Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Routledge Handbook of Chinese Media

I am delighted to announce the publication of The Routledge Handbook of Chinese Media, edited with Ming-Yeh Rawnsley. You can find links to the book here Routledge and at Amazon.

To whet your appetite and maybe persuade you to purchase a copy I post here my introduction this collection of essays in which I map out the structure of the volume and explain its approach.

Shooting ‘at a target that appears easy to focus on at first sight,
but is actually rather elusive’
— Yuezhi Zhao (Chapter 1 this volume) describing her experience of studying the Chinese media.

In the final stages of preparing this manuscript, the publishing team at Routledge asked us to choose the image we would like to use as a cover for the book. We considered a dozen possibilities, most of which depicted satellite dishes, flickering television screens, the new CCTV building in Beijing or the giant screens in Hong Kong’s Time Square — all rather pedestrian and uninspiring choices, we thought. However, we did find one photograph that spoke to both the vision and shape of the book you are now holding in your hand, and both editors immediately concurred that this should be the front cover. Take a look at it.

We see two young people — they could be Chinese — sitting in what appears to be an underground train … where? Hong Kong? Singapore? Shanghai? Taipei? London, perhaps? The girl is absorbed in her mobile telephone, the boy sitting beside her is focused on his tablet. They may be reading the news, updating their Facebook status, downloading music, finding a restaurant for dinner, chatting on weibo or playing games. For the editors, this image captured instantly the transforming landscape of Chinese media and communications: A 24/7 information environment defined by the convergence of platforms, multiple methods of vertical and horizontal communication, and the overwhelming sense that one can never be out of contact with friends or out of touch with the world. Technology has shattered the boundaries between personal and mass communications, private and public space, news and entertainment, culture and information, producer and consumer. It has destroyed the temporal and spatial constraints that in the past defined the structure and meaning of our day. Our lives — our friends, our diaries, our memories in photographs, our means of amusement and distraction — are now available in one handy package and accompany us everywhere. Where once we could only ‘download,’ we are all now encouraged to ‘upload’; just as soon as we got used to talking about ‘blogs’, along come ‘tweets’; Youtube users are now able to integrate their films with their Facebook accounts; we are coming to terms with the fact that clouds are no longer just those white fluffy things that float above us in the sky; and we are learning a brand new jargon of 4G, ‘apps’ and ‘android technology’.

Having surrendered to this new landscape, the editors — one obsessive Tweeter and one hardened player of Candy Crush — realised that the traditional approach to collecting and organising essays on the media had been rendered redundant. We could not include separate sections for print, television and film, for the convergence of platforms has made such distinctions obsolete. We refused to concede to fashion and label one section ‘New Media’: When do new media stop being new? For the generation who grew to adolescence after the 1990s, there is nothing new about the internet and social media. ‘New media’ is a tired classification used among the generations, including the editors, who can recall the dark times before the internet and email. Moreover, studies of journalism, culture, information and entertainment can no longer treat the ‘new media’ as separate categories, a sideshow, when journalists now blog, tweet and broadcast through the internet (how can media studies departments still justify delivering separate journalism and new media degrees?); and when new networks are choosing to upload major drama series made exclusively for the internet, turning their backs on more conventional methods of broadcasting (of course we’re thinking here of Netflix and the massive global hit drama series, House of Cards).

Neither could we group the chapters according to geographical focus, for space and time have far less meaning now than they did a generation ago. The rapid development of new communications technologies and their almost immediate adoption by users (as recently as 2013 a Chinese student said to one of the editors, ‘You still use Whatsapp? That is so old!’) shapes and is shaped by equally transformative processes in politics, economics and culture. Globalisation and communication can no longer be analysed as distinct creatures; and this dense interconnected and relational environment generates its own logic and new challenges — for users, producers and governments — that were unthinkable only a decade before this book appeared.

Globalisation and the new communications landscape also help us to understand the necessity of analysing multiple definitions of ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’. In this book we recognise China as a distinct nation-state that is officially called the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Our use of the term ‘Chinese’ in the title of the book refers to a culture and civilisation that is not tied to any particular territorial or political unit. It broadens the focus, allows for a more inclusive approach and permits our fellow contributors to discuss not only the PRC, but also Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as the regional and global flows of communications and cultures. Thus we are concerned with three societies which adopt very different perspectives on what the media can and should do, and how they can and should operate. Rogier Creemers in Chapter 3 notes that this debate is particularly pronounced in the PRC where the policy environment and the governance of the media are designed to help the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintain its own position, namely ‘monopolising the public debate within the Chinese territory. This extends to the production of documentaries and historical dramas (Cao and Guo in this volume) in which continued government supervision has provoked the cultural industries into adopting a cautious approach to creating programmes. Hong Kong’s media are facing a set of unique challenges that reflect the politically-guarded nature of news journalism (encouraging a growing culture of self-censorship among reporters) framed by the territory’s peculiar position within the PRC’s orbit. Yet Taiwan too, often labelled the ‘first Chinese democracy’ (Chao and Myers 1998), is confronting its own difficulties as the media there continue to negotiate and re-negotiate their roles and responsibilities in a highly polarised democratic society. All three Chinese societies are coming to terms with the demands of market forces and an under-researched claim that audiences thirst for ever more sensationalist news, gossip and scandal. The similarities and differences experienced by the media and their consumers in the PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan — and their interactions with each other and the rest of the region and the world — validate Daya Thussu’s observation: The ‘global media landscape’, he noted, is now ‘multicultural, multilingual, and multinational. Digital communication technologies in broadcasting and broadband have given viewers in many countries the ability to access simultaneously a vast array of local, national, regional and international’ media products (Thussu 2014: 8).

