October 6, 2015

Lecture Highlights Press-Government Relationship in China

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Maria Repnikova, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a lecture yesterday in Kaufmann Auditorium called “Critical Journalists and the State in China: The Case of Guarded Improvisation,” which examined the complex relationship between the press and the government in modern China.

Co-sponsored by the Cornell Contemporary China Initiative and the Department of Communication, the lecture covered Repnikova’s doctoral and postdoctoral research.

Repnikova  made the argument that contrary to the popular image, Chinese journalists critique the state within certain boundaries set by the central party.

According to Repnikova, the popular imagery of Chinese media tends to casts journalists as “loyal agents of the party state” and claim that the state “gives very little leeway for criticism.”

However, Repnikova said while the press does have severe restrictions under the Chinese state, a particular form of “critical journalism” has emerged where the state allows the press to critique it, but with fluid limitations.

“Beneath this imagery of collision between isolated critics and an omni-powerful state, there are some exchanges that take place between various journalists and Chinese officials that often go unnoticed in popular media depictions,” Repnikova said. “I argue in the past several decades the practice of what I call critical journalism has emerged in China which encompasses investigative and editorial coverage of contentious societal issues.”

Grappling with what Repnikova calls the “politics of the boundary of the permissible,” both the journalists and the state work together to improve the operation of government. In giving the press a limited space to operate, the Chinese state seeks advice on state matters, according to Repnikova.

“We should look at this kind of relationship between journalists and the state as one of collaboration,” Repnikova said. “Essentially for existing onto a shared framework but at the same time they keep renegotiating their relationship with what I call guarded improvisation.”

Central to this relationship, according to Repnikova, is the shared goal of “gradual improvements” to the Chinese state.

“Journalists and the state are unified by a shared goal or agenda of gradual improvement of party governance, but the way they negotiate this role and this agenda is very much the result of acts of political improvising,” Repnikova said.

According to Repnikova, the improvisation within this relationship leaves many questions unanswered. Often questions regarding the limitations of the press are answered on an ad hoc basis, and can even change “hourly.”

From this improvising, according to Repnikova, the press functions almost as a consultant with the central party, especially in that the state expects the press to explore and publish possible solutions to problems.

“Media is invited to play a kind of constructive role in the political process,” Repnikova said. “The idea would be to expose issues but to also contribute to solutions. It is not just about underlying failures but it is also about coming up with ways to solve failures.”

However, Repnikova said that even with this limited room for criticism, the relationship between journalists and the state remains uneven and repression of the press remains the norm.

“Indoctrinated to do primarily propaganda work, silenced by censorship and threatened by coercion, Chinese journalists function in a very difficult place — one of the most difficult regimes when it comes to press freedom,” Repnikova said. “By no means is this an equal relationship.”