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Subject: AEJ 05 TaiZ INTL Media Transformation, Press Freedom and Fragmented Authoritarianism: Towards a New Theoretical Perspective in Understanding Chinese Press System in the Reform Era
From: Elliott Parker <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 5 Feb 2006 13:17:32 -0500

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This paper was presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and
Mass Communication in San Antonio, Texas August 2005.
         If you have questions about this paper, please contact the author
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(Feb 2006)
Thank you.
Elliott Parker

Media Transformation, Press Freedom and Fragmented Authoritarianism: 
Towards a New Theoretical Perspective in Understanding Chinese Press 
System in the Reform Era

Zixue Tai

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.[1] The debate was 
Deng's crusade against Mao's destructive past and his exploration for 
China's future.
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.[2] 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.[3] 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,[4] Disney,[5] Viacom, Time Warner, News Corp. and Sony,[6] 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 scholars.

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 
reform era.
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 
Merrill, 1995).
	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 
frequently occur.
	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 
authoritarianism" model.
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 
hierarchical structure.
	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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.

Concluding Remarks
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
National Media
Ministry of Propaganda
Other Ministries
Provincial Party Committee
National Government

Provincial Government
Chinese Communist Party

Commercial Press
Party Institutional Media (Local)
Local Government
Local CPC Committee
Party Institutional Media
Commercial Press

1  State Administration of Radio, Film and Television
2 General Administration of Press and Publication

[1]  "Past Events in China, No. 8: The Criterion of Truth Debate in 
1978." Available at 
(Accessed in March 10, 2005).
[2]  "Mainland Turning Overseas Leaf on Publication Distribution." 
Financial Times Business Daily Update, January 14, 2003. "Press Law 
won't be Passed Recently, Foreign Capital will be Permitted in 
Publication Distribution by Year's End." China News Agency news 
release, November 16, 2002.
[3]  "Listing Heralds Quick Media Reforms." Financial Times Global 
News Wire, December 22, 2004.
[4]  "CNBC Asia and SMG Seal Alliance on Content and Revenue." South 
China Morning Post, April 11, 2003.
[5]  "China Media Market Lures Disney." South China Morning Post, 
April 23, 2004.
[6]  "Foreign Investor Giants Enter Domestic TV Market." Beijing 
Morning Post, November 30, 2004; "China's Media Prepare to Channel 
International Resources." Financial Times Asia Edition, November 15, 2004.
[7]  See the AP story "Fake Milk Powder Causes Baby Death" on June 9, 
2004 for a summary (Available at 
Most major Chinese news sites have special coverage (hot topic) 
sections: for example, Eastern Net 
Southern Net 
(,  Renmin Wang 
[8]  See the special coverage section on at: (Accessed on March 20, 2005).
[9]  A special coverage of the Huang Jing case can be found at, at: 
(Accessed on March 20, 2005), as well as other major portal sites.

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