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Media Transformation, Press Freedom and Fragmented Authoritarianism:
Towards a New Theoretical Perspective in Understanding Chinese Press
System in the Reform Era
Zixue Tai, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Mass
Communications at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
Address all correspondence to: Department of Mass Communications,
Campus Box 1775, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville,
Edwardsville, IL 62026.
Phone: (618) 650-2219
Fax: (618) 650-3716
Email: [log in to unmask]
Media Transformation, Press Freedom and Fragmented Authoritarianism:
Towards a New Theoretical Perspective in Understanding Chinese Press
System in the Reform Era
Decades of market-oriented reform have led to an expansion of free
space enjoyed by the Chinese media, and the once propagandist press
has taken on new audience-pleasing roles in Chinese society.
Meanwhile, there still exists state control in various manifestations
and at different levels. While this contradictory nature of the
current Chinese press system has been a major focus of scholarship,
what lacks is the theoretical thrust and explanatory power of a
viable conceptual framework. This paper proposes the theoretical
model of fragmented authoritarianism to understand the ongoing
Chinese media transformation, and demonstrates through specific cases
the utility of this model.
Media Transformation, Press Freedom and Fragmented Authoritarianism:
Towards a New Theoretical Perspective in Understanding Chinese Press
System in the Reform Era
China's reform and open-door policy since 1978 has brought about
enormous changes to the country, and mass media, as an indispensable
component of society, have not only contributed to this process but
also been part of this broad reform initiative. As mass media have
become more and more driven by economic imperatives from the market
rather than ideological dogmas from the state, fundamental ongoing
reconfigurations of political, economic and social forces in the
country's media sector have created a fragmented, decentralized and
semi-independent press system that has to tango between state demand
and market need.
Within this broad context, it is crucial for media scholars to
understand this nature of media transformation in China. As Donalt
(2003: 229) points out, "Chinese and Asian regional media are still
not fully acknowledged in the thinking of media and communications
scholars in the Anglophone societies of Australia, the United Kingdom
and significant parts of the Academy in the USA." The case of China
is immensely pertinent for global media studies because the issues
China has been tackling are exemplary of those faced by a great
number of countries which are also in the process of media reforms in
an era of internationalization and globalization.
There is a growing body of scholarly literature trying to comprehend
the seemingly contradictory, and even sometime confusing, patterns of
transmutation of media content, industrial structure and official
policy formation in the domain of Chinese mass media over the last
decades. What is lacking, however, is a tenable conceptual framework
that can help us make sense of not only what has been happening but
also why things are the way they are. To achieve that, this paper
contends that the theoretical perspective of fragmented
authoritarianism, which has been primarily used to examine
contemporary Chinese politics, offers unique insight in understanding
the transformed Chinese press system in the reform era.
Media Development in China: A Historical Overview
An overview of the evolution of China's modern media system is
necessary to put things in perspective. Historically, China's
glorious past had its share of contribution to the early days of
world mass communication. Of the three precursors to the print
medium, namely, ink, paper and printing technology, Green (2003: 272)
notes, "China was where both ink and paper were first pioneered and
where the first experiments with printing took place." Additionally,
China also published the world's first newspaper. However, instead of
publishing information for the general populace, the earliest
newspaper was exclusively used as a Court gazette to disseminate
imperial edicts and other official information to bureaucrats (Moses
and Crispin, 1978). Alongside the above inventions, China also made
another everlasting contribution to world journalism: government
censorship and control of ideas and their dissemination through the
printed media (H. Chan, 1993; Green, 2003).
Printed media of mass communication in the modern sense started to
take shape in China at the turn of the 20th century, triggered by a
steady influx of foreign ideas and technologies, increased contact
with the outside, especially the Western world, and the rising
popular demand for change. Yet the unsettling political situation
during this tumultuous era made it impossible for any kind of press
system to take root in China (Fang, 1981; Li, 1985). However, the
idealism and passion that many journalistic practitioners in this era
and their practice to use rational and responsible journalism as a
weapon to fight for a new society still remain a constant source of
inspiration for today's journalists in China (de Burgh, 2003).
