

Laoli voiced his doubt about the Hong Kong media’s perspectives. He believed that a complete story should include positives and negatives, and distrusted one-sided accounts of the movement.

Study participants frequently engaged Western media, such as the Cable News Network (CNN), British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), British news agency Reuters, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times. Participants observed strengths and weaknesses in these media. For example, Leiyu noted:

Western media’s news reports have a much greater diversity. Some are good stories. They use concrete evidence such as pictures and videos to support their arguments. However, some Western reports are really biased, using double standards to judge China and Western countries.

Leiyu enjoyed reading Western media for its credibility, or “concrete evidence.” However, he observed a bias across major Western news outlets. For instance, American scholars have long discussed how media frame news stories in specific ways to meet standards and values in American society such as capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexuality, individualism, and consumerism (Budd, et al., 1999; Entman, 2007; Stone, 2011). These Western standards and values challenged study participants’ understandings and raised their awareness. They doubted whether Western media reported a complete story about the Umbrella Movement.

Yuming, a 23-year-old college student, said:

Today I went to the BBC’s Web site to browse news. The top news was about the Umbrella Movement and it attracted my attention. I read the news and was quite surprised. The whole article was about the persistence of the protestors and the hardship they experienced. The journalist concluded that this movement was a legitimate objection to the Hong Kong government and expressed reasonable appeals. However, the article never mentioned the other side of the story, such as Hong Kong’s economic loss during these days and how it affected citizens’ lives. It did not even include an interview with a single outsider who did not protest.

Yuming expected to read diverse perspectives including those of non-protestors. She believed that a balanced story about the movement should include its positive and negative effects. Her knowledge about economic loss from other venues inspired her to question the BBC’s objectivity.

Through the production and circulation of numerous competing narratives in the media context, governments, media organizations, and individuals tried to dominate narratives about the Umbrella Movement. Our participants were aware of and concerned about this challenging situation, and they carefully considered the information they consumed based on a critical approach to each source.



Care of the self

Our study participants coped with their complicated media context in ways that manifested Foucault’s sense of care of the self. They took care to develop their knowledge of the Umbrella Movement by studying a variety of information sources. Participants stressed reflecting critically upon the information they gathered. Kuan, a 25-year-old freelance writer, noted:

I used to be emotional, especially when I read political news. I used to type many angry words online ... Now I know that when emotions take control of a person, they are no longer able to make fair judgments. I will no longer listen to the stories from one side; I will try to see as much of the world as I can, in order to enrich my own brain. I will calm down when reading political information, because the world is never that simple.

Kuan started to pay attention to and take care of her own behavior by reflecting on her previous experience coping with political news. She improved herself through the constant practices of “enriching her own brain” and “calming down.” Similarly, Xiao, an editor, said:

When I was in middle and high school, I admired Western societies a lot. I thought every aspect of Western society was better than that of China. Whenever there was a terrible public issue, I blamed the Chinese government ... [But I have changed] and I am grateful for my college education. I learned a lot about our history and society during that time. Now I have a mature mind. I try to understand those issues rather than rushing to blame China. I see many Weibo users speak in the exact same way I did as a high school student. They make accusations that someone is part of the 50-cent party or that someone is brainwashed. Their minds are still immature, but they will eventually grow up in the future.

Xiao discussed how her experience and education contributed to her self-reflection. She showed understanding of and tolerance towards people who made rash online comments. Kuan and Xiao’s cases demonstrate how self-improvement occurred over time when they kept working on their knowledge and responses to events and other people.

Care of the self involved gaining proficiency in using digital technologies. All of our participants knew certain ways of circumventing censorship, such as the use of VPN tools to visit blocked foreign sites. For example, Xingxi, a 22-year-old senior college student, discussed his thoughts with the interviewer:

Interviewer: What means did you use to learn about the Umbrella Movement last year?

Xingxi: The major ways were climbing the wall [the Great Firewall], Weibo, Googling news from Western media, and the Hong Kong media. I often visited forums to find out what people were thinking.

Interviewer: Why did you use so many sources?

Xingxi: There is an old saying, “Listen to both sides and you will be enlightened; heed only one side and you will be benighted 兼听则明偏信则暗.” I surely do not wish to be benighted.

Interviewer: Did climbing the wall contain particular benefits?

Xingxi: Yes. If I wanted to know what the Hong Kong students thought, I needed to see the Facebook pages. I knew the movement had Facebook pages.

