After the Internet, Before Democracy: Competing Norms in Chinese Media and Society

After the Internet, Before Democracy: Competing Norms in Chinese Media and Society

Johan Lagerkvist
Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers, Bern , 2010
ISBN: 978-3-0343-0435-1

Introduction: The Chinese Mass Media and Globalization
Pages 19-24

It is a fact that the Chinese Party-state chose to live with the Internet inside its borders, not wanting to seal it off completely from the wider web of the world, or the broader segments of its own population. Is there reason to believe that the CCP never foresaw the risk of the Internet being a Trojan horse unleashing hostile and alien elements into the Chinese heartland? It is obvious that the technocratic Party-state from 1978 and onward opened up the People’s Republic to the outside world, exposing Chinese society to new ways of life and enlarging the resource pool of ideas. In taking a global perspective on Internet de­velopments, Daniel Drezner has argued that the Internet probably has empowered non-state actors more than states. However, Drezner also qualified that very argument with his reservation that the effect of empowerment would be constrained by regime type and “negotiation format” (Drezner 2005: 2). Arguably, with the forces of social and media globalization that are today impacting heavily on China – in­creased travel; an elite youth often educated abroad; and foreign-produced TV programming and popular culture, to name just a few – the battle against the myriad interconnecting cultural influences found on China’s online networks is becoming increasingly difficult to wage over time. Thus, there is reason to doubt that the Party-state’s policies of cultural protection and containment of “pollution” of the cultural environment will hold tight as further normative changes continue in society as a result of this development. Nonetheless, at the time of writing, the strongest determining factors for molding norms and legal legitimacy vis-à-vis the existing Internet control regime are domestic ones. Globalization and the international media do play a certain role for generating political change, but this is subordinate to domestic tug­of-war between the Party-state and society in China.

Samuel Huntington believed that the “demonstration effect,” whereby international media coverage slipped into other authoritarian countries, led to pressure for democratization. However, I do think that Huntington was overly optimistic about the impact of global communications: “Shortwave radio, satellite television, computers, and facsimile (fax) machines made it increasingly difficult for authori­tarian governments to keep from their elites and even their publics information on the struggles against and the overthrow of authorita­rian regimes in other countries” (Huntington 1991: 102). There is, however, limited support for the claim that globalization and globaliz­ing media bring freedom, media pluralism, and social emancipation. In their laudable project to de-Westernize studies of non-Western me­dia systems, media scholars James Curran and Myung-Jin Park are critical of a linear conceptualization process that follows Western models of development for analyzing modernizing media in develop­ing countries. They posited that “interpretive paradigms need to be tailored to local situations rather than imported uncritically and mi­sapplied” (Curran and Park 2000:15). Curiously, though, when de­scribing changes in a rapidly developing China, Curran and Park non­etheless fail to map out their direction(s) as they speak of China’s media system as being transitory. In their world matrix of various media systems, China is put in the middle as “transitional and mixed”: paradoxically it is nowhere and it is everywhere.

In the research field of political communication the volume Four Theories of the Press (Siebert, Peterson and Schramm 1956) and me­dia studies that followed the paradigm of modernization theory in fashion during the 1950s were rightly criticized for taking the devel­opment trajectory of the West as the natural model which it was in the interest of all developing countries and societies to follow. The an­swers given to the research questions formulated when this paradigm was popular were simplistic. Nonetheless, the questions raised by for example Daniel Lerner (1963: 342) regarding the conditions of the media and how they relate to and may contribute to democratization remain of the utmost important. This is because the advent of the In­ternet as a global mass media phenomenon, taking hold also in devel­oping countries with authoritarian power structures, and the parallel rise of China in world politics force us to revisit the media and demo­cratization issue-area in a new light.

Moreover, it has been argued that the nation-state is as yet under-analyzed in the literature on the globalization of media (Curran and Park 2000: 11; Morris and Waisbord 2001: ix; Price 2002). Law scho­lars have argued that theories of the Internet and globalization neglect the importance of territorial government (Drezner 2004: 478; Goldsmith and Wu 2006: 180). In fact, the democratizing impact of media globalization in the form of transnational media companies operating abroad, satellite television, and Internet technologies is far from evident.

As media scholars have argued, the effects of mass media on democratization or any other social phenomenon are next to impossi­ble to assert (McQuail 1991: 251; Randall 1993) and media effects studies have mostly focused on individuals rather than on institutions (Livingstone 1996: 306). This goes for both national and international media, and as a consequence there are few studies devoted to the role played (or not played) by domestic media in the beginnings of processes of democratization. That lack of research on the relationship between democratization and media reform and media in either media studies or political science is as obvious as it is a challenge to scholars across research fields and disciplines. Another reason for this lacuna is that regardless of the degree of commercialization and ownership of a particular authoritarian media system, its very dependency on the reg­ulations set forth by the state makes it hard to conceive of the mass media as an actor. Thus, from Latin American cases of democratiza­tion, it has been argued that, while the media contributed to the begin­nings of democratization in a significant way, they were rarely an actual trigger of democratizing events (Randall 1993).

