An Informed Citizenry?

Expanding media in China does not necessarily mean a challenge to power.

Information is power. It is a scarce good in developing societies where those who control information tend to rule those who do not. In these authoritarian systems knowledge is rationed carefully. News about life beyond their borders is filtered to conform with regime images of the outside world. Media and culture serve as instruments for domestic mobilization and control in the first instance, and then for the provision of entertainment deemed suitable for mass consumption. Dissenting views are rarely permitted, and civil societies serve the state, rather than challenge it.

Do the above comments describe China today? We were recently reminded of the party-state’s remarkable ability to control the Chinese communication system during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. While 25,000 foreign journalists strove mightily to crack the censorship barrier and local activists sought to challenge Chinese Communist Party authorities, their efforts were muffled by a powerful control apparatus. Foreign journalists and photographers found their movements inside Beijing and in the rest of China restricted by a combination of tight regime supervision and self-censorship by Chinese citizens. China provided the world with a picture of a united society capable of organizing a world-class event. It was an impressive display of authority by an authoritarian leadership.

Most critical observers of China have assumed that sooner or later the regime’s controls must loosen and China will have to liberalize. These assumptions are based on two premises: that marketization brings forth unstoppable political liberalization and that exposure to the global economy accelerates this process. The existence of a vibrant communications system that circulates information widely and holds officials accountable to citizens is a litmus test for China’s political liberalization. That is the hallmark of western democratic societies and is what we celebrate to ourselves and proclaim to others.

In an important new book, Communication in China: Political Economy, Power and Conflict, Yuezhi Zhao, Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy of Global Communication at Simon Fraser University, explores China’s rapidly evolving political system, economy and society through the prism of its communication system. She raises serious issues about the nature and direction of change in China—questioning whether it is bringing China closer to western models or not—while identifying new forces, social, political and economic, that are part of what she labels China’s “neoliberal” project. The communication system serves as a perfect vehicle for her work.

China has more than 2,200 newspapers, 7,000 magazines and journals, 3,200 television broadcast stations, 360 TV companies, 500 million television sets and 500 million radios, plus a rapidly growing internet and cell phone system. The task of supervising this vast network of information is immense. As the party-state’s monopoly over society is being tested, Zhao shows how political and economic power is reflected in the operation of the Chinese media, the circulation of information to citizens and the development of China’s post-socialist culture.

What emerges is the uncertain conclusion that the neoliberal forces of marketization and globalization have taken root in China, but not that deeply. Democratic outcomes remain a distant prospect. The rising middle class is surprisingly supportive of the current authoritarian system. The CCP maintains its control, reinventing itself when necessary to preserve its power. While socialist ideology is in retreat and neoliberal commercialization of the media has made substantial gains, resistance from the old and the new left creates tension and contradictions, for example, by unleashing Chinese nationalism, polarizing urban and rural sectors, or creating new elite and class conflict.

In 2005, Hunan Province Satellite Television developed a show called Supergirls, modelled after American Idol. It quickly became the most popular show on Chinese television. The audience was asked to vote for their favourite candidates with their cell phones, at the rate of one yuan per message, ten times the regular price. I watched this show when I was in China and marvelled at its explosive success in winning audience participation. It showed how a provincial broadcaster could use market principles to outstrip the state-run national media. But within the year, Supergirls was marginalized by the authorities, not allowed to run in prime time and, according to Zhao, was criticized for its “individualistic and consumerist value orientations.”

China’s developmental path remains uncertain for Zhao, who is sympathetic to a more open Chinese society and liberalized political system. She hesitates to predict such an optimistic outcome. She writes, “There are formidable structural forces against any substantive reorientation of China’s developmental path around the goals of human-centred and balanced development, environmental sustainability, social harmony, and ‘people’s democracy’—if these are to be more than hollow rhetoric.”

It is possible that others may be more optimistic about the pace of China’s liberalization. China’s communication system is undergoing a series of profound changes that are fundamentally altering the fabric of China’s state and society. With 250 million internet users and over half a billion cell phones in circulation, the Chinese have become “connected,” first to each other, and then, as Chinese, to the outside world. The implications are as staggering as the massive numbers involved. A once stagnant society and economy has become mobilized. Individuals are acquiring areas of “private space” away from official eyes and ears, where they can talk more freely and learn more about each other and about what lies outside China. The old party-state communications system is being challenged by a newly emergent one that is more individualized, more decentralized, less ideological and increasingly connected to global culture and values.

You can see these changes taking place all around you in China and may wonder how, in the face of these forces, the party-state can continue to maintain its system of tight control. Forbidden images, once seen, are not easily forgotten. Ideology and propaganda may say one thing, yet a reader’s sudden awareness of previously unknown facts may be more persuasive. Once you let foreigners and their ideas inside China, how can you control them? Once you adopt market principles as the main focus of your economy, how can you not apply them to the media and communications systems, with what outcomes?

