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Richard Baum: The Political Impact of China’s Information Revolution

Scholar traces the explosion of new media-facilitated forums and examines how the government seeks, with limited success, to limit open discussion.
September 25, 2007

Click here to view Richard Baum's paper on "The Political Impact of China’s Information Revolution."

By Damon Ferrara

During his September 20th lecture at the University of Southern California, UCLA political scientist Richard Baum, author and editor of numerous books, scholarly articles, and political analyses of the PRC, explained that increasing civic activism within Chinese communities, coupled with a new era of media awareness and pluralism is beginning to erode the state’s unilateral claim to domestic political power. Professor Baum predicted that, due to these pressures, an even more liberal and pluralistic China will emerge within the next decade. Professor Baum qualified these statements, however, by saying that he does not expect China to “blindly” conform to Western standards in the same manner as did Boris Yeltsin or Dr. Sun Yat-sen. He predicted that China will use its own approach in any political reform but that the end results will still yield political institutions that “are not Leninist in nature.”

Professor Baum first addressed the question inherent in the discussion of China’s information revolution: Is China going to liberalize? Put more specifically, will China’s liberalization of media lead to a liberalization of its politics? Baum explained that, up to the point where China stands today, the answer is “no”; while China has seen vast reforms and liberalizations of its economy, there has been little to no liberalization of its politics. Indeed, since the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in 1978, China’s socialist market system has all but disappeared, with few remnants of state-ownership left today. Conversely, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) monopoly of political power remains virtually unchanged.

The Chinese media, a growing influence

In addition to economic changes in the PRC, Professor Baum discussed other key post-Mao reforms. Baum explained that since the reforms, the commercialization of media, and also the rise of new communication technology, such as advances in cellular phones, have led to a new era of instantaneous, and more importantly, less-supervised communication. Looking at China’s media from a historical perspective, Professor Baum cited staggering increases in the number of newspapers, magazines, and television stations since 1979, noting that the numbers of newspapers and magazines had increased ten and twenty fold respectively, and that over 30,000 television stations now exist nationwide, compared with only 50 in 1978. In contrast with the state-controlled media of the pre-reform period, television stations and newspapers are now routinely expected to entertain, excite, and advertise, while continuously diversifying their programming. In China today, younger newspapers have a more dominant grip on the market, taking control from the older, state-sponsored newspapers. New television shows are catering to more viewers than ever before, with “Supergirl” (an American Idol-like competition) claiming the highest number of viewers ever by a single program.

Moving to electronic media, Baum said he believed that the most revolutionary developments, principally in regard to the internet, have already taken place, noting that 15 years ago, China had six electronic systems for email. Now there are more than 144 million internet users, 85 million internet-connected computers, and 750,000 Chinese-hosted websites. On average, a blog is posted every second in China. In addition to internet usage, Baum explained, important developments have been made in the frequency and usage of Short Messaging Services (SMS) employed by cellular phone users. In 2006, 449 million cell phones in China sent over 392 billion text messages.

The state’s hold on the net: Is big brother watching you?

In light of these advances, Baum explained that now more than ever, the CCP is finding it extremely difficult to control the flow of information within China. “Given the vast and explosive nature of these developments in Chinese media,” Baum said, “the state’s [media censorship bureaus] are hard-pressed to keep up, however, they still haven’t given up.” Baum continued to cite sharper censorship, surveillance, and regulation of media content as examples of increased vigilance in the state’s effort to retain control of domestic information exchange. He noted that tens of thousands of new “cybercops” have been trained to survey internet traffic, recently cracking down on online “political dissent” and unlicensed internet cafés. Moreover, volunteer college students, known as “little sisters,” are recruited to keep an eye on their peers and encourage others to act within the state’s regulations.  Also, online reminders, engineered by China’s Internet Affairs Bureau, routinely appear in the form of “pop-ups” while internet users surf the web, encouraging users to act lawfully while online.