The direct predecessor of Chinese journalism today was put in place
in 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), under the supreme
command of Mao Tze-tung, took over China from the Nationalist
government of Chiang Kai-she and established a totalitarian
government ruled by a single party. The CCP's press philosophy was
deeply grounded in the orthodox Marxist-Leninist doctrines and the
government maintained a monopolistic control over mass media, which
were used "as agitator, propagandist, organizer" (Siebert, Peterson
and Schramm, 1956) for ideological campaigns and mass movements, and
all forms of communication, such as radio and newspapers, banner
posters, posted announcements, study groups, street lecturers, and
other channels, were mobilized to indoctrinate the Chinese people in
cities, towns, and the remote countryside in an effort to solidify
rule of the country by the Communist Party (Chu, 1977; Markham, 1967;
for Mao Tze-tung's theoretical deliberation about the role of mass
media in the communist system, see Mao, 2000). As a result, any
opposing voice and dissension was not tolerated and the media were
simply propaganda tools to unify public opinion in support of
whatever the Party said or did.
The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which was
staged on the direct order of Mao in order to purge dissenting
members (or the so-called Rightists) in the Party and bureaucracy and
to strengthen Mao's absolute hold on power, wreaked havoc in the
country and caused disastrous consequences for the already feeble
Chinese society. Millions of intellectuals, Party members, and common
Chinese citizens were persecuted for their opinions and beliefs, and
public opinion was highly unified into one—that of the highest
authority (i.e., Mao himself) in China. Mass media became Mao's mass
mobilization machine to organize zealous "Red Guards" into mob
violence and factious fights throughout the nation, and social groups
were marginalized and sidelined in the social structure.
Mao's death in 1976 put Deng Xiaoping at the helm of China's new
generation of leadership, who, upon consolidating his grip on power,
immediately shifted the Party's strategic focus from political
campaigns to economic reform and openness in 1978. It is worth noting
that the first spark of reform was lit by the mass media—to be more
exact, a debate piece titled "Practice is the sole criterion to test
truth," published by the Beijing-based Guangming Daily in May 1978,
and won the direct nodding of Deng himself, who instructed mass media
in China to carry a national debate on this issue. The debate was
Deng's crusade against Mao's destructive past and his exploration for
Since then, Chinese media have been caught in a protracted struggle
between the state and the market (e.g., Chan, 1994; Chu, 1994; Hao,
Huang and Zhang, 1998; Pei, 1994), or to use Yuezhi Zhao's apt
summarization, between "the Party line and the bottom line" (Zhao,
1998; see also FlorCruz, 1999). In summarizing major developments in
China's media reform from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Li
Liangrong, a leading journalism scholar in China, notes five basic
phases (Li, 1995). Phase 1 (1979-1982) was the rectification period,
when major national debates were conducted centering around the
ignominious role of mass media in the Cultural Revolution and calls
were made to restore truthfulness as the central element of news.
Phase 2 (1983-1986) was the importation of the concept of information
into journalist practices, thus challenging the established view of
mass media only serving as mouthpiece of the Party and urging the new
role of journalism to provide information to the public. Phase 3
(1987 to first half of 1989) was the perhaps the most radical era,
which was marked by the rising demand for press freedom and the
raising of such controversial issues as media supervision of
government and transparency of news report. This movement was
curtailed by the bloody massacre of student protestors in Tiananmen
Square on June 4, 1989. Phase 4 (second half of 1989 to 1991) was one
of reflection by mass media in China, which was marked by tightened
control by the Party and forced ideological cleansing of reporters;
all journalists were told that they must uphold the leadership of the
Chinese Communist Party. Phase 5 (1992 onward), propelled by Deng
Xiaoping's Southern Inspection Tour in which he called for bolder
reform efforts, was marked by further marketization of the mass media
industry. One prominent change during this period was the
institutionalization of entrepreneurial management mechanisms in
China's once state-supported mass media. Li's characterization of
China's mass media reform ends in the mid-1990s, and should be
succeeded by the latest phase, which started in the early 21st
century, and was marked by the influx of overseas media conglomerates
into the Chinese media market.
