Issue: 2014: Vol. 13, No. 2

Chinese Media and Culture: Dancing with Chains

Article Author(s)

Hongmei Li

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Dr. Hongmei Li (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is a tenured associate professor and the coordinator of Strategic Communication at Miami University of Ohio. Her research interests include advertising and consumer culture, new technologies, Chinese media and society, nation branding and public diplomacy, global communication, gender and sexuality, and corporate social responsibility. She is the author of Advertising and Consumer Culture in China and editor of The Middle ... 
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The Eighteenth Party Congress’ Third Plenary Session’s Decision maps out the country’s plan for cultural and media development. There is nothing on the surface that suggests a radical departure from the tight control the Chinese party-state exerts. The Decision is full of paternalistic clichés about the development of socialist culture under the guidance of Marxism, media controls, and the unification between social benefits and economic benefits. But new elements embedded in the Decision contain potential seeds for at least a partial reordering of the dynamic tension between impulses demanding control and those calling for expression in the Chinese cultural and media realm, with control perhaps gaining ground. These elements also figure in China’s recent effort to develop culture industries and rebalance domestic media control and international cultural expansion and influence.

This essay does not aim to provide a comprehensive commentary on China’s recent cultural policies as they relate to the Decision. Instead, it focuses on the intersection between cultural and media policies and the push and pull between the party-state and aggressive market-oriented media producers. Specifically, the essay will highlight some potential changes in the following six areas: (1) control mechanisms, (2) the prescribed nature of a media organization, (3) media censorship, (4) media consolidation and economies of scale, (5) the entry of private capital into the Chinese media industries, and (6) China’s soft power and public diplomacy.

First, the Decision stresses the government’s role as administrator rather than player in managing cultural agencies. This is framed as a measure to further cultural reforms that aim to separate operations of the government from those of the enterprise. Specifically, the Decision proposes to establish unified management organizations linking party and state to administer cultural staff, affairs, capital, and orientation. This opens the possibility of changing what has been a dual-track media control system in China.

Generally speaking, Chinese media have been regulated and controlled both by a Party and an administrative system. The Party system is represented by the Central Propaganda Ministry and its branches at the provincial, district and county levels. The administrative system is represented by various ministries under the State Council and the nationwide branches of each ministry. For example, TV and radio have been regulated by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT); print media, audio, and video by the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP); and the Internet by the Ministry of Industry and Technology Information. In 2013, SARFT merged with GAPP to form a new body called the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film, and Television. The new body, whose name has been widely criticized by netizens for its lack of creativity, aims to streamline China’s regulation over both print and broadcast media.

China’s Central Propaganda Department and its branches monitor media content and can stop problematic programs at any time by issuing formal or informal notices or oral directives. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, shaping culture has always been a key official mission of the government and the Party. Except for a few years during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Chinese Communist Party has maintained tight, centralized control over Chinese media (Zhao, 2008). Various ministries also participate in controlling media content. For example, China’s State Language Affairs Commission, which seeks to standardize Chinese language and enforce proper pronunciation in China, can file official complaints about problematic content. Given the tradition of the Communist Party’s pervasive ideological control involving many different government agencies, a transition away from the current structure is likely to encounter resistance at various levels.

Second, the Decision emphasizes the dual role of a Chinese cultural organization as both an instrument of social control and a business, with social benefits prioritized over economic benefits. While this kind of positioning is not new, the statement could be viewed as a corrective measure, aiming to rectify media practices in China that overemphasize economic benefits, as discussed below.

In the era of reform, media organizations have been told to simultaneously serve as an official organ of the state and at the same time rise or fall based on market forces (Zhao, 1998, 2008). In the last few decades, the Chinese government has gradually reduced subsidies and the vast majority of Chinese media now rely predominantly or solely on advertising as a source of income. The market now plays a key role in dictating media content, as evidenced by the importance of the ratings system and the booming entertainment culture.

The media ratings system was introduced in China in the late 1990s. Now, CCTV-controlled Yangshi Suofurui, with its shortened English name CSM, is the most important media research firm in China. Firms that monitor print media, radio, outdoor media, and the Internet have also been established since the early1990s. Among them, Hui Cong, established in 1992, is one of the most important, currently monitoring more than 1,400 print outlets and more than 7,000 Internet sites. Ratings have become a common currency of exchange and the most important criterion in dictating a TV station’s programming and daily practices. CCTV even implemented a system called “the last rated program out” in 2002, which means the lowest rated program gets canceled first. Although the CCTV system was replaced by a more comprehensive evaluation mechanism in 2011 that stresses four dimensions, including a program’s leadership power, influence, communicative power, and professionalism, ratings still take up more than 50 percent of the weight in the equation (, 2011, Aug. 12).

