Investigating the Role of Mobile Phone in China’s Contentious Politics

The growing importance of mobile phones in popular protests has attracted considerable attention around the world, as an increasing number of people are appropriating their mobile devices for the mobilization of collective action and the subsequent initiation, organization, and implementation of social movements (see, for instance, the Arab Spring). The proliferation of mobile phones in China also nurtures growing mobile-phone–facilitated popular protests, with the increasing use of mobile media as a key resource for not just proliferating censored information, but more importantly facilitating demonstrations and strikes and triggering mass incidents. Nevertheless, very few studies address systematically the role of mobile phones in contentious politics in contemporary China, leaving this field almost blank. As one of the first studies of mobile communication technologies in contentious activities in China, my Ph.D. research, which has just passed the final defense at University of Copenhagen on February 11, 2013, highlights the role of the mobile phone and its impact on contentious activities in the Chinese context from three perspectives: first, the mobile phone as a mundane communication tool; second, mobile communication in guanxi-embedded Chinese society; third, the mobile device as a multi-media platform.

Mobile phone as a mundane communication tool

Along with the rapid diffusion of mobile devices, the mobile phone has become a simple yet substantial device for mundane communication in everyday life. The low-cost and user-friendly mobile phone provides Chinese people, especially those without complicated communication skills (e.g., tweeting or “fanqiang” [circumventing censorship]) a convenient means of accumulating individual power, mobilizing collective action, and coordinating contentious movement. Importantly, The uses of mobile phones in most of the cases are largely the basic and normal functions of a mobile phone: voice, SMS, or, at most, MMS functions. As such, the mobile phone allows Chinese citizens to express their discontent, pass on their anger, and mount collective resistance to the party’s authority, through a simple and fast method—twiddling their thumbs over a mobile phone’s keyboard during their everyday lives. 

Mobile communication in guanxi-embedded Chinese society

The socio-cultural characteristics of mobile communication not only differentiate Chinese mobile social networks from other ones, but also greatly influence information dissemination and communicative practice within this network. As my study figures out, the dynamics of guanxi have been embedded into mobile communication in the wake of the increasing popularity of mobile devices and the huge rise in mobile phone use in developing and maintaining social relations in contemporary China. With trust strengthened through guanxi and personal social networks, information (even rumor messages) enjoys higher credibility, which makes mobile phone users even more likely to trust and disseminate these messages. Against this backdrop, low-cost, convenient, and highly efficient mobile communication contributes to the quasi-mass communication of censored or mobilizing messages within social networks within a short time, making it possible for this kind of message to reach as many people as possible, as soon as possible. The rapid dissemination of censored or mobilizing messages thus accumulates social experiences and underpins collective actions in the context of China.

Mobile device as multiple-media platform

Last but not least, mobile phones as multiple-media platforms provide an enriched and flexible way of creating and disseminating unofficial and anti-authority messages. The most common and convenient means include voice calls, group texting, and picture messaging. These technological features empower ordinary citizens, offering each and every mobile phone user the basic resources to be a citizen journalist. Frequently, startling images or video captured by civilians with the camera on their mobile phones on the scene of, for instance, forced demolition or popular protests, have been uploaded and viewed by the people of China and the world via Weibo, Chinese microblogging websites, YouTube, and even mainstream media. Both the ease of creating content and the ease of sharing it with local and global audiences through mobile media leave the traditional mass media no longer the sole gatekeeper over what the public knows.


To sum up, the role of the mobile phone as a communications tool is especially meaningful in China where citizens previously had little and sometimes even no opportunity for unconstrained expression and communication. Although the mobile phone is not a unique “weapon” in the struggle for popular resistance, protests, and even democratization, its strength lies in its ability to penetrate every corner and moment of the lives of the vast, overwhelming majority of Chinese people. How to understand the emerging role of mobile phone in citizenry engagement and contentious politics in contemporary China? The answer will not just diversify our understandings of the role of mobile phone in Chinese society, but also contribute to contemporary research on political protest and digital democracy by emphasizing the integration of mobile communication technologies into discussions of contentious politics.


(The text has been adapted from “8.1 The Mobile Phone as ‘the Weapons of the Weak’” in my Ph.D. dissertation Mobilized by Mobile Media: How Chinese people use mobile phones to change politics and democracy (University of Copenhagen, 2013) and “The Emerging Role of Mobile Phone in China’s Contentious Politics” (forthcoming, la Vie des Idées (in French) & Books and Ideas (in English))

Also see, Liu, J. (2013). Mobile Communication, Popular Protests and Citizenship in China, Modern Asian Studies, 47.3 (May Issue).

February 21, 2013

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