Much has been said about the “Great Firewall of China” that employs, some say, as many as 50,000 people to monitor internet communications. The internet is the medium that will bring the most new ideas most quickly into China and will spread this information faster and more widely than any other medium. The regime tries to exercise control by proscribing such things as discussion of Taiwan independence or Tibetan resistance, as well as criticism of top party officials. It can shut down critical blogs an hour after they appear. Yet in my experience, more than 90 percent of what is on the western internet can be accessed in China, and proscribed materials can be read through proxy servers. At this point there seems to be an uneasy truce between the large majority of internet users and the state. Individuals want to be informed of new ideas and what is really happening, but have no intention of challenging the state. The small minority that tries to do so is quickly rooted out and shut down. Whether this mix of individual curiosity and self-censorship can continue is an open question.

In making judgements about the nature of these changes and the party-state’s response, Zhao identifies several contemporary forces that carry the seeds of societal and party-state transformation: marketization, globalization, decentralization, political liberalization and accountability. The commercialization of communications is precipitated by China’s commitment to marketization. As China’s communication system modernizes, what was public becomes private, advertising replaces propaganda; entrepreneurship and market share compete with traditional norms of political correctness. How will the party-state be able to maintain its control of “the commanding heights” (the term is Zhao’s) under these circumstances?

Globalization is a two-edged sword. It injects new technology and capital into China’s communication system, but it also introduces ideas that threaten the values of the party-state. It brings in foreigners such as Rupert Murdoch, intent on capturing a stake in China’s media industry for his foreign-based Star TV network. Zhao documents how the Chinese successfully have resisted Murdoch’s attempts to penetrate the Chinese media market, and how they have limited all foreign penetration, despite China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Partly this is a matter of maintaining political control, but it also represents resistance to the westernization of culture that is inherent in the globalization process. Nationalism becomes an antidote to this westernization: the regime fosters Chinese nationalism but, fearing its volatility, nervously limits its expression, particularly among youth.

Canadians who have been resisting the flow of American news and entertainment into Canada will be sympathetic to the regime’s insistence on preserving Chinese domestic culture. But we must recognize that the regime uses its control over “culture” to preserve its power. This can lead to excess. For example, nationalism becomes an antidote to westernization. The regime fosters Chinese nationalism to celebrate “Chineseness” yet, fearing its volatility, nervously limits its expression, particularly among youth.

Zhao makes a strong case for a highly organized, still authoritarian, communications system. The CCP establishes the parameters and supervises the execution of communications policy. The system is centralized and hierarchical and penetrates all levels of society. But “Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away,” as an old Chinese saying has it. As China decentralizes and becomes more mobile, it becomes more difficult to supervise a constantly expanding, ever more complex system. Where communication becomes commercialized, attention to central directives and norms may diminish. As Zhao has written elsewhere, “the Party line and the bottom line” will conflict, and control may loosen.

We talk a great deal about political liberalization in China. Western-style democracy is not on the party-state’s agenda, not in our lifetimes. Yet there is political change and a widening of private space. Not enough to challenge the supremacy of the CCP—the majority of Chinese continue to support its leadership—but enough to give more space to individuals and to test the strength of the party’s control over all communications. Cell phones and the internet are the most modern instruments of resistance. Recently residents in Shanghai successfully organized a major protest against a redevelopment project using text messaging and internet communications. Similar actions have occurred in many other places. When citizens are able to take communications into their own hands for political purposes, the regime has cause to be worried.

One of the most important functions of a democratic communications system is to make leaders and officials accountable for their actions to citizens. In authoritarian societies this accountability is greatly limited. Media criticism of officials and leaders is orchestrated to suit the needs of the party-state. Lip service is paid to the western watchdog function of the media. Occasionally at the local level the media are allowed to expose abuses to help remove corrupt or incompetent officials. Zhao documents several such instances and also gives examples where journalists are told they have overstepped their boundaries. Journalists must walk a careful line, their political antennae on alert, to ensure that their investigative reporting does not conflict with regime agendas. As such, China’s party elite is still well insulated from media exposure and popular accountability.

Zhao’s study is an outstanding reference point for what we want to know about China’s communication system. To be sure, the book is about much more than communication. In fact, it embraces most of the complex issues and forces involved in China’s political, economic and social modernization. From Zhao’s perspective, communication is central to every facet of state-society relations. In her view, understanding China’s communication system is to understand China.

Casual readers might have difficulty with some of the concepts used by Zhao, her focus on the “neoliberal” project in China’s communications, and the barrage of ideas and insights that confronts them on every page. To those readers I simply say, keep reading this book. There are things to be learned on every page. To China scholars and students, I say put this book on your list of the top 25 books on contemporary China. It is a superb study based on solid research and strong analysis.