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China’s media system and Hallin and Mancini’s three models

Moving from normative grouping to empirical analysis, Hallin and Mancini formulated three models of the relationship between media and politics in carefully selected Western European and North American democratic societies:

The Liberal Model is characterized by a relative dominance of market mechanisms and of commercial media; the Democratic Corporatist Model by a historical coexistence of commercial media and media tied to organized social and political groups, and by a relatively active but legally limited role of the state; and the Polarized Pluralist Model by integration of the media into party politics, weaker historical development of commercial media, and a strong role of the state.

(Hallin and Mancini, 2004: 11)

In addition, the three models also have geographical connections: ‘the Liberal Model, which prevails across Britain, Ireland, and North America; the Democratic Corporatist Model, which prevails across northern continental Europe; and the

Polarized Pluralist Model, which prevails in the Mediterranean countries of southern Europe’ (ibid.). By comparing the media systems of selected societies, Hallin and Mancini unpacked the concept of the ‘West’, and simultaneously downplayed the impact of a simple Western-centric, West-East framework, which has been underpinning international and global communication research over a long period of time.

For historical and political reasons, China’s media system is not like any of the three models. As Zhao has noted: ‘to bring the Chinese media system into a worldwide comparative project is to bring one of the “most dissimilar systems” into the messy picture of non-Western empirical reality’ (Zhao, 2012: 143). In her dialogical and reflective piece on Hallin and Mancini’s three models, Zhao highlights the asymmetric power relations in the world media structure. She documents in detail the historical linkages that define China’s media system as one undergoing constant hybridization and contestation, such as between the Leninist and Maoist legacies, state power beyond intervention, and tensions between political instrumentalization and professionalization. In so doing, the analysis of the media system in China is situated in a historical context rather than a comparative framework. As a continuum of this kind of dialogue, our goal here is that instead of simply verifying the suitability of these models for China, or reducing China’s experiences in order to fit into them and reinforce a Western-centric perspective, we aim to develop a state-of-the-art analysis about the current changes in China’s media system. In short, Hallin and Mancini’s three models offer an approach to study the national media system from three interrelated dimensions, namely state, market and society, together with their different power configurations.

The commercial operation of traditional media has been dominant in China since the early 1980s and has been accelerated by the introduction of private, capital-driven Internet industries. No matter how much political control can be exercised in the daily operation and practice of Chinese media, the profit motive is always a core purpose, as the outcome of four decades’ of marketization. Ian Weber has situated the political economy of China’s media system in ‘a framework of controlled commodification, in which the state constitutes the most determining influence over media operating in a commercial, profit-oriented socialist market economy’ (Weber, 2005: 792).

Resonating with this conceptualization, we will emphasize two dimensions of media power in China, which explain the boundaries of‘commercialization’. Vertically, media in China is owned and run by a four-tiered Party and government system. There is thus a clear management line between the media and their bosses. Horizontally, media is located in geographically diverse, economically uneven and culturally different administrative regions. The political and economic power of the media relies to a great extent on the political influence and economic strength of each region, which, in turn, nurtures the distinctiveness of media economics, management, regulation and professional practices. As a result of these multi-faceted political economic articulations, the media receives directives from a highly controlled, clearly layered and geographically segmented political communication system, but simultaneously enjoys different degrees of freedom in commercialization due to economic unevenness between regions.

The only exception to this is the central media group, which is owned either by the Central Committee of the Party or the central government. They have national influence and, accordingly, access to the country’s vast national market. However, these absolute advantages are also facing challenges from both the national digital migration and emerging competitors from several developed regions, including Hunan, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai, where some of the media are growing beyond their regional markets and gaining popularity among the national audience. In a word, controlled commodification happens at different levels and embodies regional diversities.

There are two new visible trends with regard to the funding of traditional media. Due to the sharp decline in advertising income, arising from the impact of new digital platforms on the advertising market, the Party decided to resume the subsidy of traditional media and reclaim their mouthpiece role as state-owned media. However, this process has not been even. As mentioned earlier, the financing capacity of different regions varies significantly. As to central media and media in affluent regions, with strong political support, they can easily mobilize all possible resources to maintain their monopolistic position in both traditional and new platforms.

For example, in order to consolidate its flagship advertising platform in the national market, China Central Television (CCTV) launched the Chinese Brands Build Strong Nation (pinpaiqiangguo) project to appeal to both Chinese companies and domestic audiences with nationalist sentiments. For Chinese companies, this was not new, because having advertisements on CCTV channels meant the quality of those products and services or simply the company’s image were not only recognized, but also endorsed by the state media. Due to the intervention of the state media, these companies gain a market advantage. Besides, by launching this new project, CCTV uses its advantage as central-level media to absorb and reconfigure the remaining advertising market values and forces competitors to explore other advertisers or move to digital platforms.