On December 11, 2001, after 15 years of multiple rounds of global
negotiations, China officially became the 143rd member of the World
Trade Organization (WTO), signaling the start of a new stage of
China's media reform in the new millennium. Conditions on China's WTO
entry include further opening of the telecommunications sector and
the media market to foreign capital. One of China's commitments for
the WTO deal was to allow foreign investors to engage in the
distribution of books, newspapers and magazines within three years
after the WTO accession. By the end of 2002, overseas media groups,
including Murdoch's News Corp., International Data Group (IDG), and a
few Hong Kong-based media enterprises, started to enter China's then
66 billion yuan (approximately US $8 billion) publication
distribution market. Another significant step as an indication of
the government's resolution to further push the media to the market
was the debut of the Beijing Youth Daily Group, the second largest
newspaper group in the mainland, on the Hong Kong stock exchange on
December 22, 2004. Equally important is the recent move to allow
foreign media companies gain access to media content distribution and
production within China. Among these foreign media giants are
CNBC, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, News Corp. and Sony, all
of which have set up production ventures in the country.
Granted, there are still serious limitations on the admission of
overseas media companies to the Chinese market, and foreign
involvement is still banned in news production. Nonetheless, there is
no question that the inflow of foreign capital into China's media
market is going to reconfigure the Chinese media industry and
redefine the government's effort at media liberalization in the years
to come. Its long-term effect warrants closer scrutiny among China
Media Marketization, State Control and Press Freedom
Economic liberalization and the introduction of a Western-style
market economy in China have allowed Chinese people to enjoy a level
of material prosperity that was hard to dream about in Mao's era. As
the average citizens today enjoy an unprecedented degree of freedom
to choose what to do and where to live, and as they become less and
less dependent on the state bureaucracy in their everyday life,
people have broken away from state-orchestrated ideological
indoctrination by the mass media and are increasingly demanding for
information that is directly relevant and useful to them.
Marketization of the media sector fosters a brand-new media-audience
relationship and has led the media to be more responsive to audience
needs and demands. As Zhang (2000) observes, media reform in the past
decades has led to a historical shift of both the ideological and
professional domains of Chinese journalism from the "Party-masses
model" in Mao's era to the "market-audience" conceptual model in the
The fundamental transformation in the Chinese media landscape from a
traditional emphasis on state propaganda to a prominent role of the
audience is no small matter in understanding the contemporary Chinese
media system. The state's practice of clinging on to the old ideology
of media control on one hand and introducing market mechanism in the
media sector on the other has inevitably created contradictions that
are not easy to tackle for all parties involved. As a result, the
Chinese media are caught in a protracted tug-of-war between two
masters, the Party and the audience (Chan, 1993; Polumbaum, 1990),
and are facing the insurmountable task of pleasing both.
Indeed, the "ambiguities and contradictions" (Lee, 1994) in the
consequence of this evolving relationship between state control and
economic reform has been much of the focus of scholarship concerning
China's media in the reform era. As noted by Zhao (2000: 21-22): "The
commercialization of the press opened some spaces, enabled a degree
of organizational autonomy, and conferred limited sovereignty to its
consumers. In this sense, it has helped to liberate the press from
the state … The other side of this transformation, though, is the
institutionalization of new control mechanisms in the forms of
advertising pressure, bias toward affluent consumers in the urban and
coastal areas, clientelist relationship with business and political
sources, and a new regime of labor discipline in the newsrooms." As a
direct result of media commercialization and economic liberalization,
audience weighs in heavily as a crucial factor in the operation of
media business, and the media can no longer afford to ignore public
information demand and interest when eyeballs and circulation define
the success and failure of a media enterprise.
Starting in the 1990s, a set of new administrative measures to
further push the media to the market were adopted by the state to cut
government subsidies to most media outlets except for a handful of
key official media organizations, such as People's Daily, the major
official newspaper of the CCP, and Qi Shi (Seek Truth), the principal
theoretical frontline magazine. This means that achieving financial
self-reliance has become the key strategy of survival in the market,
and that "maximization of profits within the ideological confines"
has become the principal goal of media organizations (Guo and Chen,
1997: 100). This led to a proliferation of mass-appeal publications
featuring market-driven sensationalism (Guo and Chen, 1997) and soft
news and non-propagandist information (Chen and Lee, 1998) in the
print media, and also caused the emergence of what Zhao Bin calls
"unintended cultural pluralism" in which light-hearted popular
entertainment becomes the dominating programming genre on the
television screen while official propaganda ideologies are replaced
by the logics of pragmatism and consumerism in television journalism
(Zhao, 1999; see also Hong, 1998; Huang, 1994). This trend of
spreading market competition in the juxtaposition of Party control is
described as "media populism" by Kevin Latham (2000).
