Discussion of “journalism reform” emerged with fervor in the mid-1980s, revolving around journalists’ desire for more autonomy and reinforced by reformist politicians’ calls for greater informational transparency. In the 21st century, important changes in journalism hinged on the possibilities of new technologies, along with continued efforts to strengthen journalistic professionalism.

The news media played a key role in the initiation of China’s post-Mao political and economic reforms, acting as harbingers of change, promoting policy experiments, and documenting results. The press—with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) flagship paper People’s Daily taking a lead—eagerly took up the officially sanctioned shift from “class struggle” to “economic construction” from 1979 on as license to delve into social problems, proposing solutions, and inviting readers to join the discussion through expanded forums for letters and opinions. Similarly, the pragmatic admonition to “seek truth from facts” provided reporters and editors with a rationale for pursuing more rigorous practices in gathering and verifying information.

These were liberating changes from the conventions of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), now repudiated as a period when fabrication, imitation, prattle and bombast ruled the news. As pent-up grievances left over from the Cultural Revolution made their way into both public accounts and “internal” (neibu) reports for political authorities, the news media and journalists gained new respect as a kind of court of last resort that sometimes produced remedies.

Discussion of reforming journalism itself did not emerge with much fervor until the mid-1980s. Once the idea took hold, however, “journalism reform” became a common refrain in occupational and official circles, worthy of attention in conferences, forums, articles and speeches as essential for moving from outmoded propaganda models to modern concepts of news. The discussions incorporated journalists’ calls for professional autonomy, scholars’ revisions of goals of journalism in a socialist society, and public officials’ declarations of the need for greater transparency and accountability in the news media. Academics and legislators began to explore prospects for a national press law that would insulate the media from politics and expand journalistic independence.

These debates took place in a context of rapid recovery and growth of the news media that saw restoration of hundreds of newspapers, magazines and journals that had been suspended during the Cultural Revolution, and establishment of thousands of new outlets. Radio and TV underwent tremendous growth as well, as did advertising, long banned and now reintroduced as a primary means of financing. College and university journalism programs proliferated, with curricula drawing on foreign methods of both teaching and practicing journalism. At the same time, the institutional structure and prescribed mission of China’s news media underwent little change, and in practice media remained beholden to state and Party authorities even amidst mounting pressures for greater responsiveness to citizens and consumers. Such tensions between loyalty to official dictates and accountability to the news audience reached their height during the 1989 Tiananmen student demonstrations, which many journalists joined, and which earned sympathetic coverage until the crackdown.

A new phase of journalism reform unfolded with the renewed emphasis on economic development initiated by Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour in 1992, in which the eighty-eight year old CCP leader made a surprise visit to some of the Special Economic Zones he had established in the early 1980s. In line with the development of the market economy, media organizations were expected to become self-supporting. State subsidies in the form of both direct support and government subscriptions were withdrawn, and new media startups were premised on commercial models—even as technically, all media outlets still required sponsorship from Party or government organizations. Through the 1990s, domestic media conglomeration was encouraged, with major print and broadcast organizations in China’s provinces and cities combining into larger enterprise groups (jituan); and although foreign investment found its way into supporting aspects of media industries, such as technology and distribution, outright foreign ownership remained prohibited.

In the twenty-first century, new technologies began to transform Chinese journalism in ways familiar throughout the world, producing an expansion of both institutional and popular communication in cyberspace, encouraging visual and multi-media methods of presentation, and providing diverse alternative channels for news and information that, despite state efforts to reign in and filter the Internet, could not be thoroughly controlled. Chinese news organizations have embraced technological innovations to enrich their content and expand their reach, while journalists have welcomed the new opportunities for individual expression through blogging.

Yet many stresses and strains remained among competing interests in the journalism mix, including the state and Party’s continued insistence on leading and molding communications, increasing emphasis on professionalism among journalists themselves, growing public access to a multiplicity of channels of information, the heightened importance of economic return, and China’s increasing integration into the global marketplace.

Further reading:

Lee, Chin-Chuan, (Ed). (1990). Voices of China: The interplay of politics and journalism. New York: Guilford Press.

Polumbaum, J., & Xiong Lei. (2008). China ink: The changing face of Chinese journalism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Zhao, Yuezhi. (1998). Media, market, and democracy in China: Between the party line and the bottom line. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Zhao, Yuezhi (2008). Communication in China: Political economy, power, and conflict. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Source: Polumbaum, Judy. (2009). Journalism Reform. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1219–1220. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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