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Beyond convergence: Rethinking China’s media system in a global context

If we take a close look at the multiplicity of media development in the contemporary world, China certainly represents one of the most distinctive, complex, adaptive and fastest-growing media systems. At the same time, driven by the national policy of improving China’s image and cultural influence abroad and the economic motivation to connect with more markets, China’s state-run media and private media companies are going global while international media and communication companies are increasingly operating in China (see essays inThussu, de-Burgh and Shi, 2018; Keane,Yecies and Flew, 2018, among others). In doing so, intensive cross-border connectivity has been built between media systems in China and beyond, encapsulated in the overarching themes of the Belt and Road Initiative and the building of‘A Community with Shared Future for Mankind’, which underpin connectivity, including both in infrastructure and culture, as a pillar for an inclusive and dialogical approach towards development and prosperity.

In the arena of international communication, ranging from infrastructure building to discursive interaction, there are certainly many debates surrounding China’s state-driven soft power initiative, such as digital authoritarianism (Feldstein, 2020), neo-imperialism/neo-colonialism (Hadland, 2012; Zhu, 2017), the geopolitics of platforms (van Dijck, 2018), and global power shifts (Zhao, 2014). Amid this ongoing process, it is hard to gauge the actual consequences of China’s active involvement in international communication, just as with the complexity of media transformation inside China. As a result, any analysis of China’s media system should avoid static and one-dimensional assumptions that may detract from understanding the ongoing dynamic processes by which the media in China have been re-defined, re-invented, re-organized and re-located in an increasingly connected, massively digitized, datafied and globalized Chinese society.

However, for both Chinese and overseas scholars, it is theoretically unhelpful to continually emphasize that China is an exception: this approach implies either an ethno-centric perspective or a reductive binary logic that isolates China in comparative media studies and leads to a lack of understanding. Instead, just as China’s overall model in development has been conceptualized over the last 40 years, for example, as ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, there have also been differing articulations of the model, from outside and inside, against China’s opening-up and economic reform policies.

This pragmatism dates back to the early years of the People’s Republic of China. When Chairman Mao Zedong was invited to attend the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Russia’s October Revolution in 1957, he said to the leaders of communist parties from more than 70 countries, that the experiences of both October Revolution and USSR’s socialist construction should provide a model for China. Equally important, he emphasized that China should articulate those experiences with its own concrete social circumstances in order to find the most appropriate way for each socialist country. This spirit of pragmatism continues today and is expected to maintain its central position in China’s policy-making in the decades to come.

With regard to media studies, such articulations have happened on both theoretical and practical levels. During the twentieth century, there was a historical shift in developing media studies through influences from outside China (Hu, Ji and Zhang, 2015: 381-382). Before the end of the ‘cultural revolution’ was officially announced in 1977, media studies, or more accurately, press or journalism theories, were influenced overwhelmingly by the Soviet communist model, articulated with a rich history of propaganda practices by the Chinese Communist Party. With the opening-up and reform era, and after regular encounters with American mass communication theories, the press was redefined in a ‘scientific’ and ‘neutral’ way as media (meijie or meiti), in order to reduce the close association with political dogmas of propaganda. Media studies quickly gained popularity as an independent discipline amidst the rebuilding of the broader social sciences in China.

Over the past four decades we have seen the complex formulation of media theories from internationalization to domestication to help understand the changing media landscape in China. At a practical level, undoubtedly, China’s media system has kept its domestic features that continue to differentiate it from the dominant models of the Western, and more specifically, Anglo-American tradition. Meanwhile, its connection with the outside world is also intensified in the context of the multi-phased globalization in which China has been playing a changing but increasingly important role. Evidence of this can easily be found, including state-run media’s global outreach joint venture capital in audio-visual content industries, and China’s social media going global as an alternative force that drives the transformation of communication and its ‘platformization’ in a digitizing world (Nieborg and Poell, 2018: 4275). Despite continuing disputes surrounding the expansion of China’s digital/Internet power, such as the ownership of China’s Internet giants and their relationship with the state power, it cannot be easily denied that the Internet world is changing with China’s participation, even with many contradictions and uncertainties.

Therefore, this chapter suggests that there should be more scholarly attention paid to the fast-changing media landscape in China and to how the state power has tried to contain the dynamics of transformation and its consequences through a series of both active and reactive policies. With this in mind, the chapter will first concentrate on ‘Media Convergence’, a key concept imported from Western academic and policy discourses, and one that has been consistently appropriated by Chinese policymakers and practitioners in their efforts to achieve concrete technological, economic and political goals. Second, after contextualizing this concept within the evolving framework of the current industry and policy, we will address an old question concerning the possibility of re-introducing China into comparative media studies by building dialogue with Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini’s seminal work on the three models in media and politics within the framework of media systems. If media convergence is regarded as a technological appropriation by China in order to pursue an alternative path of development for its traditional media system in a digitizing world, comparing this with the three models may offer a way of understanding both the continuities and discontinuities in China’s media system.

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