From Economic to Social Media Experiments: The Tensions of Fragmented Authoritarianism

Maria Repnikova, Assistant Professor, Georgia State University; Kecheng Fang, Ph.D. candidate, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania
| CSCC Conference Room, Fisher-Bennett 345

This study examines the latest media experiment under President Xi that aims at revitalizing the Internet by creating new party-funded digital media outlets nationally. Specifically, the paper analyses the model of Shanghai-based news outlet, Pengpai or the Paper, and how its success has been diffused across different cities and regions in China, including Tianjin, Wuhan, Nanjing, Chongqing and Guangzhou. Drawing on rich empirical data, including interviews with propaganda officials, media executives and editors in seven provinces, this study finds that while Pengpai has been relatively effective at establishing a new brand that serves the agenda of top-down persuasion, its model has not been replicable, as individual regional and media leaders have different and often conflicting visions and strategies for deploying the Internet. Many of these localized media experiments carry little substance and serve more of a purpose of showing off to the center rather than actual audience deliverables. These contradictions between central level initiatives and local-level implementation point to old standing dynamics of fragmented authoritarianism that have long remained in place and have become exacerbated under Xi. They also point to the fragility of Xi’s centralization campaigns as well as his attempts at “occupying the public opinion field” online.