While many individuals are frustrated by these restrictions, major corporations are willingly censoring themselves. Companies such as Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft remove “offensive content” from their websites and search engines in an effort to retain access to Chinese markets. One restricted URL’s message read: “Sorry, we are required by an order of the Chinese government to block access to this space due to its content.” This systematic censorship of websites by the PRC, known by many as “The Great Firewall of China,” is not the only form of media intervention undertaken by the Chinese government; even cell phones are now subject to surveillance and major wireless companies continuously remind users not to send sensitive content through SMS.

Government policies impede journalism, but grounds still being made

In an attempt to mitigate criticism of China’s lack in free press, the government has recently changed many of its policies, hoping to create a greater feeling of openness in its media scene. Now, for example, China grants broader access to foreign journalists to sources within China, and allows them greater freedom to travel throughout the country. According to Baum, however, these are merely cosmetic changes, made during the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in an effort to foster legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. Ironically, in Reporters Without Borders’ 2006 “Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index” China ranked 163rd out of 168 countries, actually falling in rank from 2005 when it placed 159th. Baum noted that a major investigative journal had recently been shut-down for disobeying content restrictions.  Furthermore, Baum cited new laws punishing unauthorized reporting of disasters with fines up to 100,000 Yuan (about US $13,000)

While these policies impede media liberalization, new media are increasingly independent and have greater influence.  This is illustrated by the infamous “Nail House” in Chongqing, China. Last spring, photographs of a house perched atop a sliver of land, surrounded on all sides by a massive construction site, emerged in newspapers and TV broadcasts around the world. The images highlighted the debate within Chongqing in which residents of the house demanded basic compensation for the property when the municipal government began to demolish the site for development. The stand-off ended when, due in large part to extensive media coverage, the city agreed to compensate the residents of the house if they vacated the property.

The “Nail House” episode also represents a larger trend in civic activity. Baum believes this is a driving force in China’s gradual overall liberalization. He cited the emergence of a “self-organizing of civil society” in which Chinese citizens are working together to voice concerns over issues such as pollution, HIV awareness, homeowners’ rights, migrant workers’ rights, and other local concerns. While these issues, he added, are not necessarily political, they nevertheless represent a reorganization and empowerment of Chinese communities. More importantly, Baum noted, were the bloggers and SMS users who originally garnered public support and sympathy for the residents of the house by communicating with others via cellular phone and the internet. According to Baum, this event could be regarded as the “birth of citizen journalism in China.”

Liberalization? Not so fast

While the gains made in the Chinese media scene are significant, Baum cautioned that there were still several factors hindering political liberalization. He explained, for instance, that by being permissive in its economic policies, the Party has extended its rule. It has allowed citizens greater economic freedom and thus engendered economic growth, in exchange for continued political domination. Also, Baum said that lessons derived from recent history discouraged many Chinese from advocating rapid liberalization. The Soviet model of liberalization, he pointed out, resulted in complete regime failure and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. China is not likely to follow a similar path of reform. Instead, China will likely follow its own, more gradual path of reform, making small political concessions while maintaining CCP political power.

Richard Baum serves on the USCI Board of Scholars. He is a professor of Political Science at UCLA and the author and editor of eight books on Chinese politics and numerous articles. He served as the director of UCLA's Center for Chinese Studies from 1999 to 2005.


USC student Damon Ferrara is majoring in international relations and East Asian languages and cultures. He has studied in Nanjing and Taipei and is a staff writer for USCI's US-China Today.


[ed. note] The image of the watch-wearing crab is a play on two prominent messages issued by leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. Former Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin articled the theory that the Party must represent advanced productive forces, must advance culture, and must stand for the interests of the majority. This is the "three represents" or sange daibiao 三个代表. The image, however, uses those sounds as "wearing three watches" (dai sange biao 戴三个标). Jiang's successor, Hu Jintao, has been arguing that the Party and State must work to create a "harmonious society" (hexie shehui 和谐社会). "Hexie"  is a homophone for a type of crab (河蟹). Thus, this is humorous play on two well-known political messages. The image has been widely distributed and others have also been created.