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Studying the Chinese Media

Studying the Chinese Media

Jonathan Sullivan16 Jan 2015Leave a comment


Written by Jonathan Sullivan.

In the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham I teach an upper level undergraduate class on the Chinese media. It seeks to cover historical developments, reforms and relevant ways of theorizing about the major broadcast and print media (in addition to the internet, which I will write about separately). For the last two years I have been using Yuezhi Zhao’s Media, Market, and Democracy in China: Between the Party Line and the Bottom Line. It is an absolutely superb book, comprehensive yet succinct, sophisticated but accessible enough for students. The analysis of the historical role and development of the media during the Mao era, and the coverage of media reform and marketization under Deng, is without equal. Yet, published in 1998, I have been thinking for a while that I should seek a replacement text. A rumoured addition to Wiley’s excellent China Today series, a book on China’s Media to be written by the Director of Westminster University’s China Media Centre Hugo deBurgh, has not yet materialized. DeBurgh’s sophisticated earlier work on The Chinese Journalist, and the clarity of other titles in the China Today series (Keane’s Creative Industries for instance), make me hope the rumours come true. The brilliant Danie Stockmann, a Rochester and Michigan trained political scientist at Leiden, published Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China with Cambridge University Press in 2013. While a truly excellent book, the theoretical density, methodological sophistication and focus on newspapers, aren’t really suitable for my class text.

Susan Shirk’s edited volume from 2011, Changing Media, Changing China (my review here), has some excellent contributions (notably the chapter by David Bandurski and Qian Gang from the Hong Kong University based China Media Project, and UC Berkeley-based China Digital Times Director Xiao Qiang’s overview of the Chinese internet), but in my experience edited volumes lack the coherence required of an assigned textbook. Ying Zhu’s Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television is an excellent history of CCTV, but too limited in focus (despite CCTV’s place as the apex predator of Chinese broadcast media). Anne-Marie Brady’s Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work in Contemporary China is a fantastic book, but the media are just one (albeit very important) component. In similar vein, Doug Young’s The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China is too politically focused for my class. In terms of subject matter, James Scotton and William Hatchen’s edited volume New Media for a New China is spot on, with overviews of all of the major media sectors. But the quality of the contents is, euphemistically, very variable, indeed I could not assign it as an undergraduate text for all the errors, omissions and poor standard of writing. It’s a real shame because the subject matter is so good, and unfortunately it reflects rather poorly on the editors and the press, Wiley-Blackwell, for letting it sneak through.

Another collection that I have considered and rejected for similar reasons is Media in China, China in the Media (my review here). The Transformation of Political Communication in China: From Propaganda to Hegemony, written by my colleague Xiaoling Zhang, is an application of Gramsci to the Chinese media context, but not really suited to a student text. The most promising alternative to Zhao is the collection edited by Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, Yin Hong and Michael Keane: Media in China: Consumption, Content and Crisis. Although a little dated (published in 2006), my major prejudice against this book is that, by experience, edited volumes don’t work very well as text books. For now then, I shall continue to supplement the dated bits and omissions in Zhao Yuezhi’s standout book with contemporary journal articles. If there are other potential texts that I’ve missed, drop me a line.

Jonathan Sullivan is Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. He Tweets @jonlsullivan

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