Media Politics in China: Improvising Power under Authoritarianism

Maria Repnikova’s new book Media Politics in China: Improvising Power Under Authoritarianism (Cambridge University Press, 2017) challenges conventional understandings of the role of critical journalists in authoritarian regimes, painting a picture of reporting in China as a balancing act of creativity, experimentation, and restriction. For our Academic Watch, we spoke with her.

Recently, much attention has been given to Xi Jinping’s reaffirmation of the media as the Party’s mouthpiece (houshe). Your book complicates this identity. What can studying the media in China reveal about China’s political system?

Maria Repnikova: My book demonstrates that other than the traditional mouthpiece role of the media, an alternative function of media supervision (yulun jiandu) has been promoted in the official discourse in the past three decades. The analysis of yulun jiandu reasserts and complicates the model of consultative authoritarianism—a defining framework for analysing China’s political system in the past decade, which suggests that the Party’s consultations with societal forces work to improve governance and legitimise the regime. My book shows that in endorsing and tolerating some media supervision in the form of investigative and critical reporting, the authorities intended to better gauge and respond to public sentiments. At the same time, the party-state has treated this channel with significant ambiguity. Namely, the authorities have resisted institutionalising media supervision, have deployed ad hoc inventive restrictions against journalists, and have only addressed media investigations at a superficial level, burying systemic issues in the discourse of state responsiveness. In the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake, for instance, the authorities reacted to media investigations of the school scandal by quickly rebuilding the damaged schools and publicly promoting reconstruction efforts. However, they did not address the accountability failures of local officials highlighted in media reports, and forbade the media from further investigating this issue. To this day, the Wenchuan disaster remains a sensitive topic for media practitioners. This doesn’t render media investigations meaningless, as journalists still dare to report on public discontent without legal protection from the state, and at times these reports even trigger an official and public reaction to important societal issues. Nonetheless, my book calls for more critical rethinking of the framework of consultative authoritarianism to account for the state-directed nature of these feedback channels or consultations, which significantly limit the scope of societal input into policy-making.

Your book offers a powerful critique of the discourse that sets the relationship between authoritarian governments and media in terms of control/domination and resistance/democratisation. What do you find troubling about this framework?

MR: This framework is problematic because it fails to account for the myriad interactions between the media and the state that reside in the dichotomy between complete suppression and romanticised revolutionary activism. In particular, it diminishes the creative agency of media professionals who are trying to manoeuvre within the web of complex regulations and informal pressures, as well as incentives, from authorities. It further ignores the presence of grey zones where sensitive, but semi-permissible, issues continue to be probed by journalists and media activists in China and other authoritarian contexts. Most authoritarian regimes allow for limited media pluralism—how this works (especially in comparative contexts) can inform us as much about the political limits set out by the state, as about the nature of contestation on the boundary, or the ways in which actors operating on the margins can push the limits whilst still remaining part of the system. In stepping beyond the framework of control and dramatic resistance, we are able to better investigate the lived realities of Chinese citizens, their ambitions, struggles, and imaginaries—these realities in turn paint a more complex political picture than one of pure resilience or collapse.

In your book, you argue that the ambiguous rules and grey areas of the permissible in China leave space for creativity, improvisation, and boundary testing by journalists and editors. Is that still the case in Xi Jinping’s China?

MR: The grey zone has definitely shrunk under President Xi, with state control intensifying at all levels of media management. At the same time, creative improvisation by journalists and editors persists. Whereas the influence of the once famous Southern Weekend has declined, for instance, a new Shanghai-based outlet, Pengpai, also known as The Paper, has published some successful investigative and in-depth reporting in recent years, including the well-known investigation of Zhou Yongkang, as well as quality reporting on the 2015 Tianjin explosion and the contaminated vaccine scandal. Party media also still continue to carry out internal investigative reporting (neican) domestically and, now, internationally. Creative journalistic efforts are also evident at the Beijing-based Xinjing Bao and Caixin magazine, as well as at online platforms like Tongxun and Sohu. Moreover, as traditional reporting has come under pressure, new inventive forms of expression have emerged, such as creative non-fiction, online talk shows, futuristic novels, and more. The resilience of the ingenious spirit never ceases to amaze me.

Given all the challenges they face in their profession, why would someone in today’s China want to be a journalist?

MR: Some of the motivations for becoming a journalist mirror those in other countries. Most young journalists I spoke to are curious, eager to see more of the world, prefer movement and adrenalin to staying still—they are risk-takers. In China, however, there are also political and somewhat idealistic motivations driving the more critically-oriented media professionals, including a desire to help ordinary people through their reporting, to hold some officials (typically at the local level) accountable, and to help gradually improve China’s governance—especially when it comes to the management of hot social issues such as food safety, environmental degradation, societal inequality, and natural/man-made disasters. Many journalists I spoke to resemble a mix of activists and entrepreneurs rather than strictly media professionals—they are at once reporters and opportunistic civil society actors finding loopholes in the system to get their voices heard. Most recently, journalists are also motivated by having shares in the media business, which has led to an exodus of many journalists from state-owned outlets into new media ventures.

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