- After the Propaganda State: Media, Politics, and "Thought Work" in Reformed China
After the Propaganda State is a comprehensive overview of the media situation in China in the 1990s, and as such is most welcome. Any recent visitor to China is likely to be struck by the variety of media now available, in particular the number of television channels, but attempts to describe the situation in depth and to assess the ongoing impact of such diversity are all too few.
Daniel C. Lynch's major findings are straightforward. He uses the inelegant reference term "thought work" (sixiang gongzuo)—defined as "the struggle to control communication flows and thus 'structuration' of the symbolic environment"— to describe how the Chinese state has to a large degree lost control of the public communication process. Not only can the Chinese leadership no longer rely on thought work to manage a fast-changing society, but the new media environment is in fact an accelerator of that loss of control. This does not translate into a direct political challenge, however. Although the mass media can play a key role in the development of public opinion and of alternative social networks, at present the government retains ultimate control of media outlets in China, which are driven by the market, and thus they should not be seen as components of a new, democratically oriented civil society in the making.
Lynch begins by offering a short summary history of propaganda in China, which may be overly brief, as there is little sense of how the authoritarian tradition in China has always resulted in attempts at thought control. What does emerge clearly is how administrative fragmentation, property-rights reform, and technological advance have reduced the Chinese central party-state's ability to control thought work. These are essential points. In particular, property rights reform (more specifically, economic property rights) has produced a society where media entities—and their employees—are directly responsible for their own economic survival at the same time that their regulators benefit from their economic success. [End Page 507]
Inevitably, "reform creates incentives for the regulators to 'turn a blind eye' to content that, although inconsistent with the party-state's thought work goals, appeals to larger audiences. The reason is simply that content with high audience appeal can serve as a magnet to attract advertisers, and advertising is now the major source of income for most media units" (p. 43). Lynch is especially effective in describing the elaborate dance between the management and employees of media work units and the officials charged with overseeing them, and how this plays out differently in different locations.
The fires of economic imperatives—and the interregional competition fueled by administrative fragmentation—have also been fanned by the new technologies that have blown into China. Here the Chinese administration is caught between an ideological rock and a globalization hard place. "Unless China modernizes technologically, it will be unable to compete economically or militarily with the outside world. . . . China must integrate into the global economy in order to strengthen itself for competition. . . . A sharp reduction in control over thought work is simply the unavoidable price to be paid" (p. 45 ).
Lynch gives numerous examples of how the logic of thought work continues to break down. He points out that the media have always been categorized as shiye, enterprises producing goods and services for the public good, in the same category as libraries, museums, and educational institutions—distinguishing them from qiye, enterprises operated as businesses, providing goods and services for gain. The rationale was that the primary function of the media was to promote the current propaganda line while also providing public-service information such as news and weather reports. This categorization allows the media to receive subsidies and to pay lower taxes.
Times have changed, and in most cases the government can no longer afford to finance the media. But any attempt to rectify the situation has its dangers: if the de facto independent financial...