Public Sphere & Popular Media in China

A review of The Public and the Popular Media in China, by Hsiao-Wen Lee.

The question of whether or not China has ever had or can develop a public sphere in the Habermasian sense has been debated by scholars  researching China since the early 1990s, particular after Jürgen Habermas’ Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) was first translated and published in English in 1989. One key question driving this debate has been whether it is possible and, more importantly, meaningful to apply this Western concept to the Chinese context. The dissertation under review joins this discussion by arguing that the popular press in China serves as the best platform under the current circumstances for the emergence of a genuine public in China – despite its limitations and its difference from how Habermas conceptualized the rational bourgeois public sphere of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Although focusing on the sensational and the emotional, and not on the rational, and only “[eroding] political authority rather than acting as a direct opposition to the State” (p. 19), it has become a vehicle for its readers to form opinions and discuss events and thus fulfils the criteria for a public sphere in the abstract sense that focuses on “moral and cultural dimensions” (cf. Richard Madsen, “The Public Sphere, Civil Society, and Moral Community: A Research Agenda for Contemporary China Studies,” Modern China 19, no. 2, April 1993, 189-190, cited on p. 16). Besides the Introduction (chapter 1) and the Conclusion (chapter 11), the thesis can be roughly divided into three parts. The first part (chapters 2 to 5) constitutes the literature review and develops the background for the theoretical argument of the thesis in three steps based on different bodies of secondary literature. It also presents the methodology. The second part (chapters 6 and 7) analyzes coverage of selected events in the popular press in two cities, Beijing and Kunming, and contrasts it with coverage in the Party press. The third (chapters 8 to 10) examines discussions the author conducted with different “focus groups” in the two cities and analyzes the characteristics of the public sphere in China.

After introducing the research questions in Chapter 1, the author presents in Chapter 2 the critical reception of Habermas’ work in the “Western” debate on the public and the public sphere and its applicability to mass society, explains different understandings of the concepts of the public, the public sphere, and the “popular,” and introduces the discussion of the role of the popular press in shaping a public sphere in order to lay the basis for analyzing whether the Chinese public sphere can be connected to contemporary debates on the popular public sphere in the “West.” Habermas has long been attacked for his idealization of the eighteenthcentury bourgeois public sphere that he claimed met its demise with the onset of mass society. His idealized version of a rational public sphere that excludes popular media has prevented a serious inquiry into the role that tabloids can play “in producing and distributing knowledge as well as visualizing and teaching public issues in the midst of private consumption” (p. 41) and as an alternative public sphere. Lee concludes that “[t]he popular media has the potential more than any other bourgeois media to be accessible in any space-time continuum and thus make possible Habermas’ idea of the universal public sphere [...]” (p. 47).

The purpose of Chapter 3 is to reconstruct the Chinese understanding of the concept of “the public” (gong), which, based on Confucian ideology, has been associated with the public interest, in opposition to private, selfish interests (si). Moreover, the chapter introduces two key ideas: the notions of sentiment and reason and the “invisible rule.” Appeals to emotion constitute a discursive strategy used both in the popular press and by the government, making them a key “characteristic of Chinese popular communication” (p. 61) that have shaped the public sphere more than the notion of the “rational.” The invisible rules are the informal rules guiding behavior and determining punishment for infractions that are not codified in law but are nonetheless perceived as more important and influential than formal rules. Thus, awareness of the invisible rules influences how people perceive officials in power and, as Lee’s shows later in her analysis, also how they discuss current events.

Chapter 4 reviews the history and development of the press in China since the 1990s. The press landscape consists of two basic types of papers with different functions: Party papers, whose role is to uphold a correct ideological stance and popular papers, whose role is to make money. As China’s media have undergone a process of conglomerization, both types of papers are usually represented in each media group so that tabloids can cross-subsidize the Party publications. While the emotional and sensational popular press also has to work within the censorship framework of the government, it “leans towards the general public” (p. 81) in its discourses and choice of topics much more than the Party press Thus the media reforms in China have, in theory, created a platform for the public to voice its agenda that “deconstructs the state’s discourse and homogeneity” (p. 81).

The thesis uses two main methods introduced in Chapter 5: news analysis and debates with focus groups. Through these two approaches, the author seeks to test three hypotheses: first, that the popular press can “shape a new and true ‘public’ by its emotional and sensational approach to communication” (p. 87); second, that it better reflects public opinion than the “rational” Party press; and third, that “the abstract or moral and cultural dimensions of the Habermasian public sphere [...] outweigh the rational legal system” (p. 87) to some extent. In so doing, it wants to answer three sets of research questions, the first centered on pinning down what the “public” means in China and what its difference is vis-à-vis the Western understanding, the second focused on understanding the popular press in contrast to the Party press, how people perceive its news coverage and whether it sparks public debates and the third set of questions asking whether the popular press can create a public sphere that reflects and is meant for ordinary people and contributes to the “emancipation of democracy” (p. 90). As social stratification has solidified since the beginning of economic reforms in 1978 and thus forms an important factor in Chinese society, focus groups are divided according to white collar and blue collar status with two groups of each in both Kunming and Beijing, forming a total of eight groups and sixty participants. Discussions in the focus groups each lasted about one and a half hours.