At the same time, decades of marketization drive have also cultivated
an emerging "professional culture" among media institutions and
practicing journalists in search of new strategies to deal with state
control and to supply information in accordance with audience
interest (Pan, 2000; Polumbaum, 1990; Zhang, 2000). A parallel
development is that audience members in China "have liberated
themselves from the yoke of the seemingly powerful medium of official
propaganda television" and have creatively turned television use to
meet individualized needs and desires (Zhong, 2003: 245). The study
of a closed circuit community cable system in the Chinese town of
Jianglu by Yu and Sears (1996) also testifies to that claim.
Scholars have invariably noted the expanding free space that Chinese
media have started to enjoy as a result of decades of marketization
efforts in the wake of declining state control over certain areas of
media content. Some of the ongoing changes in China's "mediasphere"
as called by Donald, Keane and Yin (2002) – such as improved access,
proliferation of information, decentralization of media control –
have not only democratized access to a variety of sources of
information, but they have also cultivated a new way of life and a
new ideological formation among Chinese audience.
An emerging pattern is that the government has been quite tolerant
with programs that are not directly related to political news and do
not challenge the authority of the Party rule (Mu, 2004), and that
"Chinese media producers have much greater latitude in subject matter
and approach, and Chinese consumers face far broader informational
choices and interpretive possibilities than ever before" (Polumbaum,
2001: 271). Lynch (2000) demonstrates that media reform has caused
the Chinese state to lose a significant degree of control over
thought work and the management of propagandistic communications in
Chinese society. Huang's case study of the Chengdu Business News, one
of the many mushrooming highly commercialized semi-independent "city
newspapers," is a perfect reflection of the ongoing structural and
operational changes in Chinese media (Huang, 2000). This changing
nature of Chinese media is also noted by Li, who concludes that "the
Chinese media have much more freedom and 'space' than before to
pursue their professional goals and meet the needs of the audience.
Unlike the previous role as a mere government mouthpiece, it can be
argued that the media have now become the voice for both the
party-government and the public" (Li, 2002: 29).
Another significant development in Chinese journalism is the rise of
investigative journalism as "a product of the political necessity of
the central Party leadership facing mounting social pressures and a
corrupt bureaucracy over which it no longer has effective control,
the commercialized media's need for audience credibility and the
commitment of reform-minded professional journalists" (Zhou [Zhao],
2000: 592). The most popular TV program that focuses on investigative
report is Jiaodian Fangtan (Focal Points) on China Central Television
(CCTV), China's only national television station, which broadcasts
daily at prime time and attracts a daily audience of 300 million (A.
Chan, 2002). The program exposes official corruption, discovers fake
pharmaceuticals, criticizes bureaucratic inefficiency, and unearths
all kinds of social ills that the average Chinese citizens hate. Top
Chinese leaders are said to be regular viewers of this program and
often demand official actions from local leaders to solve specific
problems aired on the program (A. Chan, 2002; Li, 2002). As Zhan and
Zhao (2002) point out, Focal Point is just one of many existing
popular investigative programs that serve a supervisory role over
government and society.
Granting of more freedom and introduction of a limited, or "friendly"
competition mechanism, however, do not mean that the Chinese
government has given up its effort of media control. As Weber points
out, "the Government's reluctance to open the door to foreign and
cross-media ownership and the maintenance of its strong regulatory
line on foreign programming and thus management of culture, continue
to perpetuate the control and propaganda modalities—albeit cloaked in
the rhetoric of a competitive domestic structure" (2002: 75). The
subtle change in the government's approach in effecting control over
the media is characterized by Chan as a pragmatic shift "from
propaganda to hegemony," which resorts to "leadership, not
dictatorship," or "the moral and intellectual leadership of the
Party" to produce people's consent (J. Chan, 2002: 50). The expansion
of freedom for the Chinese media on one hand and the existence of
significant limitations over media performance from the state on the
other are called "bird-caged press freedom" by Chen and Chan (1998) –
the mass media is free to fly, as long as it is within the allowed
space designated by the authorities.
The Theoretical Perspective of Fragmented Authoritarianism
Although there is an abundance of scholarship on the transforming
Chinese media system and the dynamics of Chinese journalism in the
reform era, it should be obvious from the above review that what is
lacking in current research is a systematic conceptual framework that
can help illuminate the entangling puzzles in China's media
landscape. While descriptive and narrative works can tell us what has
been happening in the process of the Chinese media transformation, a
theoretical framework serves as a valuable starting point for us to
make sense of why things are the way they are.
