China Media Theory?

10:10 (UTC±00:00 +DST), 03 JUL 2015 | GBR CENTRAL LONDON

For academics, China resembles this huge country where you are just captivated — by trains virtually flying by one moment, then huge airports to make Boris mad (sorry, Gatwick), then off-colour-looking buildings hosting Central Television. There is a lot of the glitz and glamour, but remarkably little in the way of theory.

I’ve just been dipping my feet in the China media world, but I have yet to see a solid, oft-cited Chinese-made theory about the Internet and communications (as in: the way we speak; or “talk the talk, walk the walk”). Instead, many a Chinese university freely cite McLuhan, Habermas, or Marx.

Most of China tends to default to citing Marx as often as possible. You can’t blame them: it’s “enshrined” in the country’s constitution, and the replacing of this idea with Western values is almost guaranteed to make Beijing uncomfortable. Yet what are missing here are more “Internet-savvy” / “Internet-ready” ideas, as well as a very “with Chinese characteristics” theory (which should be rather apolitical if possible).

China is indeed in quite a unique situation. Television in the country has to both obey regularly demands, make money, and act as a public broadcaster. This places massive pressures and government control is tightening year by year. Beijing is also launching crackdowns on “low-brow” content, although so far advertising seems little affected. Left with comparatively few freedoms, some in the media are forced to “advertise to broadcast”, knowing what the audience wants the most. If you see TV channels that run informercials about medical care, blame Beijing, not the broadcaster, as it has to make money without running politically sensitive programmes.

Creating a theory around this unique situation is anything but easy. For one thing, policies appear to change not just with every new government, but every year as well. They were somewhat loosened for the 2008 Olympics; should we get the Winter Olympics in 2022, you could expect them to be relaxed again. But hosting huge sports events only does so much if you want a free and open media environment. Beijing is often blamed for censorship, but there is, like I said, huge pressure again to make money. It would have made some more sense if Beijing ruled and fully funded the networks, but that is not happening (which is both a good and bad thing).

The difficulty of coming out with a coherent theory in light of what’s happening in China lies in that much of the system has yet to be fully built up. If you wanted to come out with a theory in the “old” media system, you’re in for it too late — true media converge seems to have happened under Xi Jinping and we are just witness to its earlier days. At the end, I’d give it a bit more time, but I’d start hunting for a theory that “describes China” and its media system rather than fully relying on a foreign theory.