Xingxi highlighted the variety of sites from which he learned about the movement. When censorship blocked certain media, such as Facebook, Xingxi did not refrain from accessing them, but rather actively adopted technical means to circumvent the blocks.

Our study participants appreciated the constant updates afforded by following influential scholars, celebrities, and news agencies. However, participants recognized their own limited time and energy, and they rejected passive over-consumption of too much content. They stressed personalizing digital technologies in order to manage the timing and means of content consumption. For example, Citiao, a 25-year-old programmer, said:

I only follow my friends, classmates, and relatives on Weibo. I do not follow the popular accounts of celebrities, scholars, and news agencies. They tend to post too much information, and I do not have time to consume it. If I want to get information from Weibo, I use its search function. During the Umbrella Movement, I searched several keywords such as “occupy central 占中” and “student union 学联” to get updates.

Citiao cautiously managed his media context. Social media are designed to entice people into consuming as much content as possible and spending as much time on the platform as possible. Citiao knew he could not handle the large volume of information that would result from following many accounts. He practiced self-discipline and resisted corporate agendas encouraging him to spend more and more time on the sites.



Care of others

Care of others is a natural component of care of the self. When a person constructs knowledge about the self and the world, he or she deepens understanding of relations to others and what constitutes proper interactions. In our study, more knowledge about Hong Kong and the media context allowed participants to reflect upon and recognize their relations to others such as other Weibo users and Hong Kong citizens.

Our participants actively shared information with other Weibo users who desired to know more about the movement. For example, Zhongfeng, a 27-year-old designer, said:

In Weibo discussions, I often come across novel and insightful ideas that I have never heard before. Some of the ideas refer to sensitive information, such as the relationship between Hong Kong’s capitalists and high-ranking central government officials. There will never be reports like this in the domestic media because of censorship. If I am interested in that piece of sensitive information, I will send a private message to the user and ask for it. Most of the time, the user is willing to share it. I do the same thing if I have certain sensitive information and another person asks for it.

Reflecting on their relation to Hong Kong’s people, study participants began to develop understanding and sympathy. Bangu, a 35-year-old government employee, said:

I understand why some Hong Kong citizens do not like us mainlanders. Sometimes the mainlanders visit Hong Kong and exploit the local medical and educational resources. I remember seeing mention of this by some Hong Kong protestors. However, the mainlanders have contributed to Hong Kong’s economy through consumption and shopping ... I really hope that Hong Kong people can be more tolerant. At the same time, they are welcome to come back to the mainland and have a look at where their ancestors come from.

The Umbrella Movement allowed Bangu to reflect on the tension between Hong Kong and the mainland. He did not simply view Hong Kong and the mainland as enemies. He believed that their deep, intertwined relationships should ideally develop in a harmonious way. He cared for Hong Kong and hoped that people from both sides would understand each other. Xuanwu expressed a similar view:

Everyone is capable of sympathy. I think the movement does not deliver accurate information about the difficulties that Hong Kong citizens face in their lives. Instead, the movement focuses on resisting and objecting to the Hong Kong government. In this we see antipathy instead of sympathy among most Chinese mainlanders.

While Bangu stressed the necessity for mutual understanding, Xuanwu talked about how to build it. He suggested that mutual understanding relied on communicating accurate information about real problems, rather than chanting political slogans.

Sympathy and compassion emerged when people knew more about others’ situations, difficulties, and struggles. They began to apprehend the issues from other perspectives. Care of others was a critical component of care of the self for our participants.




Public issues such as social justice and democracy are inherently complex. Today’s media context, containing numerous information sources, further complicates the situation by circulating information with varying degrees of depth and veracity. Without sufficient efforts to assess this information, a concerned individual might meet difficulties in understanding the causes of a given event and taking rational and responsible actions. While the Umbrella Movement’s slogan was straightforward and compelling, our participants were determined to find out what really happened in Hong Kong and not rely on a simple catchphrase.

Care of the self maintains that a person should pay attention to his own unique way of cultivating knowledge. The practices of care of the self did not lead participants to the same conclusion about the Umbrella Movement. They differed in their experiences, education, and backgrounds, and used different information sources. They developed different attitudes, some supporting the movement, some staying neutral, and others opposing the movement.