For decades, the Four Theories of the Press proposed by Siebert,
Peterson and Schramm (1956) had been employed as the major analytical
framework to describe world communication systems, and Schramm's
Soviet Communist model had served as a major prototype in scholarly
discussions of China's media system. As many scholars have noted,
because the Four Theories of the Press prescribe rather than describe
existing press systems, they tried to impose a static view and
offered limited perspectives on a rather complicated set of evolving
interactions among political, social, professional and economic
factors (e.g., Akhavan-Majid & Wolf, 1991; Merrill & Lowenstein,
1971; Nerone, 1995; Picard, 1985). In particular, the demise of
communism in Eastern Europe and the dramatic transformation in global
communication systems have essentially annulled the explanatory power
of this outdated framework. In the case of China, massive changes in
the Chinese mass media during the reform era have made Schramm's
Soviet model obsolete to understand China's transformed media system
(e.g., Chang et al., 1993; Huang, 2003). Consequently, few scholars
are still sticking to this label in discussing China's press system
(however, an exception can be found in the popular textbook edited by
In the face of ascending need for new perspectives, a few scholars
have tried to propose alternative theoretical models in shedding new
light on China's media transformation. For example, Chengju Huang
suggests a "transitional media approach" which "views human
communication as a history of transition and makes change and
adaptation its primary adaptation" (Huang, 2003: 454). A transitional
approach is better than Schramm's normative model, Huang argues,
because it "attempts to revisit or balance the normative media
approach by questioning its theoretical sufficiency in
conceptualizing the changing media systems in the real world" (p.
455). Although Huang's transitional model is fluid rather than
static, it is limited in both its theoretical thrust and its
practical usefulness for the claimed purpose of understanding today's
Chinese media system. There is no question that all media systems are
transitional one way or another; what is needed is a perspective to
capture the outstanding features of the transitional nature of
Chinese media. This is precisely where Huang's model fails. In
another attempt, Akhavan-Majid proposes a new analytical framework
that pays particular attention to "the unique dynamics of interaction
between the Chinese state and non-state actors, and the systematic
factors that have shaped them" (2004: 564). Although official
strategies in China's media reform have been to gradually shift media
organizations from state-run sectors to non-state, market-oriented
sectors, the problem remains that state actors and non-state actors
are often highly interwoven in Chinese polity and the distinction
between the two may not be as clear-cut as Akhavan-Majid suggests.
Even though the state has encouraged media enterprises to be run
independently in financial terms, interference from national and
local governments in managerial and operational affairs still
As McChesney (2004) argues, mass media cannot be disconnected from
the political system in which it resides. This holds true in all
media systems. In order to gain a better understanding of the
changing nature of state control and media transformation in China,
it is necessary here to consider the current Chinese political system
and its role in defining the triangular relationships of the media,
the society and the state in the country today. One useful
perspective that may serve as a reference point is the "fragmented
After the Communist takeover of China in 1949, Mao Tse-tung
established a unitary totalitarian state mechanism partly through his
charisma and partly through his rule of terror. All policies were
made by the top echelon of the power hierarchy controlled by a few
political elites, and they were then implemented from the top-down
with a high level of compliance from all levels of government. Lower
level officials could only comply fully with the political priorities
and orders set by the central elites and were not allowed to question
or challenge in any way. Mass media became part of the official arm
to issue top-down orders for mass movements, as pointed out earlier.
This is where Schramm's Soviet press model fits in well in Mao's era.
That monolithic totalitarian model in which the all-powerful,
all-inclusive state could totally control all levels of government
bureaucracies through a set of uniform policies is no longer true of
today's political system in China. Through over two decades of
China's economic reform and openness, what has been emerging is a
"fragmented authoritarian" model in which the central authorities
still maintain certain levers of state control while local
authorities have successfully empowered themselves in securing their
own spheres of influence. In the transformation of China's economy
from a centrally-planned system to a market-based one, both local
government authorities at the various levels and the various
ministries have been given the power to develop their specific policy
initiatives as long as they don't directly contradict the broad
guidelines set by the central authority. The gradual decentralization
of power is necessitated by the overriding objective of stimulating
economic growth in all sectors set by the late paramount leader Deng
Xiaoping, because pragmatically, an all-powerful central government
that controls every aspect of policy-making is ineffectual in
achieving economic development. As a result, interagency (such as
inter-provincial and inter-ministerial) bargaining and maneuvering
are common as each tries to promote its own interest (White, 1993).
