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China's Information Revolution

A talk by Kate Zhou (University of Hawaii)

Thursday, November 01, 2007
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
Los Angeles, CA 90095

On November 1, Kate Zhou (Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa) discussed what is arguably one of the most important of revolutions in modern Chinese history: the information revolution. In her words, “commercialization has so thoroughly insinuated itself into China’s information distribution system that, like a retrovirus, it has taken over its host, with the result that party-state control over Chinese society is crumbling.”

The Early Foundations of Information Control

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) right from the founding of the People’s Republic considered the control of the media -- and more generally, of all public information -- to be vital to its survival. It looked upon the media “the party’s loyal eyes, ears, and tongue.”
The CCP had great ambitions, all of which involved a level of state control of society that was unprecedented in Chinese history: establishing a nationwide planned economy and creating urban “work units” that, in the cities, would oversee virtually every aspect of individuals’ lives.  To revolutionize society in this way, the CCP adopted a method of rule involving mass political campaigns. Here the media played a crucial role in whipping up each campaign, disseminating “instructions” from “the center,” and reporting “successes” from various places around the country.
In view of the crucial importance of the media in the CCP’s system of governance, the party instituted a system of pervasive press control and censorship. In this regard, early on the party-state learned an important lesson. When it slightly loosened the reins on the press, the result was a diversity of comments and criticism -- something the party found threatening. Thus the party-state resolved never to repeat the “mistake” of permitting limited press freedom.

Finding Liberation through Forbidden Literature

Despite its draconian controls, the party-state was unable to stifle all expressions of individual thought. During the Cultural Revolution decade (1966-1976), as Professor Zhou discussed, at great peril to themselves countless intellectuals, artists, and ordinary people contributed to a challenging, vibrant underground culture.
First among these in time was perhaps Yu Luoke. Yu was refused entry to the university because his parents had been capitalists, so he became a worker. He wrote several essays on equality and the right to revolution in 1967, which made him famous, but later they were later denounced by the authorities. Most incriminating were scathing criticisms on the folly and criminality of the Cultural Revolution that Yu wrote in his personal diary in mid-1966. For his transgressions, Yu was executed in 1970.
By the late 1960s, underground literature, usually either in the form of youiyinban (mimeographed) or shuchaoben (hand-copied books), circulated throughout China. At the same time, underground reading groups or clubs (dushuhui) arose. A parallel development in the art world saw the rise of abstract art. By the late 1970s, with the so-called Democracy Wall movement, unofficial publications began to appear, more or less above ground. Prominent among such publications was Jintian (Today), which promoted alternative literary styles to counteract the stifling intellectual orthodoxy of the Cultural Revolution. Much of the writing that Jintian and other publications printed was not only not overtly political, it often seemed totally apolitical. This was certainly true of avant-garde “misty” poetry, which often seemed to a collection of words without meaning. But the authorities nonetheless attacked such literature, perhaps because they thought that if they could not understand its meaning, that per se was subversive.
Sometimes underground literature was published in novel ways. For example, in 1978 members of the Enlightenment Society (Qimeng she), an unofficial group of former Red Guards in Guiyang, traveled to Beijing, and there, on November 24, they posted poems of Huang Xiang (who was one of their members) along seventy yards of an embankment in Beijing. The poems were read by hundreds, and no doubt discussed by thousands more.
These individuals and groups, and many more discussed by Professor Zhou, were squelched by the CCP, and most of their leaders either fled China or were imprisoned.

Transgression and the Rise of Parallel Societies

Professor Zhou discussed the rise of what she described as “parallel societies” in China: two different social realities (the state on the one hand and the people -- “society” -- on the other), two different information distribution systems (state vs. non-state), and two different economies (formal vs. informal).
The emergence of these parallel societies has been facilitated by the spread of illegal -- and sometimes politically incorrect -- materials and the increasingly uncontrolled flow of many other forms of information. This is associated with China’s pervasive black market -- or sometimes, gray market -- of pirated music tapes, CDs, and DVDs. While this market is in many respects illegal, in some respects it operates with the connivance, and even encouragement, of officialdom.