An entertainment culture has boomed since the late 1990s with the rise of media metrics. Entertainment programming often is less controlled and more profitable that other types of content. Many provincial satellite TV channels have launched entertainment programs to increase their competitiveness in an economy that depends on eyeballs. Hunan Satellite TV (HSTV) in particular has become a successful model. Starting with its flagship program Happy Camp, a variety show that debuted in July 1997, and its subsequent dating program The Promise of Rose (running from July 16, 1998 to August 25, 2005), HSTV has distinguished itself by celebrating happiness and youth culture. Other stations followed suit and attempted to differentiate themselves either through TV dramas, martial arts, localized storytelling or other types of programming.

Chinese authorities often show ambivalent attitudes toward media entertainment, fostering the boom on the one hand but attempting to control it on the other. A number of policies and regulations have been issued by China’s SARFT to control the “over-entertaining” trend in Chinese media. Entertainment is often criticized by the authorities as promoting vulgarization, infotainment, and celebrity gossip. For example, SARFT issued an order requiring that no satellite TV channel, starting in July 2011, should air entertainment programs more than three times a week in prime time from 17:00 to 22:00. This example demonstrates an inherent contradiction in the dual functions of Chinese media.

Third, the Decision speaks to censorship. It aims to improve ideological control mechanisms, enhance the management of media infrastructure and content, establish “a unified mechanism to prevent and strike online crimes,” and “improve the mechanism to handle unexpected events over the Internet” so as to “form a working framework that combines direct guidance and administration under the law.” It further calls for “the institutionalization of news releases, tightening of the journalist qualifications, management of new media[1], and the regulation of the communicative order.” In a way, the Decision proposes to tighten ideological controls and online censorship, probably as a response to the fragmentation of the Chinese media market and the threat posed by new media, such as social media and mobile phones.

Indeed, many observers and analysts have pointed out that since Xi Jinping took power, control over the Internet has been increased. Most recently, China issued a document called “Temporary Rules for Managing Instantaneous Communication Tools and Public Information Service Development,” which aims to manage and censor information distribution. However, authorities have always been struggling with the issues of control over media. There has never been a clear line about what is allowed and what is not. There is no single media law in China, and scholars have been discussing whether the state should adopt one. Chinese media are now regulated by scattered regulations, orders, and circulars, and the control regime is ambiguous, combining formal and informal controls. Arguably, the lack of formal boundaries makes censorship effective. Media workers often censor themselves to a degree that goes further than the often unclear official guidelines.

Other controls are being put in place. Chinese people have long had to obtain state-issued work certificates (shanggang zheng) to work in media organizations, and regulations are being tightened. Recently, regulations were implemented to prevent people on social media from distributing news unless they are licensed to do so. As the least controlled sector, advertising traditionally has been under less scrutiny. However, a 2007 decree issued jointly by the Ministry of the Personnel (currently the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security) and the State Administration of Industry and Commerce initiated the practice of certifying ad workers. This decree specifies criteria used to evaluate and grant the certificates of “assistant advertising expert,” “advertising expert,” and “senior advertising expert” through annual exams overseen by the Chinese Advertising Association. In 2011, the first qualifying exam was held and the subjects tested include advertising laws and regulations, practices, copywriting, design, and planning. The practice makes China the only country that grants official certifications to advertising workers.

Fourth, the Decision continues to stress media consolidation and economies of scale. It states that “a special shareholding policy will be applied to state-owned media that are reformed according to state policies.” It also stipulates that China will “push consolidation and acquisitions of cultural enterprises across geography, industry, and different kinds of ownership and improve the scale, concentration, and professionalism of the cultural industries.” This is a response to the exponential media growth in China in the last few decades and to the competition posed by large foreign media. A staple slogan in Chinese media industries since the late 1990s calls for enterprises to “become larger and stronger.” In the last two decades, Chinese media have been characterized by a rapid expansion as well as a simultaneous consolidation under the direction of the government as a way to enhance their competitiveness prior to China’s entry into the WTO.

Media consolidation started in 1996 with the formation of the Guangzhou Daily Newspaper group. By 2003, China had established 69 media groups, including 38 newspaper groups, 13 broadcasting groups, one magazine group, nine book publishing groups, five distribution groups, and three film groups (“Zhongguo chuanmeijituan fazhan baogao,” 2004). In May 2011, China News and Publishing Group was founded. Not officially allowed to form cross-media groups, most conglomerates are based on single medium and related entities, or geography. The Decision means that in the future cross-media groups can be formed. Media organizations from different industries and different places can be consolidated. Consolidation is a means to achieve economies of scale as well as a way to support government control over previously fragmented media (Zhao, 1998, 2008).

