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Media in China, China in the Media

Media in China, China in the Media

Jonathan Sullivan16 Jan 2015Leave a comment


Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

Media in China, China in the Media: Processes, Strategies, Images and Identities. Adina Zemanek (Ed.). Krakow: Jagiellonian University Press, 2014.

China’s economic engagement extends to all corners of the globe, bringing a variety of Chinese actors into contact with people in locales where a Chinese presence has traditionally been limited (or has changed the nature of relationships with earlier Chinese settlers). In some cases, the presence of Chinese traders, labourers and other migrants has caused tensions with local populations. Although such tensions are frequently manifestations of existing cleavages and injustices that have nothing to do with China, new iterations of the “Yellow Peril” trope, fuelled by local media, have been mobilized by politicians from Primorsky Krai to Honiara to Lusaka, sometimes with deadly results. The role of these media in framing “the Chinese” is an important and burgeoning research field. The strongest chapters in Media in China, China in the Media are just such studies.

The book is divided into three sections. This division is unbalanced, with a single chapter making up part one, ‘Chinese media in the early twentieth century’. It is the only historical chapter in the collection and it is not immediately clear how this study of “linguistic varieties” in hundred year old journals links to the rest of the book. The second section, “content analyses of Chinese media”, includes empirical studies on the Beijing Olympics, coverage of budgetary issues and imagery in fashion magazines. Another, painfully cautious, chapter looks at the jailed Nobel Peace Laureate, Liu Xiaobo. The final section deals with a variety of “depictions of China in foreign media,” providing a useful lens through which to access elite and popular attitudes towards China and Chinese actors. The studies here of Polish and Italian media, Zambian internet forums and Indonesian film are emblematic of the rapid accumulation of studies on media representations of China around the world.

Given the diversity of content and approaches represented in the book, a concluding chapter from the editor drawing out the implications of these studies was crucial. In the absence of such discussion, the reader is left to wonder whether there is anything theoretically (or indeed substantively) significant about how Italians and Zambians, for instance, differ in their feelings about China. A firmer editorial touch was also needed to ensure readability across the chapters, some of which tend to the esoteric. Perspectives on the Chinese media from linguistics, anthropology and other specialist fields of inquiry can yield valuable and fascinating insights, but the difficulty and “roughness” of many of the chapters in this volume represent an obstacle. A particular issue with this collection is the uneven quality of the chapters.

There are some fascinating details, which is where the major enjoyment of the book lies, since the chapters are heavily skewed towards empirical investigation. The empirical study of various aspects of the Chinese media is certainly to be encouraged, but the lack of a conceptual or theoretical backbone is an obvious feature of most of the chapters. Even so, done well, predominantly empirical investigations can still help with theory building, suggest further areas of research etc. Unfortunately, the utility of the studies in this volume is reduced by methodological issues: Research designs make questionable and unexplained choices; case selection is murky or ignored; code schemes appear from nowhere. Some of the methods are eye opening in the crudeness of their conception and execution. Content analysis is a powerful and versatile tool, but poorly designed and executed content analyses are quickly becoming one of the banes of empirical research on the Chinese media.

It is difficult to identify the audience for this volume. It won’t appeal to specialists working on the Chinese media because most chapters actually have little to say about the Chinese media. Much of the book concerns media in other countries, and in other chapters the Chinese media are a site for collecting or yielding information about other phenomena. Whether it’s the attitudes of Zambian internet users towards Chinese migrants or what attitudes towards Starbucks reveal about Chinese conceptions of foreignness, the media are effectively incidental. The potential value as a student text is negated by jargon and non-exemplary methodological practices. The Chinese media (and media depictions of China elsewhere) is a growing site of interest, and the amount of high quality theory driven empirical research is rapidly accumulating. Unfortunately the volume under review falls some way short of taking its place among these studies.

Jonathan Sullivan is Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. He Tweets @jonlsullivan. He originally reviewed this book for The China Quarterly in 2014.

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