Chapter 6 analyzes the coverage of four events in the Beijing press, including five Party papers and five popular papers. The incidents analyzed are two land acquisition cases (one from 2005 and one from 2007), the collapse of a subway line in Beijing (2007) and a mining accident in another province. Due to different constraints on the press from the top, which are, in turn, influenced by a number of factors, each incident was reported differently, but characteristic differences between Party and popular press did become visible. Most importantly, the popular press, whenever possible, resorted to on-the-spot reporting and used tabloid techniques, such as dramatic pictures to report these serious events. Chapter 7 examines the coverage of three different events (one involving bribery, a traffic accident, and a natural disaster) in the national press (both Party and popular), in Kunming’s Party press, its popular press, and at government press conferences. This chapter finds that both Party and popular media relied on emotional discourses and manipulation of the narrative, but the popular press used “a greater variety of resources and genres” (p. 169) and tried to report as quickly as possible before Xinhua released the “official” version of events. The analysis in both chapters revealed four types of scenarios: strict censorship, the “normal competitive gap between The Party Press and The Popular Press” when the popular press tries to represent the voice of the public and maintain credibility in the eyes of the public, political intervention by local authorities in the case of media below the central level, and what Lee calls the “disasters’ paradox” (p. 233), namely the phenomenon that audiences have become numb towards large-scale work place accidents and that therefore, the popular press has no incentive to risk covering them in depth.

Chapter 8 presents the results of the discussions with focus groups in Beijing. First, class influenced the debate. For instance, white collar workers were more likely to criticize the authorities than blue collar workers, while blue collar workers were more likely to sympathize with victims of accidents. Lee noted a high level of indifference, and distrust also of the popular press grounded in the belief that all news is controlled by the Party-state. By and large, participants did not feel that the popular press could play a sufficiently positive and influential role in public affairs, although they agreed that it should. Chapter 9 analyzes the discussions with the focus groups in Kunming. Participants were much more scathing in their criticism of the government than their counterparts in Beijing. Again, while participants distrusted the media, they also felt that the media’s role should be to supervise the government. Because of distrust of the press, including the popular press, people primarily used the coverage as a starting point to discuss details and stories that were omitted in the press coverage. Thus, according to Lee, the popular public sphere combines the government public sphere with the private sphere “to form an imaginative and abstracted public sphere which is more reliable in the minds of ordinary people” (p. 239).

Chapter 10 weaves the previous chapters’ findings together into a discussion whether Habermas’ concept of the bourgeois public sphere can be extended to China. The dissertation finds “three dimensions of what ‘the Public Sphere’ means for the ordinary people when they read the Popular Press in China” (p. 248). First, there is “disengagement” (p. 248): People do not believe the press. Second, however, there is “reengagement” (p. 249): Despite distrust, people draw on their own experience to discuss coverage, read between the lines, and try to fill in the blanks. Although people pretend to be indifferent, this shows that they do care and are opinionated about the events covered. Third, there is, in fact, a “genuine public sphere” (p. 251): The popular press manages to catch the readers’ attention and provoke debate. Thus, sensational coverage leads to reasoned debate among readers.

Chapter 11 concludes the dissertation by summing up all findings and confirming the initial hypotheses that the popular press functions as an alternative to the rational public sphere as embodied in the Party press that relies on emotional appeals and manages to provoke debates. Although there are some limitations, the popular press mostly “is a genuine power to report the truth” (p. 244) and therefore forms a “true public sphere” (p. 244). Despite this and although people hope for a better press that can supervise the government, they neither trust the legal system nor the coverage in the Party press or the popular press. People instead focus on what has not been exposed and what else could possibly be behind a story, which Lee mainly attributes to the existence of invisible rules in Chinese society and readers’ awareness of them. The study also shows that “the popular public sphere is multidimensional and cannot be defined in a single way” (p. 241). Although it does not challenge authority directly, it does so indirectly by providing alternative discourses. The thesis finishes by suggesting that more research on a national scale is needed and that future research might also explore whether this public sphere leads to a process of negotiation with the authorities.

In sum, the dissertation under review examines what a “Chinese” understanding of the public sphere under the current political circumstances looks like. By drawing on concepts from Chinese tradition that continue to have influence in contemporary China, it contributes to the conceptualization of a “Chinese” version of the public sphere. It provides a case study with an interesting research design combining different approaches. Discussions of the Chinese media and Chinese journalism usually either focus on top-down command structures or on strategies how journalists negotiate the environment that they have to work in. Studies on the public sphere in China, on the other hand, are more likely to focus on citizen activism and citizens’ active participation rather than considering “passive publics”. This dissertation therefore takes into account an important group that is often left out: the readers. Through the combination of news analysis with focus group discussions, reader reactions are integrated into the study of the role and functioning of the Chinese press and preliminary conclusions are drawn as to what this means for the public sphere.

Mareike Ohlberg
PhD candidate
Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”
University of Heidelberg

Primary Sources

Newspaper articles (media coverage of selected events both in Party papers and tabloids from the national level, Beijing, and Kunming)
Discussions the author conducted herself with 60 PRC citizens organized into eight focus groups

Dissertation Information

University of Westminster. 2010. 282 pp. Primary Advisor: Colin Sparks.


Image: ” Man reading his paper outside Baimasi, the White Horse Temple, in China” by James Jin. Wikimedia Commons.