Fifth, the Decision aims to further promote the development of private capital in China’s media market. It encourages private cultural enterprises, lowers the threshold of entry, and allows private capitalists to be involved in overseas publishing and online publishing businesses and in holding shares of state-owned film production, cultural, and arts organizations. It also states that China will increase government subsidies, cultural purchases, and copyright protections. This is evidence of China’s effort to develop its culture industries domestically and internationally.

While allowing private capital into media industries is not entirely new, it can potentially lead to new practices. In the past, private capital was mainly allowed in the areas of production and distribution. Since the late 1980s, TV stations have started to purchase programs on the market, inaugurating a system that separates the producer from the broadcaster. Since the 1990s, state authorities have begun to more aggressively promote the system and allow private capital to enter the TV market. TV drama is the first area that has witnessed the penetration of private capital. It is a common practice now for TV stations to buy programs produced by others. Now, the stages seems to be set for a broadening of the embrace of private capital in media.

While Chinese TV producers initially only cloned successful foreign programs, starting with HSTV’s highly influential show Super Girl, they have in recent years begun to purchase global programming, such as Ugly Betty (debuting in 2008 and licensed from Televisa), If You Are the One (debuting in 2010 based on the UK program Take Me Out), China’s Got Talent (deputing in 2010 and licensed from UK-based FremantleMedia), Daddy, Where Are We Going? (debuting in October 2013 and licensed from a South Korean producer), Voice of China (debuting in July 2012 and licensed from the Dutch program The Voice of Holland), Chinese Dream Show (debuting in April 2011 and licensed from BBC) and so forth.

Fashion magazines have long entered the Chinese market through licensing or partnership with a local publisher (Fritha & Yang, 2009). For example, the Hearst Corporation from the U.S. started to publish a Chinese version of Cosmopolitan in 1993. Harper’s launched the Chinese version of Harper’s Bazaar in 2001, and the Chinese version of Vogue was introduced in 2005. Japanese magazines such as Vivi, With, Style, Oggi and CanCam have also launched Chinese versions in the 2000s. Given that most of these magazines are advertising vehicles, content is less controlled than news programs. In the book publication area, U.S. publisher Simon & Schuster started to collaborate with Chinese publishers in the late 1990s in licensing or co-publishing deals.

Lastly, the Decision stresses China’s public diplomacy. Since the turn of the 21st century, China has attempted to increase its comprehensive power, which includes a higher international profile and soft power. In addition to increasing China’s international aid and participation in global affairs, an important step has been the spread of Chinese culture through Confucius Institutes. China has founded more than 300 Confucius Institutes worldwide. Interestingly, promotion of Chinese culture overseas emphasizes ideology as well as economic benefits. Recently, Confucius Institutes in the U.S. has been under increasing scrutiny.

While there is no doubt that China’s international influence has increased recently, there is a general consensus that China’s soft power mainly emanates from its conformity to international norms rather than its power to shape global policies (Li, 2009). Li (2009) argues that China’s soft power concerns “the soft use of power.” China has not yet taken a leading role in international affairs except in the case of climate change. Also, there is a deep suspicion toward China in the West. While China has allocated huge amounts of money for state-owned media such as Xinghua News Agency, China Central TV, and Shanghai Media Group to increase their international influence, gaining credibility is a major challenge for these media outlets. Competition for viewers in other countries is always contentious (Price, 2002), but China faces a unique challenge because of its Communist ideology, state control, and the West’s anxiety about China’s rise.

In this essay, I discussed potential changes in China’s media control mechanisms, the dual role of China media, censorship, media consolidation, the entry of private capital into the Chinese media industries, and China’s soft power and public diplomacy. In summary, it seems that the Decision largely aims to further promote the economic function of culture and media industries and control their ideological function. It would not be surprising if we see China implementing tighter controls over the Internet and social media and simultaneously encouraging entrepreneurship and creativity. To a large extent, culture and media industries are dancing with chains. They are allowed to become economic entities that only disseminate non-threatening cultural contents. Chinese media aiming to expand internationally will encounter even more challenges. After all, they may continue to be viewed as the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpieces. Their dual roles will be constantly tested and contested in the domestic and international markets. One more note: the Decision only prescribes the rules for the media and cultural industries, but the practices may be different.

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Li, H. (2013). China’s media transformation and audience studies. In A. N. Valdivia (Gen. Ed.) & R. Parameswaran (Ed.), The international encyclopedia of media studies. Vol. 3: Audience and interpretation in media studies (pp.341-364). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

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[1] Many observers believe the party-state’s aim is to converge new and old media so as to maintain the dominance of traditional outlets and thereby maintain ideological control.