Communication in China: Political Economy, Power, and Conflict

  • Published

Communication in China: Political Economy, Power, and Conflict by Yuezhi Zhao. Rowman & Littlefield, 2008, 384 pp..

Yuezhi Zhao’s Communication in China is a scholarly study of how recent social changes influenced China’s communications industry. An associate professor in the School of Communication at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, Zhao’s specialty is the study of political economy and communication. Her previous work, Media, Market, and Democracy in China, explored the Chinese media’s relationships with the Communist Party’s governing apparatus, capitalism, and political liberalization. Her new book takes a broader perspective.

In Communication in China, Zhao examines the interplay between the communication system, the “party-state” government, and Chinese society during a period of massive, intense change caused by accelerated market reforms and China’s reintegration with the world economy following accession into the World Trade Organization in 2001. She begins by discussing the litany of government media institutions and how their policies impact the media. At the top of this complex pyramid lies the Propaganda Department. Responsible for censoring and disciplining the media, the Propaganda Department provides “guidance” on how media outlets should report on particular events. These institutions exist to ensure that the Communist Party maintains control over the media. Though often perceived as a monolithic entity rigidly enforcing specific policies, Zhao reveals that the Propaganda Department’s “party line” actually shifts (sometimes drastically) according to the party’s current political priorities and its understanding of developing situations. In one blogger’s words, the party line is “not a straight line, but an ever-changing and hard-to-grasp curve” (p. 25).

The party also maintains its control over the media through a dynamic, adaptive system of personnel control and certification, prepublication review, and post-publication monitoring. But with the decentralization of the communication industry resulting from globalization, Zhao argues that the party has also decentralized control and attempted to minimize political costs in two ways: passive censorship (internal media bans, quietly alienating subversive writers) and private media outlets’ own self-censorship (trying to out-compete their rivals, they seek to avoid costly punishment levied by the party). Zhao explains that China’s sophisticated censorship system reflects the party’s deep-seated fear of social unrest.

Despite the Communist Party’s obsession with maintaining social control throughout the communication industry, some in the domestic media have stirred up controversy by walking the line between what is permitted and what is prohibited. As an example Zhao tells the story of Sun Zhigang, who died in the custody of corrupt police and whose story was reported in the Nanfang Metropolitan News in 2003. The paper eventually expanded its “critical commentary into more critical realms of Chinese social life, cultivating a professional culture and a liberal editorial orientation that has pushed the boundaries of what is politically permissible” (p. 252). Nanfang Metropolitan News and other print and Internet media have cautiously expanded their journalism to cover such previously taboo topics as “civil rights, economic and social rights, the rural-urban divide . . . and China’s rapidly emerging and consolidating legal system” (p. 245). Nanfang Metropolitan News again flaunted party censorship regulations by publishing stories highlighting the dangers of the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak.

However, challenging party control of the media comes at a price—Nanfang Metropolitan News faced hostility from the local authorities who bore the brunt of the paper’s criticism. The newspaper’s top three executives were arrested after local authorities investigated the paper’s practices of awarding bonuses to its employees (two were sentenced to lengthy prison terms). Zhao uses the Nanfang Metropolitan News and other stories to emphasize that “the rise of business and mass appeal media outlets and the decline of traditional national and provincial party organs,” and that these events are “part and parcel of the transformation of the party and its communicative relationships with Chinese society” (p. 80).

The emergence of a powerful communication industry in Chinese society is perhaps the most important result of China’s social transformation. In response, the Communist Party has continued its “dual objectives of sustaining economic growth and maintaining its hegemony by securing the ‘commanding heights’ of a reconstructed communication and culture sector” (p. 121). Zhao concludes that China’s communication industry has “never been so central to the processes of political legitimation, capital accumulation, social relations restructuring, and cultural transformation” (p. 339). It is through the media that social forces from the Communist Party to private corporations are battling to assert their will on a very complex, divided Chinese society that has experienced—and will continue to experience—significant and rapid change.

Though her analysis emphasizes the communication system, Zhao places it within the broader context of Chinese social relations, articulating how communication affects politics and economics as well as how politics and economics affect communication. Ultimately, Communication in China reveals China’s greatest contradiction—a nominally socialist, single-party authoritarian state that has embraced capitalist open-market economic reforms while avoiding an open society. This tension has unleashed a “struggle between competing bureaucratic interests, divergent social forces, and different visions of Chinese modernity” (p. 11).

Intended mainly for media and communication scholars, Zhao’s book is sometimes a slow, dense read but always filled with interesting facts and information. For military professionals, Communication in China is most relevant for anyone working on strategic-level policy issues concerning China and East Asia. In particular, understanding the dynamics of communication systems is vital for specialists in information operations. After reading Communication in China, military professionals and policy makers will be better prepared for anticipating and dealing with Chinese behaviors, attitudes, and opinions.

Capt Brian Drohan, US Army

Fort Bragg, NC

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."