Emerging from this terrain of cross-national flows of communication, entertainment and news that breaches the personal and the public and is oblivious to considerations of time and space, is a complex, non-linear evolution of media processes, industries and agencies that erode further the increasingly fragile partitions between society, culture, economics and politics. These are issues discussed in Part I of this volume in which Yuezhi Zhao, Colin Sparks and Rogier Creemers reflect on the ‘state of the field’ from national and international perspectives. They identify the principal themes, questions and concerns that drive the subsequent chapters and engage with Chinese media on multiple disciplinary and geographical levels. The discussions in Part I embed the volume in a discourse of transformation — of the location and exercise of global power, in the nature of capitalism, and in Chinese and global media spaces. At the forefront in Part I, and in Part II  which is concerned with varying understandings of, and practices in journalism, are questions about media economy and shifting ideological priorities; the relationship between state, media and society; accountability, social mobilisation and empowerment; and the laws and regulatory frameworks and processes that govern media architectures and practices. In a novel approach to communications Anthony Y.H. Fung’s chapter on online gaming reveals the challenges facing the Chinese government in constructing appropriate frameworks to regulate a completely new landscape. The levels of popular participation and interactivity involved in gaming have provoked government authorities, finding themselves with little jurisdiction in the game environment,  to reconsider their relationship with the cultural industries; while at the same time opening new opportunities for online participants to take control and shape their own virtual worlds. This represents a unique and unprecedented form of negotiation between government and civil society in China.

Meanwhile, Joseph M. Chan and Francis L.F. Lee remind us of the way the media — and especially new media technologies — have played an essential role in the rise of social movements in Hong Kong. This is of course not limited to Hong Kong: in It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere (2013), Paul Mason reflected on the global wave of protest and revolution. The book includes the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, the ‘Occupy movement’, and riots in Athens and London, and documents how social media have both encouraged and facilitated popular mobilisation throughout the world. Mason quotes one activist who explained her use of the social media during meetings and captured succinctly their democratic benefits: ‘We use Twitter to expand the room’ (Mason 2013: 45).

Since the landmark protests of 1 July 2003 when the conversation about Hong Kong’s future expanded to the 500,000 participants who marched to force the government to postpone a controversial national security bill, we have observed frequent protest activity there, including the annual vigil in memory of the victims of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. We have witnessed a similar trend in Taiwan where, following the occupation (assisted by the mobilisation power of social media) of the legislature by the so-called Sunflower Movement in the Spring of 2014, the number of demonstrations involving people from all walks of life and political persuasions, concerned about an expanding range of issues, have proliferated (e.g. Cole 2014).

The themes of mobilisation and empowerment are explored further by the contributors in Part III who explore the formation and expression of particular political, social and economic identities. The internet, social media and the adoption of public service broadcasting (PSB) models have modified both the structure of, and popular participation in, the public sphere. But there are limits: In Taiwan, as Chun-wei Daniel Lin notes in this volume, the (re)constitution of the public sphere has revolved around PSB. Although taking reference from the experience of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), debates about PSB in Taiwan have revealed less a commitment to its ideals than a contest between competing elites, with the public largely excluded from debates. This connects to Rawnsley and Feng’s chapter on the development of PSB in China and Cheung’s discussion on the lack of PSB in Hong Kong. While Cheung points out that ‘without a strong public media tradition, the Hong Kong media are hyper-marketised’, Rawnsley and Feng concur with Raymond Williams (1976: 130): ‘In one way the basic choice is between control and freedom, but in actual terms it is more often a choice between a measure of control and a measure of freedom, and the substantial argument is about how these can be combined’.