This is one side of a growing divide between media at different levels and in different regions. In poorer regions, traditional media, together with their overseeing governments, are struggling to find a way out of this ‘freezing cold winter’ (handong), due to the fact that advertising income has so dramatically reduced. As a result, they continuously attempt to fulfill the political requirements from the top, including daily and key event propaganda, while mobilizing all available resources to collaborate or merge with other media outlets - and even other industries -under the banner of‘media convergence’. This potentially entails a shift in the dependence of traditional media on their usual advertising market to a more diverse capital market.

In 2019, we investigated media convergence experiments in two countylevel media organizations: Pizhou County in Jiangsu and Changxing County in Zhejiang. The two cases were selected as they are widely believed to be successful in terms of profit-making and technological and organizational innovations. Both counties have hosted their peers from other counties or cities in China, who came to learn how to undertake media convergence and so meet the requirements of their superiors.The findings were that they shared three key characteristics:

First, they both built and ran highly efficient media convergence centres, which increased their capacity to reach the audience through digital means. Second, they were keen to develop mobile applications to integrate media functions, particularly the public-information service provided by the government. In doing so, they were contributing to the digital transformation of the governance system, popularly defined as e-governance, by facilitating information sharing between government and public and among government departments, at the same time as building an Internet public-user base. Third, due to the strength of their local economies, both of them explored the potential of collaboration with other sectors, such as exhibitions, tourism and e-commerce, seeking additional opportunities for profitmaking, and they were successful. This reinforces the above-mentioned regional unevenness in economic development, which is a key factor in media economics. Therefore, these successful models of convergence, whether in the media or beyond, cannot simply be imitated in other regions, which again demonstrates the complexity of the media market and how commercialization interacts with the political economy of different localities in China.

Hallin and Mancini’s Democratic Corporatist Model is mainly found in wealthy Nordic countries, where press freedom is the major legal framework, there are higher literacy rates, the public-service media and commercial media co-exist, political parallelism is high, and society is moderately pluralist. In this sense, there is, in principle, no compatibility between China’s media system and the Democratic Corporatist Model in the West. However, this model prompts us to look beyond political control and economic impact to shed light on the dynamic formulation of Chinese society in a digital age.

Huge innovations in communication and organization have led to a restructuring of media power. In contemporary China, due to the history of revolutionary mobilization and political-economic restructuring under state socialism, the power of society is highly constrained and systematically monitored by the state and increasingly hostage to the market hegemony. In addition, the differentiation, even segmentation, of Chinese society has accelerated after four decades of neoliberal transformation.Various interest groups have emerged, exemplified by the forging of both an urban middle class and a new working class (i.e. migrant workers), which have jointly reshaped social differentiation and diversification or confrontation of voices in today’s China. This trend is accelerated due to the prosperity of social media platforms and the pervasiveness of mobile technologies across all regions and social classes. In 2019, Internet penetration in China was higher than the global average at 61.2 per cent, which means appropriately 854 million Chinese are using the Internet on a regular basis, most of them on mobile devices (CNNIC, 2019).

The Internet has become a central part of the infrastructure of China’s economy and society for both top-down policy making and people’s everyday lives. The

Internet is utilized by the state in organizing an increasingly mobile society and by different social groups to respond to national policies and organize themselves for different purposes. A multi-layered virtual society is now emerging, which creates enormous tensions with the offline society. Therefore, not only the differentiation of social structure, but also the segmentation between online and offline society are shaping public opinion in China.

The Party has recognized this development and has required all publicity officials to pay attention to it. As President Xi crystalized in a talk on cyber security and informatization in 2016, in order to build social solidarity, online and offline should become concentric circles. While admitting the diversity of online expressions, the core of Internet governance is to make sure the Party is at the centre of these concentric circles.This is, according to Xi, not only about a ‘purified cyberspace’, but also about determining whether the Party can win the trust of the people. Xi’s linguistic creation highlighted a crucial fact that the Internet/cyber/virtual society is driving China towards a future characterized by communicative uncertainties. For a political party that has long built its ruling legitimacy on mass communication and mobilization, the Internet is posing unexpected challenges to maintaining the Party’s political and cultural leadership. With such a sense of crisis,‘self-revolution’, a concept from the past, is now widely penetrating into the propaganda system of the Party.