Therefore, in the place of a unified dictatorship, what we have is a
diversified, multi-layered, and multi-level interrelated network of
authoritarian organizational structures.
"The fragmented authoritarianism model argues that the authority
below the very peak of the Chinese political system is fragmented and
disjointed. The fragmentation is structurally based and has been
enhanced by reform policies regarding procedures. The fragmentation,
moreover, grew increasingly pronounced under the reforms beginning in
the late 1970s …" (Lieberthal and Lampton, 1992: 8; see also
Lieberthal and Oksenberg, 1988). The most prominent change as a
result of this fragmented authoritarianism is that many powers that
were monopolized by the central government are gradually devolved to
the lower levels of government agencies in order to facilitate
decision-making and the functioning of the bureaucracy of the overall
In the process of turning the Chinese economy from an integrated,
state-owned and state-controlled one in the Mao era to one that is
market-based and export-oriented dominated by foreign and private
investment, a clear pattern started to emerge in the Chinese economic
landscape with a patchwork of a few major "independent kingdoms" by
the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Consequently, the power of the
central government to ensure compliance from all local authorities
has been declining, with the local governments having more edge in
bargaining during the policy decision-making process (Lampton, 1992).
Moreover, more economically advanced provinces or regions, such as
Shanghai and Guangdong, clearly have more impact on national
policy-formation. Meanwhile, in the zero-sum game of power-gouging
and in the fierce competition for limited national and international
resources in each region's economic initiative, the incentives for
interagency cooperation between government organs are dwindling as
middle and low echelons of the hierarchical structure gain more autonomy.
In a more recent effort to explain the fragmented nature of Chinese
authoritarianism, Lieberthal notes:
Despite the highly authoritarian nature of China's political system,
actual authority is in most instances fragmented. There are numerous
reporting lines throughout the system –through the party, through the
government, to the territorial organs, and so forth …
The simple point is that the officials of any given office have a
number of bosses in different places … It becomes important in these
circumstances to determine which of these bosses has priority over
others. Typically, the Chinese cope with this in a minimal way by
indicating that the primary leadership over a particular department
resides either on the vertical line (tiao) or with the horizontal
piece (kuai) … The one with priority has what is termed a "leadership
relationship" (lingdao guanxi) with the department in question, while
the other one has a nonbinding "professional relationship" (yewu
guanxi) with it (2004: 187).
Fragmented Authoritarianism and the Chinese Media
Most fragmented authoritarianism literature has focused on its impact
on economic decision-making in the Chinese bureaucracy. Yet the
transformation of Chinese politics from the full-scale totalitarian
system to the fragmented authoritarianism model has significant
implications for the understanding of Chinese mass media. In Mao's
totalitarian China, mass media were first and foremost propaganda
tools for the Party, and all media were of one voice from a top-down
mass propaganda approach in which orders from the central authority
were uniformly followed by all; all media were tightly controlled by
propaganda bureaus at the different levels of the government and no
deviants were tolerated. Mass media got funded as part of the
state-controlled economy, and media workers were ranked as government
In the last decade or so of the reform era, fundamental changes have
taken place in China's media industry. As the mass media have been
increasingly commercialized, market forces, instead of Party
directives, have become the primary concern for media executives
because circulation and advertising revenue constitute the lifeline
for the media in this environment, as revealed in a growing body of
literature partly reviewed above. Although this does not mean that
government orders can be totally ignored, administrative
fragmentation and changing market conditions have caused the state to
lose a significant degree of content control and day-to-day
management of the mass media (Lynch, 2000). A fragmented
authoritarian state allows more breathing room and more autonomy for
the media, which can in turn vigorously pursue certain hot issues,
especially non-political ones that directly affect people's everyday
life, or political issues that do not directly challenge the Party's
legitimacy and authority.