In Part III our contributors evaluate how the boundaries between the personal and private have adjusted to new communications technologies, and one example is the curious development of the ‘selfie’ among young Taiwanese females (Wang’s chapter). It is good to remind ourselves that prior to the word ‘selfie’ entering the Oxford English Dictionary, and long before no celebrity, prime minister or president could consider themselves either authentic or popular (populist?) until they had tweeted a photograph of themselves taken on their own mobile phone, young people throughout Greater China were documenting their everyday lives through digital self-portraiture. Is this another example of the global flow of culture from east to west, confounding the advocates of the old-fashioned ‘cultural imperialism’ thesis? And how does this global flow connect with frameworks that approach the impact of online nationalism and the way Chinese views themselves and are viewed by global audiences (Ma in this volume), and China’s growing commitment to exercising ‘soft power’ among its neighbours and the world (Sparks and Gary Rawnsley in this volume)? Selfies, as in the other examples identified by the essays in Part III, confirm that it is no longer possible to mark a clear distinction between producer and consumer, an issue that is again addressed in Parts II and III when the phenomenon of citizen journalism is considered as a supplement to (rather than replacement of) mainstream professional news reporting. This expansion of citizen journalism, as well as the growth in popular participation and intervention in news processes, is of course a product of evolving communications technologies, but is also partly explained by an apparent decline across the Chinese world in the quality of mainstream journalism via the pressures of marketisation and commercialism. This is certainly the case in Taiwan where, as Chen-ling Hung notes in this volume, ‘citizen journalism has emerged at a time of widespread distrust of the sensational and commercial media’. The development of the ‘PeoPo’ platform in Taiwan has occurred alongside the evolution of PSB, and it is not a coincidence that PeoPo was created by Taiwan’s Public Television Service (PTS). This symbiosis has encouraged a new form of democratic participation in Taiwan’s media, but given the small audience enjoyed by PTS, is it making any real difference? Or are the converted merely preaching to the choir?
The theme of marketisation runs through Part IV in which our contributors use a range of examples — including China’s evolving copyright culture, online gaming (a very recent and welcome addition to media studies), the ‘clustering’ of Chinese media production, and specific case-studies of genres and events — to consider the interactions of Chinese cultural and media industries, free markets and issues of global governance. In the essay by Charles Chi-wai Cheung we learn how market forces help define the powerful and the powerless in Hong Kong. Using representations of youth as the focal point for his discussion, Cheung not only helps us to understand media representations of young people and their issues in Hong Kong, but also how youth groups and groups acting on their behalf engage in a form of resistance to disrupt mainstream representations. So the chapter also brings to our attention questions of visibility and the way media representation can decide who is deemed important, legitimate, and authoritative. This connects with the discussions by Athina Karatzogianni and Andrew Robinson (on dissidents in China), Wanning Sun (on the working classes) and Sarah Qian Gong (on the salaried and lower middle classes).  

We move beyond the region in Part V to analyse the global dimension of Chinese media. Our contributors discuss the way that China, broadly defined, is seen through foreign eyes and how the media help to project the particularly favourable image identified by the government in Beijing as a way of changing the global conversation about China. So Yunya Song evaluates how American journalists have ‘decoded’ China and Chinese media reports to narrate the incredible changes that have taken place in the country since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s. This then feeds into Gary Rawnsley’s chapter on China’s public diplomacy and ‘soft power’ in which he argues that China’s strategy of global engagement through its growing international presence has been determined less by clear foreign policy or diplomatic objectives, and more to correct what Beijing considers a distorted and inaccurate picture of China in foreign media. The interconnected nature of the global media space, highlighted by Junhao Hong and Youling Liu who discuss the interactions of the Chinese media industries with their foreign counterparts, has given rise to a most curious situation: the world is watching China watching the world watching China. Such is the complexity of the modern technologically-driven international space, but it also demonstrates the capacity of the media to hold a mirror to themselves and reflect back to their own domestic audiences a view that may be a little more unpalatable than desired. In 2008, of course, the world was watching China live when Beijing hosted the Olympic Games. This exercise in soft power, discussed by Limin Liang in Chapter 24 as a ‘media event’, has been described as both China’s ‘coming out party’ (Leibold 2010) and a ‘campaign of mass distraction’ (Brady 2009), demonstrating that in discussing ‘soft power’ we have to remember that power lies not with the source of the message, but with the audience; for, as Song reminds us in Chapter 27, the audience can decide whether and how to receive, interpret and act upon particular messages. This is also addressed on a local level by George Dawei Guo who calls for the returns of ‘audience’ to studies of Chinese television drama. How viewers receive the official representation of Chinese history — in fiction or in documentaries (Cao in this volume) will determine whether or not the government’s objective to create a new nationalist discourse (discussed by Yiben Ma in Chapter 12) will be successful. History has long proved a successful theme in the national propaganda of any country. China has a particularly long and complex historical narrative from which to draw its communications capacity (Rawnsley & Rawnsley 2010); and both Hong Kong and Taiwan are now constructing their own historical narratives that may define the way they see themselves and how they are seen by the world.

We hope this book confirms what the authors have long known: that studying the Chinese media — in the PRC, Taiwan and Hong Kong — is a complex, exciting and challenging endeavour, but one which pays dividends in understanding how the media landscape is both an agent and an object of transformations taking place there. All three societies are engaged in intricate and sometimes difficult processes of change that affect their politics, culture, society and relationships with the world beyond their borders. Our contributors have adopted unique approaches and case-studies that we hope will challenge the conventional methods of analysing not only the Chinese media, but the media in a more global and comparative perspective. We expect that the discussions here will raise more questions and issues; and we know full well that, because of the speed at which these societies are changing and communications technologies are developing the specific data presented will soon be out of date, though the frameworks, perspectives and insights offered here will remain relevant. At that point, we hope that a second volume may address the new Chinese media landscape now evolving before our eyes.                                           

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