Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Robert T. Craig

Second Advisor

Karen Tracy

Third Advisor

David Boromisza-Habashi

Fourth Advisor

Timothy Weston

Fifth Advisor

Leah Sprain


Over the course of two decades, scholars from different disciplines have documented a wide range of Internet-mediated social change in China, from the emergence of new social formations in terms of identity and collective activities to a changing “social contract” between the state and society. Previous scholarly work has shed considerable light on the social and political implications of the Chinese Internet, but little attention has been paid to the meaningfulness of these societal transformations from the point of view of the people who are actually living through them. In other words, the question of how Chinese people themselves make sense of Internet-mediated social change is under-researched, especially with respect to how people in China interpret what it means to be an ordinary Chinese and how they relate to the ruling state in a digital environment. Drawing upon a database consisting of 112 posts in a Chinese BBS forum, video recordings (posted online) of face-to-face interactions and a local TV news program, and approximately 50,000 online comments from two case studies, this dissertation investigates how people in China make sense of and respond to Internet-mediated social transformations in the political realm. Adopting a method of discourse analysis–membership categorization analysis, this investigation foregrounds Chinese speakers’ meaning making practices in constructing memberships of citizenship and negotiating a changing official-citizen relationship within society. It concludes that speakers strategically invoke six distinctive but overlapping membership categories (namely, the common folk, the people, citizen, shitizen, netizen, and the fifty-cent) as discursive resources to communicate their sense of being (a Chinese citizen), acting (in relation to protesting against corrupt officials and creating socio-political change), relating (to the government and officials), feeling (in response to their marginalization and disenfranchisement in society), and dwelling (in a single party state).