Is TikTok a public sphere for democracy in China? A Political Economy Approach


  • Hui Lin King's College London



TikTok, public sphere, political economy, video users, participation


This study aims to investigate whether TikTok can be regarded as a new public sphere for democracy in the Chinese media context. Previous studies focused on the investigation of Weibo (a Chinese counterpart of Twitter) as a public sphere. However, Jia and Han (2020) argue that Weibo is not an online space for public discussion anymore but a platform for marketing and advertising. With the commercialization of social media, plenty of researchers paid attention to TikTok’s commodification and its commercial implications, while research on the role of TikTok as a public sphere is still limited. By adopting theoretical frameworks from “public sphere” and “political economy”, this study questions: 1) why users participate in public issues on TikTok? 2) how do citizens use TikTok to participate online? 3) does TikTok contribute to the creation of a public sphere? The empirical method, 20 semi-structured interviews around China, is utilized to understand citizens’ views and participation behavior. This study argues that the reason why users participate in public issues on TikTok is entertainment. Users are attracted by the platform which offers creative and humorous videos to disseminate public information. Getting interested in its entertainment feature, users utilize TikTok to view pubic-related videos. According to respondents of the interview, 18 out of 20 users indicate they seldom use the “search button” or “create button” on TikTok, rather, they merely browse videos there. In this sense, TikTok is not a public sphere because of lacking critical interactions. In contrast to Habermas’s claim that social media is a “pseudo-public sphere” (Habermas, 1989), this study describes TikTok as a “limited public sphere” which do, to some extent, generate public discussions and debates about socio-political issues directly or indirectly. Nevertheless, the social impact of this sphere is restricted, that is, online public engagement is confined to liking, sharing, and short commenting lacking in critical discussions, and is ineffective in transferring online political engagement to offline participation (Kim and Ellison, 2021). Thus, TikTok facilitates citizens’ political engagement superficially and it is harder for that engagement to have any subversive impact on democracy.