Care of the self stresses critical thinking, rather than immediate action. Through critical thinking, a citizen can comprehend a situation and make serious, responsible decisions. Taking action without thinking is dangerous to civic participation. Foucault reminds us that liberation might end old repressive power relations only at the cost of opening up new ones (Foucault, 1997b). A participant noted, “these years we have seen too many so-called ‘bad’ governments overthrown by citizens and the West in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, and Syria. They thought Western-style democracy is a solution to everything. Are people there having a better life now? I do not think so. People should think on their own before rushing to participate in any ‘pro-democracy’ movement.” Many participants were aware of and concerned about the repercussions of social movements and political uprisings that took place in other countries in the last few years. They cautioned against radical forms of collective actions that destabilize society. Our participants stressed thinking on their own, and welcomed opposing opinions in online discussions. They criticized rash, emotional online comments.

Considerable civic computing research has concerned the instrumental value of digital technologies in promoting collective action to change society (Brewer, 2008; Hansen, et al., 2014; State and Adamic, 2015), and in supporting online attention, support, and solidarity with respect to public issues (De Choudhury, et al., 2014; Khondker, 2011; Maruyama, et al., 2014; Starbird and Palen, 2012; Stoll, et al., 2012). However, not all collective action is automatically good; such action may risk impulsiveness, irrationality, and even lynch-mob behavior, according to sociological and psychological studies (e.g., Bion, 2013; Le Bon, 1982; Mannheim, 1991; Surowiecki, 2005). Care of the self provides an alternative, critical perspective on civic participation and civic computing in stressing how people may position themselves to look before they leap by carefully reflecting on complex issues using a multitude of information sources for thoughtful deliberation.

Digital technologies are increasingly effective at persuasion, encouraging actions such as clicking the like button on Facebook, retweeting, and signing online petitions. Responsible collective action relies on each individual making reasoned judgments and decisions. Hannah Arendt emphasized the danger of lack of critical thinking:

Where does this leave us in regard to one of our chief problems — the possible interconnectedness of non-thought and evil? ... We are left with Plato’s “noble natures,” with the few of whom it may be true that none “does evil voluntarily.” Yet the implied and dangerous conclusion, "Everybody wants to do good," is not true even in their case. (The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be or do either evil or good.) (Arendt, 1981)

Is rapid-fire “clicktivism” really a genuine or desirable expression of political action? Care of society seems more likely when persons take care to understand society and what constitutes constructive action — behaviors we observed in our study participants’ information practices. With an emphasis on knowledge, care of the self constitutes an important dimension of civic participation. It is less visible than the collective actions emphasized in the studies we cited above, yet it is essential for positive change. It was only by focusing on individuals and their actions toward care of the self that we were able to observe the ways in which Chinese citizens used media productively outside of collective actions.

The perspective of care of the self enables us to reflect upon the role of digital technologies in civic participation. We refrain from the deterministic point of view that digital technologies in themselves can mobilize civic participation. Such a view is mechanistic in treating digital technologies as tools that, if properly designed, lead to the desired results. In our study, digital technologies were used in nuanced, critical ways. For example, study participants acknowledged that Weibo brought much diverse information, but they also struggled to cope with the difficulty of verifying information. Participants reported that one technology alone was insufficient, so they coordinated multiple digital technologies to achieve a single purpose.

Foucault’s work on care of the self is valuable to the body of civic computing research that has largely focused on the public and collective side. Foucault offers a complementary perspective for considering the personal and individual side. We caution against the tendency to study citizens’ public, collective actions alone without first considering citizens as individuals. We point to the importance of understanding how individual citizens build knowledge in a complicated media context heavily influenced by complex power relations.




We discussed mainland Chinese citizens’ use of digital media to understand the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. We examined our study participants’ practices for building knowledge about the movement as they navigated information sources in subtle, complex ways through a dense and complex media environment. We showed that participants manifested Foucault’s sense of care of the self in careful, deliberative activity. We argue that care of the self provides a complementary critical perspective for civic computing research that considers how media influences individual as well as collective action. End of article


About the authors

Yubo Kou is a recent Ph.D. graduate from the Department of Informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. He studies the use of technologies in civic participation.
E-mail: yubok [at] uci [dot] edu

Bonnie Nardi is Professor in the Department of Informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. She has a forthcoming book, co-authored with Professor Hamid Ekbia at Indiana University, Heteromation and other stories of computing and capitalism (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press).
E-mail: nardi [at] uci [dot] edu



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Editorial history

Received 1 April 2016; accepted 15 June 2016.

Commons License
This paper is in the Public Domain.

Rethinking civic computing in China
by Yubo Kou and Bonnie Nardi.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 7 - 4 July 2016

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.