Along with the differentiation of Chinese society, whether online or offline, disputes rather than consensus have become the new normal in China’s information environment. Against this backdrop, traditional media have been trying to contain the increasing diversity of voices, while private, capital-driven Internet platforms are playing a major role in allowing different opinions to be voiced. Convergence and divergence coexist in this process. In addition, a new publicprivate alliance is also being widely discussed in China to demonstrate how the state power is collaborating with platform companies like Alibaba to implement a new model of governance in a connected and datafied society. As part of the global map of‘post-truth’, the role of social media in producing fake news and misinformation is also attracting attention and critique. The declining trust of the public in cyberspace too has had a negative impact on the power of the state, which is in the middle of a digital ‘self-revolution’. Therefore, it is still too early to say that a new order is emerging, be it a further centralized model or a pluralist model like the Nordic countries.

However, there might be one inspiration that we can draw from Hallin and Mancini’s Democratic Corporatist Model to analyse China’s media system - that is the moderate, autonomous regional media. Whether in ancient imperial dynasties or in modern, twenty-first-century China, the power structure of Chinese society has always been two-sided. One side is the imperial or state power centralized on the capital city and central governing body, while, on the other side, are the regions, which were always allowed a certain amount of autonomy in terms of selfgovernance, in order to organize such a geographically large and ethnically diverse country.

Therefore, if we take a look at the county-level governments and their media systems, as we discussed above, more heterogeneity than homogeneity can be found. The role of the media in creating regional political and cultural solidarity is of great importance, let alone the fact that the regional economies are the major support system for their own media’s survival and development. This is relevant for both traditional media and new media. If the Democratic Corporatist Model is based on a high level of independence of society and a diverse self-organization of different active social groups, China certainly has less of this, but offers an interesting case to see how the state power tries to reduce, even contain, the diversity of voices on the one hand, and how a balance between different levels of the political system is being maintained despite these enormous challenges.

China’s media system perhaps shares more elements with the Polarized Pluralist Model, including weak professionalization and strong state intervention.The political imperative to influence and even control the media is obvious in this model and related societies. Arbitrary powers over the media system could come from political parties, economic elites and their alliance. What clearly differentiates China from this model is a single ruling party system and a relatively more unified and culturally homogenized society. However, it may be worth looking at another dimension of this system, which could be called ‘internal pluralism’ within the political system. In addition to the autonomy of regional governance, the split of political beliefs is also creating more internal pluralism in the system and even contestation. Inside the party-state, at least three contesting beliefs can be found, namely, the liberal, the old left and the new left.Their voices are carried by different traditional media affiliated with their respective organizations and amplified by various social media platforms.

Last but not least, we also need to think about the applicability of the four dimensions that structure Hallin and Mancini’s three models: media market, political parallelism, professionalism and state intervention. First, the media market, particularly the newspaper industry, is a relatively neutral and de-contextualized category. China’s newspaper penetration is comparatively low. As elsewhere in the world, this industry in China, too, is now facing a huge decline in both circulation and advertising income. Second, in general, political parallelism is very high in China largely because of the Party’s monopolistic, constant and strict supervision over the media entities. But it should be noted that political parallelism could also be found inside the party-state due to its rival political-ideological camps.

Third, there is indeed a space for professionalism in China’s media system despite the Party’s systematic control, but the issue is not the extent of professionalism, be it strong or weak, but the specific organizational contexts in which professionalism struggles to build legitimacy. The question also remains who are the major proponents for journalistic professionalism and the structural forces behind them. Last, state intervention or, more accurately, state control is always central to the explanation of China’s media system, but this does not merely refer to a coercive power. State control over the media system in China acts both as a protector (in terms of supporting and sustaining media organizations and thus reducing market dependence) and regulation (which has switched from one side to another over the history of opening up and reform).

‘One System,Two Operations’ is still a useful term in explaining the ambiguous or hybrid nature of China’s media system since the 1980s, no matter how many changes there have been in recent decades as a result of economic, political and technological transformations, as discussed above. After almost 40 years of articulating Western concepts in Chinese academia and introducing China’s experience in media development to the international academic community, it is still difficult to place this locally-created concept in international comparative media systems research. Furthermore, the changing landscape of China’s media system and its global expansion has made it more challenging for global perception. Thus, this dialogue with Hallin and Mancini’s framework in trying to understand media transformations in China is just a small step forward to enrich the representativeness of the human story (Sparks, 2013: 121). Convergence could be the future of China’s media system, but understanding the meaning of convergence should incorporate the multiplicity of media power in China and diverse appropriations of this concept in practice. A deeply rooted pragmatism underpins the policy-making logic in China’s media system, while academic discussions about China and its rapidly globalizing media are contributing to a new ‘ferment in the field’ of international communication.


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