The Rise of Consumer Society and the Transformation of the Media Audience

As a consumer society has developed in China, to a large extent the individual -- the consumer -- not the party, has been placed in the driver’s seat. To win consumers, advertising, interesting (usually apolitical) content, and a pluralism of sources have emerged. In the process, the media have become more than mouthpieces of the CCP.
Many of the media have been cut lose from state enterprises, or at least forced to fund themselves. The result has been the rise of the notion of “efficient distribution” (youxiao faxing), which in reality means publishing to maximize profits. The search for market-generated income has had the effect, Professor Zhou argued, of detaching the media from its once-slavish adherence to the party line.
China has become a huge media market. Today, it has more than 2,000 newspapers, over 8,000 magazines, and 374 television stations. China has 150 million Internet users and over 400 million cell phones.

Moreover, China is subject to global influences. Some of these enter through Hong Kong and Taiwan; others through joint ventures with global media firms; and still others through the Internet.

“Blackmail Journalism,” Corruption in the Media, and Intellectual Property Rights

The commercialization of China’s media, however, has not been without disturbing problems. Chief among these, Professor Zhou argued, is corruption within the media. Some journalists have succumbed to profiteering by demanding payment from officials and others to kill unflattering or critical stories. They have also demanded payment to create flattering stories.
In the West, a great deal of attention has been focused on the widespread theft of intellectual property in China. Professor Zhou discussed how this sort of piracy was not an end in itself but was an “opportunistic first step in a complex process of achieving a critical mass of independent (non-state) information in the hands of ordinary Chinese.” She argued that “pirated entertainment, including Hollywood movies, has provided widespread knowledge and awareness of alternative values, ways of life, and social arrangements.”


Limits of Press Liberalization -- and Circumvention of Those Limits

From the prospective of the party-state, press liberalization has lead to innumerable problems and, if unchecked, can jeopardize the very survival of the regime.
The Ministry of Propaganda has neatly summed up the problems in a “media problem list” consisting of ten categories:

  1. Failure to keep the media under control;
  2. Breakdown of the principle of state secrecy and the policy of stratified news management;
  3. Creation of  public frenzy over certain unexpected events (e.g., the death of Princess Diana);
  4. Causing social instability by reporting on important epidemics, like HIV/AIDS;
  5. “Hurting ethnic feelings” by irresponsible reporting on national minorities and their religions;
  6. Reporting “sensationalized oddities” and distributing false stories;
  7. Publishing “low and vulgar” articles;
  8. Leaking state secrets;
  9. Frequently reporting news taken from the Internet;
  10. Spreading Western news reporting values such as “freedom of the press” and “All the news that’s fit to print.”

The party-state has responded in various ways to control these “problems.” First and foremost, censorship continues. In its 2005 survey of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders ranked China 159th out of 167 countries.
The Chinese authorities have created a huge Internet police force, which seeks to monitor and control content on the Internet. It has, for example, closed down political blogs. The authorities have also closed news outlets (338 publications were banned in 2004), imprisoned journalists (32 in 2005), dismissed or demoted producers and journalists, issued fines, and sued for libel.
In response, individuals have resorted to creative ways to circumvent censorship. For instance, the buying and selling of ISBNs (book registration numbers; such numbers constitute a government imprimatur) is not unusual. In another example, reporters have resorted to yidibaodao: giving news that is forbidden (or sure to bring down problems on reporters) in one area to their counterparts in another locality.
Clearly, in Professor Zhou’s analysis, state and society are locked in struggle.


Professor Zhou argued that the “rampant violation of intellectual property rights, the growth of black markets in books, videos . . . and other media, the rise of a consumer culture, and the decline of state media have replaced the old order of the regime’s complete control over information and its distribution.” Might this, she asked, presage the emergence of a civil society in China?


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Kate Xiao Zhou was born in Wuhan, China. She received her B.A. in English from Wuhan University, a Masters in Sociology from Texas A & M University, and a Masters and Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University. She is currently an associate professor of Comparative Politics and Political Economy of East Asia in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Her main research interests include the dynamics of transition from central planning to markets, Chinese economic and civil society development, Chinese business, globalization in East Asia, and comparative studies of entrepreneurship among women. She is the author of How the Farmers Changed China: Power of the People (Westveiw, 1996). This talk is drawn from a chapter of her forthcoming book, China's Long March to Freedom: Grassroots Liberalization Movements. In 2002, Kate Zhou founded the Education Advancement Fund International (EAFI) assisting rural Chinese minority women and children through education, scholarship, and entrepreneurship ( In 2006, EAFI was the first-place winner in the Social Entrepreneurship category of the Templeton Freedom Prize for Excellence in Promoting Liberty.

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