The Public and the Popular Media in China, by Hsiao-Wen Lee

A review of The Public and the Popular Media in China, by Hsiao-Wen Lee

The question of whether or not China has ever had or can develop a public sphere in the Habermasian sense has been debated by scholars researching China since the early 1990s, particular after Jürgen Habermas’ Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) was first translated and published in English in 1989. One key question driving this debate has been whether it is possible and, more importantly, meaningful to apply this Western concept to the Chinese context. The dissertation under review joins this discussion by arguing that the popular press in China serves as the best platform under the current circumstances for the emergence of a genuine public in China – despite its limitations and its difference from how Habermas conceptualized the rational bourgeois public sphere of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Although focusing on the sensational and the emotional, and not on the rational, and only “[eroding] political authority rather than acting as a direct opposition to the State” (p. 19), it has become a vehicle for its readers to form opinions and discuss events and thus fulfils the criteria for a public sphere in the abstract sense that focuses on “moral and cultural dimensions” (cf. Richard Madsen, “The Public Sphere, Civil Society, and Moral Community: A Research Agenda for Contemporary China Studies,” Modern China 19, no. 2, April 1993, 189-190, cited on p. 16). Besides the Introduction (chapter 1) and the Conclusion (chapter 11), the thesis can be roughly divided into three parts. The first part (chapters 2 to 5) constitutes the literature review and develops the background for the theoretical argument of the thesis in three steps based on different bodies of secondary literature. It also presents the methodology. The second part (chapters 6 and 7) analyzes coverage of selected events in the popular press in two cities, Beijing and Kunming, and contrasts it with coverage in the Party press. The third (chapters 8 to 10) examines discussions the author conducted with different “focus groups” in the two cities and analyzes the characteristics of the public sphere in China.

Read the review on Dissertation reviews

Reviewer : Mareike Ohlberg PhD candidate, University of Heidelberg.

Jacqueline Nivard

Jacqueline Nivard, Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine

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