Most scholars have been interested in the media’s role in the phase when democracy is already a very likely prospect for the future. Here the Oxford reader Democratization (Haerpfer et al. 2009) well illustrates this assumption about the media’s role in this regard. In the chapter by Voltmer and Rawnsley in that reader, the study of interna­tional media and their demonstration effects, as well as relations be­tween the media and the state in new democracies, start with analysis of the media as a “driving force” only during the actual breakdown of the old regime (Voltmer and Rawnsley 2009: 235). This whole picture of the democratizing role of the mass media will have to change with increasing use of the Internet and the bridging of digital divides in the developing countries. It is, for example, undeniable that the people of Indonesia made use of the Internet in the struggle to bring down the Suharto regime (Hill and Sen 2005). Also, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, rebels cleverly used information technology to oppose and fight the central government in Mexico City (Castells 1997: 80). From these accounts, observers concluded that along with the introduction of Internet technology would follow a range of strategic threats to authoritarian regimes: borderless communication between dissidents home and away, mobilizations of domestic opposition, and the oppor­tunity to get first-hand visions of alternative political systems. It was anticipated that these threats would become more tangible and sharper with growing Internet penetration within such undemocratically ruled countries (Ferdinand 2000: 12). 

As the case of China shows, however, teleological predictions are bound to fail. Yet in this book, while I refrain from predicting when it will happen,9 I believe that widespread use of the Internet will make the ultimate democratization of China an easier task than it would be otherwise. In fact, I hold it to be crucial if that longstanding aspiration of the Chinese people is to come to fruition. Throughout this book I seek to analyze what increased Internet use in China means for democratic aspirations during the phase before democracy is yet achieved.

Obviously, this is a thorny and under-researched and overlooked, yet crucially important, issue area to research if we are to understand both China’s prospects for democratization and the future global In­ternet information order. Although there are scholars who believe that changing practises among media organizations and media use among the public lead to the kinds of social changes that stimulate reform thinking in the political system as well (Curran and Park 2000), as argued above, the relationship between democracy and media reform and media use is not well researched either in media studies or in the political science literature (Lynch 1999: 226; Randall 1998: 1; Hackett and Zhao 2005: 1). Research on the relationship between media and democratization could facilitate a new research agenda, generating new understanding of how use of the Internet, perceived as an institu­tion in its own right, enables democratic reform. Without a media structure that is effectively demonopolized of control of any concen­trated social group, no free and independent media can exist.

Beata Rozumilowicz addressed this research problem by map­ping out a series of “stages of transition” for the role that the media play in democratization processes (Rozumilowicz et al. 2002: 11). She proposes a matrix for the emergence of media freedom in transitional societies, which consists of a legal-institutional factor and a socio-cultural factor. Demonopolization and professionalization of the me­dia, along with legal guarantees for its operation and a civil society in which these processes, ideas, and openness are allowed to exist, are all important factors in the Rozumilowicz model of democratizing media. In China, whereas extensive commercialization has somewhat aided demonopolization of the media system, the Communist Party still effectively controls offline and online news production. And, although demands from the market have indeed forced media enterprises to cater more to news consumers’ demands, the commercialization of the online media and communications sector in China does not undermine the authoritarian Chinese regime directly. Nevertheless, the negotiat­ing processes between the Party-state agents such as the Central Prop­aganda Department and the state-owned official media outlets – at the media system’s core – are likely to have a long-term effect of further liberalizing the media system, thus contributing to the unlocking of the Chinese public sphere. In the short term, though, China’s govern­ment is managing to contain most (though not all efforts) to “push the limits” on the part of media owned by central and local governments. This is even truer for the cooperatively and privately owned online media enterprises. The Party-state is sufficiently strong to contain any dissemination of information that might destabilize its rule (Esarey 2005: 78), but, as mentioned above, the forced cooperation with media enterprises and new legislation directed at online media operations and various Internet applications such as blogs, online news, short and instant messaging services, and podcasting are needed in the new me­dia age.

My findings and research counter general perceptions of a worldwide retreat from more authoritarian forms of media control (Gunther and Mughan 2000: 14). As chapter 5 shows, an overwhelm­ing majority of media organizations and journalists avoid breaking political taboos, or overstepping the limits for the press set by the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department – and this in a fiercely competitive market that is characterized by cut-throat capital­ism.


© Peter Lang AG, International Academic Publishers, Bern