(Figure 1 About Here)
The nature of networked relationships within China's media system is
graphically represented in Figure 1. Solid lines stand for direct
leadership and dotted lines mean indirect authority. The mixed type,
which uses a combination of dotted and solid lines, illustrates the
special relation that exists between the Ministry of Propaganda and
various media organizations at the provincial and local level. The
Ministry of Propaganda is the powerful branch of the Chinese
Communist Party that is in charge of ideological policy making at the
national level. These policies will most likely have an impact on all
media outlets; however, the Ministry of Propaganda does not exercise
direct control over provincial and local media organizations.
There is an unmistakable hierarchy in the structural relationships
displayed in the figure. The CCP is the single monopoly ruling party
in the country, and runs the nation through controlling government
agencies at the national and local level. Therefore, no media
organization is allowed to challenge the legitimacy and the ideology
of the Party.
Besides the Ministry of Propaganda, the other two national
bureaucracies that are directly related to mass media policy making
are the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT)
and the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP). The
difference is that the Ministry of Propaganda is in charge of
ideological path-directing, while the SARFT and the GAPP make
administrative decisions regarding broadcasting and print media
respectively. For example, all media organizations need to be
licensed by the SARFT (for broadcasters) and the GAPP (for print
publications) on behalf of the state. Yet in term of everyday
operations, the SARFT and the GAPP do not directly impact media
outlets as much as the Ministry of Propaganda, which specifically
specifies the rule of the game in terms of content production. The
Ministry of Propaganda, however, has its center of control with the
national media, such as People's Daily, CCTV, and Xinhua News Agency.
Thus publications that are further away from the Ministry, such as
commercial press and metropolitan papers, may from time to time show
more resilience of resistance to Party ideological lines than the
Beijing-based national media.
Chen and Chan (1998) argue for a "central-peripheral disjunction" in
China's media system, because, they contend, "the degree of press
freedom is negatively related to the distance between media and the
center of political power. The further away media workers are from
central political power, the greater their freedom" (p. 6470). This
is nonetheless not necessarily the case. Because there is no
hierarchical leadership connection between the national media and the
various ministries/provinces, the national media have greater freedom
to exercise their supervisory role over these bureaucracies for
possible malpractices. This is exactly what the most popular
television investigative program, Focal Point (Jiaodian Fangtan), has
been doing over the years (Chan, 2002; Li, 2002; Zhou [Zhao], 2000).
For this reason, reporters from the national media often command awe
from local officials for fear that these reporters may dig something
out that is not favorable to the officials and thus curtail their
officialdom. It is not uncommon for local bureaucrats to bribe
national reporters for holding off certain stories that do not
project them in a favorable light. In this sense, national media have
more, not less freedom, to expose official wrongdoing at the local
level precisely because they are closer to the central authority and
further away from the local bureaucracies, and there can be no direct
retaliation from these officials.
In the Chinese bureaucracy, the Party organs assume more power and
rank higher than corresponding government agencies. Thus the
provincial Party secretary has more power than the provincial
governor. National and local Party committees operate their own
"Party Institutional Press," which directly fulfill the propaganda
role for their tasks. The People's Daily is the most powerful party
institutional press, and belongs to the CCP Central Committee. Party
institutional press is therefore more ideological in nature, and is
under the tight control of the CCP bureaucracies. The more
independent, market-oriented commercial press, on the other hand,
enjoys a more relaxed environment, and has more freedom to run a
variety of media content (e.g., Huang, 2000; Polumbaum, 2001).
There is also a noticeable pattern with mass media at the provincial
level. Because there is no leadership relationship between mass media
in one province and the political administrative power in another,
there are no qualms on the part of media professionals from one
province to pursue sensitive issues in another province. The same is
also true for reporters from provincial media when dealing with
issues in relation to the local (sub-provincial) level.
A typical example is the recent media crusade against bogus or
low-quality milk powder, which led to deaths and malnutrition
problems among babies in poor farming areas who drank the formula.
Tenacious follow-up by the conventional and online Chinese media on
this issue uncovered multiple cases involving numerous brands
throughout the nation, which led to an official crackdown that
resulted in the banning of sales of over 50 brands of infant
formulas, the firing of government officials and prosecution of those
that were involved in the production and distribution of the
poisonous milk powder. In cases like this one, the media clearly
have assumed a watchdog role that alerts people to malpractice of
business interests and negligence of local official duties.
