Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley: Chinese Media and Communications in the 21st Century


The cover photo of the "Routledge Handbook of Chinese Media" shows two young people who look Chinese sitting in what appears to be an underground train. Their geographical location is difficult to ascertain as it may be Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taipei or London. The girl seems absorbed in her smart phone and the boy next to her is focused on his tablet. They may be reading the news, updating their Facebook status, downloading music, finding a restaurant for dinner, chatting online or playing games. This image captures instantly the transforming landscape of Chinese media and communications in the 21st century: A 24/7 information environment defined by the convergence of platforms, multiple methods of vertical and horizontal communications, and the overwhelming sense that one can never be out of contact with friends or out of touch with the world.

Technology has shattered the boundaries between personal and mass communications, private and public space, news and entertainment, culture and information, producer and consumer. It has destroyed the temporal and spatial constraints that in the past defined the structure and meaning of our day.

This new environment has rendered the traditional approach to the media redundant. It is no longer sensible to separate print, television and film for the convergence of platforms has made such distinctions obsolete. It makes the label ‘new media’ nonsensical as for the generation who grew to adolescence after the 1990s, there is nothing new about the internet and social media. Globalisation and communication can no longer be analysed as distinct creatures; and this densely interconnected and relational environment generates its own logic and new challenges for users, producers and governments that were previously unthinkable.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC), Hong Kong and Taiwan adopt very different perspectives on what the media can and should do, and how they can and should operate. For example, the policy environment and the governance of the media in the PRC are designed to help the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintain its own position by monopolising the public debate within its territory. Therefore the CCP has facilitated the creation of Weibo, Youku and various Chinese versions of social networking services to fend off the invasion of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. However the sheer volume of users and exchanges on social media has presented its issues for the Chinese authorities. Weibo has become the PRC’s most prevalent and fastest growing web 2.0 application in recent years. The number of Chinese microbloggers increased from 63 million in 2010 to 281 million in 2013, almost half of the nation’s internet users. Youku is China’s leading video website and the second-largest online video service in the world (behind YouTube), which reaches more than 70% of all online video users in China. Renren (similar to Facebook) attracts about 100 million monthly users, mostly college students. Kaixin001.com has 130 million registered users, most of whom white-collar workers in China’s larger cities. Other social networking services, such as 51.com and Douban, are popular with smaller online communities throughout China, but also have between 100 and 200 million registered users each. It is observed that social media in China have become an active sphere for public discussion, information dissemination, and mobilisation in ways that are sanctioned and authorised but feared and discouraged simultaneously by the CCP.

Hong Kong’s media are facing a set of unique challenges that reflect the politically-guarded nature of news journalism framed by the territory’s peculiar position within the PRC’s orbit. On the other hand, the media and new communication technologies have played an essential role in the rise of social movements in Hong Kong. Since the landmark protests of 1 July 2003 when the conversation about Hong Kong’s future expanded to the 500,000 participants who marched to force the government to postpone a controversial national security bill, frequent protest activities have taken place there, including the annual vigil in memory of the victims of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Furthermore, when the ‘Umbrella Movement’ took place in Hong Kong in September 2014, the Chinese government closed access to Instagram and regularly blocked internet access in order to prevent students from gathering. However the protesters responded by using communication tools such as Whats App and Bluetooth-enabled application FireChat amongst themselves. They also told their stories to the world by posting videos on Facebook and other social networks. In other words, in their resistance to the authoritarian government, the students in Hong Kong have learned to use social media as a means to coordinate, communicate and disseminate information to the rest of the world.

The role of social media in the proliferation of popular protest is of course not limited to Hong Kong: the ‘Arab Spring’, the ‘Occupy movement’, and riots in Athens and London all demonstrated how social media have encouraged and facilitated social mobilisation throughout the world, including Taiwan. We witnessed how the social media in Taiwan aided the occupation of the legislature by the ‘Sunflower Movement’ in March 2014 by engaging people from all walks of life and political persuasions who were concerned about the democratic development of the island.

As the first Chinese democracy, Taiwan too is confronting its own difficulties as the media there continue to (re)negotiate their roles and responsibilities in a highly polarised democratic society. The intensifying ‘China factor’, i.e. the impact of China on Taiwan’s media industries through direct and indirect means has caused much concern. Since the opening of the borders between Taiwan and the PRC, in particular after the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010, many Taiwanese creative talents have migrated to mainland China and immersed themselves in an emergent Chinese-language film and media industry, a trans-border assemblage centred on Beijing. Moreover, the media ownership in Taiwan tends to be monopolised by a few tycoons and conglomerates that have serious commercial interest in China. Some of these media owners are allegedly exercising an influence over Taiwan’s media freedom. Thus according to Reporters without Borders, the ranking of freedom of press in Taiwan dropped from 35th in the world in 2007 to between 50th and 60th in 2015.

Meanwhile all three Chinese societies are coming to terms with the demands of market forces. As commercial media responded to an under-researched claim that audiences thirst for ever more sensationalist news, gossip and scandal, media scholars in the PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been paying increasing attention to public service broadcasting (PSB) in an attempt to overcome the problems caused by rapid commercialisation of the media. Nevertheless, the definition and practices of PSB differ vastly in the three areas. In Hong Kong, a hyper-marketised media system may have squeezed out the possible existence of any public media tradition. In Taiwan, the (re)constitution of the public sphere has revolved around PSB and the debates have revealed less a commitment to its ideals than a contest between competing elites, with the public largely excluded from discussions. In China, the official announcement of the establishment of public television channels in 1999 was an attempt to remedy problems created in the Chinese television industry by the liberalisation of the market since the early 1980s. Yet in reality these public television channels have simply become commercial channels that broadcast less entertaining programmes. When Chongqing Satellite TV (CSTV) decided to offer PSB in March 2011 under the leadership of Bo Xilai, a new term was invented, public interest television, in order to differentiate it from the existing model of Chinese public television. CSTV prized itself for being a mainstream television channel with the public interest at heart and not showing any commercials. Nevertheless the sudden downfall of Bo Xilai caused serious damage to its public interest credentials as the channel resumed television advertisements immediately after Bo was removed from his post in Chongqing in March 2012.

The expansion of citizen journalism, as well as the growth in popular participation and intervention in news processes, is a product of evolving communications technologies, but is also partly explained by an apparent decline across the Chinese world in the quality of mainstream journalism via the pressures of marketisation and commercialism. This is certainly the case in Taiwan where citizen journalism has emerged at a time of widespread distrust of the sensational and commercial media. The development of the ‘PeoPo’ platform in Taiwan has occurred alongside the evolution of PSB, and it is not a coincidence that PeoPo was created by Taiwan’s Public Television Service. This symbiosis has encouraged a new form of democratic participation in Taiwan’s media.

The similarities and differences experienced by the media and their consumers in the PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan — and their interactions with each other and the rest of the region and the world — makes us realise that the landscape of Chinese media in the new millennium is multicultural, multilingual, and multinational. Studying the Chinese media is a complex, exciting and challenging endeavour, but one which pays dividends in understanding how the media landscape is both an agent and an object of transformations taking place there – transformations more dramatic perhaps than anywhere else in the world.

20th May 2015

Ming-Yeh T. RAWNSLEY is Associate Fellow, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham and Research Associate, Centre of Taiwan Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She is also the co-editor (with Gary Rawnsley) of the "Routledge Handbook of Chinese Media" (London: Routledge, 2015).