Written by Rongbin Han.

To a large extent, the development of Chinese media, particularly critical media, depends on the interaction between market forces, state control, and the rise of social media. Though they have benefited from marketization, softer ideological constraints, and the rise of digital media platforms, Chinese media have to deal with the repercussions of these trends as well.

It is obvious that today’s Chinese media system has evolved way beyond a mutation of the Soviet model described by Fred S. Siebert in the Four Theories of the Press (Siebert 1956). Media commercialization has created opportunities for critical media, despite constant state control. In effect, the state has tolerated or even encouraged media criticism in the name of media supervision, which helps check its agents and maintain its legitimacy. Similarly, the spread of the Internet also facilitates critical journalism by providing alterative information sources and publication platforms for critical journalists and encouraging citizen disclosure of government scandals.

Since media commercialization and the spread of Internet have enabled a relatively free and independent media sphere, why has critical media so far failed to challenge the authoritarian regime in a fundamental way? One possible explanation is “resilient authoritarianism”, whereby the state is smart enough to adapt to new challenges, and has thus been able to maintain relatively effective control over the more commercialized media and the Internet. Yet, authoritarian resilience is not the whole story because the media-audience relationship is largely absent from the picture.

In a way, media commercialization and the Internet have produced similar effects on the media-audience relationship. With marketization, commercialized media ultimately need to compete with each other for audience share. The Internet has forced traditional media to compete with social media for audience. Thus, besides dealing with the state, critical media have to deal with the changing tastes of the Chinese population, which in itself is no mean task.

Clearly, the general pro-liberal inclination of critical media outlets (and professionals) like Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis has made them natural enemies of leftist intellectuals and general citizens who still cling to socialist ideologies to different degrees. Leftists and critical media may share some common ground, as both may be dissatisfied with the current regime. But they disagree on what the problems are and how to solve them. It is a pity that these two critical forces cannot join each other and form an alliance.

Critical media in China face more fundamental challenges than ideological antagonism with leftists. If the online expression is indicative, we can observe a trend of pro-liberal media outlets and professionals being defamed in recent years. On Tianya.cn, one of China’s most popular Internet forums, the term “presstitute” (jizhe, 妓者, press + prostitute) has been more and more frequently used since around 2008, often used to refer to journalists associated with pro-liberal media like Southern Weekend or Southern Metropolis.

Table 1: Mentions of “妓者” AND “南方” on Tianya.cn


Source: compiled by the author based on search results from google.com. Before 2008, there were 25 total mentions between 2004 and 2007.

The trend is alarming, especially since the defamation of critical media is not entirely driven by the state or ideological antagonists. First, critical media’s association with the West tends to drive away nationalistic citizens. Chinese citizens, particularly those with better education and diverse media sources, can be critical towards the state, particularly in online expression, yet many of them are also very nationalistic. When critical media embrace western journalistic professionalism and universal values, which is not surprising given the proliferation of the liberal media model, they often distance themselves from nationalistic audiences. For instance, in 2009, during his China visit, President Obama granted the only media interview opportunity to Southern Weekend. This was clearly a symbolic gesture from the U.S. government to pro-liberal and critical media in China, but it was perceived by many nationalistic Chinese as the U.S. rewarding its surrogates. With the Chinese state utilizing nationalism as one of its legitimacy sources, running against nationalism plays into the hands of the regime. The popularity of Global Times, which is affiliated to the party mouthpiece People’s Daily, is a telling example in this regard.

Figure 1: A Summary by Wise Netizens:


Source: http://bbs.m4.cn/thread-3244443-1-1.html

Southern Weekend [logo]: We Do NOT Allow You to Say Anything Bad about the U.S.!
Netease [logo]: We Do Not Allow You to Say Anything Good about China!
Kdnet.net [logo]: We Are Discussing Democracy and We Do Not Allow You to Say Anything!

Besides nationalists, more neutral citizens are also starting to challenge critical media. Many Chinese who dislike state propaganda expect critical media play a neutral and unbiased role in reporting and a constructive role when criticizing. Yet, the expectation is not met. My observation of online expression shows that many Internet commentators depict critical media as a mirror image of state propaganda because critical media act in some ways very much like state media. In their eyes, both state and critical media outlets have a preset agenda–either the party line or universal values–and are ready to twist facts and logics to fit that agenda. In particular, they argue that some critical media outlets have developed a hyper-critical mindset so that they “habitually criticize” (习惯性批判) China and blindly praise the West while neglecting their professional responsibilities and repressing different voices.

The fundamental changes in the media environment have generated both opportunities and challenges for traditional media outlets and professionals in China. Thanks to marketization and the Internet, critical media in China now have more room to push the envelope. However, while the media are gaining relative independence from the state, their audiences are also becoming more independent and critical due to the pluralization of news sources as well as their more active role in news production, circulation and consumption via social media. For critical media to survive and thrive, fighting the party-state is a necessary but insufficient condition, and attracting and embracing a broader spectrum of audiences to build a wider social consensus are more daunting tasks. After all, even the authoritarian state has attempted to coopt influential social forces (particularly nationalists) and employ more innovative propaganda strategies, as demonstrated by Xi Jinping’s highly symbolic open praise of two “outstanding Internet writers,” Zhou Xiaoping and Hua Qianfang at the prominent Forum of Art and Literature in October 2014.

Rongbin Han is an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs, University of Georgia. One of his forthcoming works is “Defending the Authoritarian Regime Online: The ‘Voluntary Fifty Cents Army’,” in China Quarterly. Image Credit: CC by Bryan Allison/flickr.