Fragmented authoritarianism in the political system also means that
media have fewer masters directly over them and that they can focus
more on serving the audience. In the Chinese bureaucratic hierarchy,
the propaganda bureau at each level of the government is the most
immediate official agency in charge of local media. Therefore, media
in one province or city often have no hesitation in picking up
negative news stories from another province or city which have no
direct authority over them; and the few national media, such as CCTV
and People's Daily as well as the official Xinhua News Agency, which
directly report to the central government, have no qualms in exposing
official corruption or incompetence at the local levels. Thus in the
highly publicized case of 2003 mentioned in the Introduction, Liu
Yong, a ringleader in Shenyang, a major industrial city in China's
northeastern Liaoning Province, who was suspected of close
connections with corrupt local officials, was retried by the Supreme
People's Court and his sentence was changed from life imprisonment to
death, largely due to aggressive coverage and investigation by media
from Beijing and other parts of China as well as the Internet media,
not the local media. And when Huang Jing, a 21-year-old middle
school teacher in Xiangtan city of Hunan province, died suspiciously
in her dorm in early 2003 and the only suspect, her ex-boy friend who
was the son of a high-ranking local official, was exonerated by local
law enforcement after crucial evidence had been tampered with, it was
the national media as well as media from neighboring provinces,
together with the online media, that kept the case alive by
challenging authorities to pursue the investigation. This pattern
of media behavior in China is immediately noticeable in the coverage
of many similar issues over the past decade in the country.
Another closely-related theoretical model that explains well media
liberalization attempts in China is Dali Yang's (1997) dynamics of
competitive liberalization. In examining local governments'
economically liberalizing initiatives, Yang argues that "each local
government has strong incentives to be the first to pursue policies
of liberalization once liberalization is deemed politically
desirable" (Yang, 1997: 45). This is equally true for the media
organizations, which have to compete with each other for a limited
market. There is a lot to be gained to be the first to liberalize,
both economically and contentwise, and there is much to lose if one
lags behind this tide, if this is perceived to be the desirable
course of action. If one has to err in a cutthroat market, one is
more likely to choose to err on the state side rather than the market
side. That accounts for the increasingly observable trend of content
liberalization among the Chinese media.
China's media reform has been a dilemma in many manifestations.
Although there has been no lack of scholarly works that try to
describe the changing nature of interaction of the market, the state
and the mass media in China, the mounting challenge that media
scholars face is to search for an analytical framework that can add
theoretical thrust and explanatory power to unravel the puzzles in
the dynamics of China's media reform. This paper started out first
with a historical examination of the transformation of the Chinese
press system from a state-command system to a market-oriented one,
and reviewed prevalent scholarship in research on contemporary
Chinese media. Then it proposes the conceptual framework of
fragmented authoritarianism to understand the evolving nature of
China's media reform and to explain the milieu of contradictions and
confusions in the Chinese media landscape.
The theoretical model of fragmented authoritarianism is particularly
helpful in understanding the changing nature of the role of mass
media in Chinese society and the implications for government control
of information. Because the media have gained a substantial space of
freedom as a result of the marketization effort in the reform era,
mass media have become more responsive to the concerns of everyday
citizens and may actively pursue hot issues. All this, however,
happens within confined territories and within permitted terrains of
a fragmented authoritarian network of relationships. While mass media
have been vigorously conducting investigative reports to expose
official corruption and social malpractices, this is done within
well-orchestrated domains. Mass media rarely, if ever, challenge the
powers that are directly above them, but they are relentlessly
tenacious in uncovering negative stories in relation to bureaucracies
that have no direct leadership relation with them. This dual nature
of the Chinese press system is explained well by the fragmented
authoritarianism model, as evidenced from the few cases listed in the paper.
The utility of a theoretical model lies in its applicability to a
multitude of cases across a wide spectrum of scenarios. Therefore,
the conceptual framework of fragmented authoritarianism has to stand
the test of a larger number of cases and instances with a variety of
Chinese media at different levels. This should be the direction of
future research in carrying this model forward in the theoretical and
practical analysis of the current Chinese press system.
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Figure 1: Fragmented Authoritarianism and the Chinese Media
Ministry of Propaganda
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Chinese Communist Party
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Most major Chinese news sites have special coverage (hot topic)
sections: for example, Eastern Net
(http://www.southcn.com/news/community/shzt/mp/), Renmin Wang
 See the special coverage section on Sina.com at:
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(Accessed on March 20, 2005), as well as other major portal sites.