The Gray Zone of Critical Journalism in China


It is well known how strict the Chinese Communist Party is in regulating its media; it is one of the most repressive regimes in the world with regards to its media channels. As Maria Repnikova presented in her practice job talk at the Center, this is the popular conception of how the Chinese government treats its media. The reality of the situation is that the government actually has a fluid relationship with its journalists, including with individuals such as the famous reporter Wang Kevin and Chai Jing, who was responsible for the recent eye-opening Chinese environmental documentary Under the Dome. In studying the Chinese states relationship with its media, Ms. Repnikova asked the overarching question: Why does the party-state tolerate critical journalism? And what motivates journalists risk to embark on these critical pieces when they are well aware of the level of censorship associated with the state?

Social activism and the state in China interact highly infrequently, but critical journalism happens regularly, making it an interesting outlier to the norm. Ms. Repnikova also believes that studying these journalists would further the de-westernization of media studies. Her research design was composed of routine interactions and case studies that looked at both top-down and bottom-up perspectives of the state-media relationship, derived from her 14 months in the field and over 100 interviews in Beijing. Based on her data, Ms. Repnikova believes that the party-state and the media have shared objectives in improving the partys governance, and that these two actors constantly negotiate the rules of the game through constant improvisation.

Although it might not appear so on the surface, the party-state does have incentives to collaborate with the media in achieving its own objectives. By providing an ambiguous gray area where the media can provide criticisms of the party, mostly at the local level, the party-state is able to use the media as a feedback mechanism from the people to the state (yulun jiandu), thereby improving its own governance. These criticisms are balanced by positive perspectives as well; the media acts as a watchdog and a propaganda tool at the same time.

On the journalists end, being in this relationship gives them the ability to feel like they are changing the system, instead of being excluded from it. There have been examples where their policy recommendations have been taken seriously, as in the case of reports on coal mining accidents or on the Wenchuan earthquake. However, they only provide a local perspective on these issues, since they know that they cannot implicate the Centre without jeopardizing their ability to continue having an impact.

As one can imagine, this relationship is tense and constantly evolving. There is no official party doctrine for how it works, and relies heavily on signaling to communicate from one actor to the other. A lot of the time, an issue that could be openly discussed by the media before can become censored if a particular article on that issue goes viral online and gets shared by hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens. Or censors might jump in front of media outlets before they go ahead with certain breaking news stories because they want to control the flow of information to the public about them. Journalists have to roll with the punches; they have no say in how the relationship is shaped. Additionally, their ability to make changes within the system is hampered by the party-states interpretation of them for their own purposes. For example, when they recommended that the state rebuild several of the schools damaged by the Wenchuan earthquake, the state immediately did so, but did not hold local leaders accountable for designing the shoddy structures.

Chinas relationship with its media is quite different from how Russia treats its own media. There is no mutual relationship where the state uses signaling to communicate its objectives; arbitrary coercion is employed to clamp down on critical journalism. Russian journalists are more revolutionary in nature since they know there is no other way for them to get their voice heard. Therefore, Ms. Repnikova concluded, perhaps this is indicative of different levels of authoritarianism, between hybrid and closed systems, and proposed this idea as an avenue for further research. The questions that followed her presentation included ones about the role of netizens in the Chinese state, censorship at the local level versus at the center, and how the recent anti-corruption campaign in China has affected the relationship that Ms. Repnikova sees between the party-state and the media.


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