A Little Visit to China: Inside the public sphere of journalism


As students existing in an educational institution in the 21st Century, open discussions are something that we perhaps take for granted. However, this privilege is not shared by all. 

On February 4, Timothy Cheek, a renowned historian and professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada spoke on the ‘Origins and Rejuvenation of China’s Directed Public Sphere.’

Cheek was a professor in the Colorado College History Department from 1988–2001 before his career at the UBC. As assistant professor of CC’s Department of Political Science Christian Sorace put it, Cheek was “instrumental in founding the Asian Studies department on campus.” He specializes in the study of intellectuals and is the author of many renowned books on China and Chinese history. 

Photo By Kochi Nakajima

The talk focused on the historical development of different public spheres in China, which Cheek claimed was different from our general understanding of “public sphere.” A term coined by Jürgen Habermas, public sphere is understood as a platform, free from the state, where people come together to discuss societal issues. 

So, what sets China apart?

China’s ‘directed’ public sphere in the 20th Century has operated in three forms: print capitalism, for example, newspapers and magazines, the propaganda state, and the directed public sphere. The talk focused on the directed public sphere in particular, especially under China’s current leadership: Xi Jinping. 

Historically, China’s public sphere has been guided and managed toward establishing a pedagogical state where journalism has been more educational than informational. The members of the public sphere included Chinese intellectuals who wanted to show others how to be ‘good.’ The public sphere’s communication has been managed for social stability and still remains under the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) close attention.

In the present context,  China has joined global orders like the World Trade Organization and allowed in market forces. Thus, Cheek claims that China may have ‘globalized’ but not ‘liberalized.’ With intellectuals from all over the world working for them, the CCP has managed to make market choices that serve the goals of directed culture, “making it hard to find the things they don’t want you to find and making it easy to find the stuff that would be good for you.” If one persistently chooses to do things like criticize the government, it will come down on that person.

This is not too difficult for the CCP, considering how the general population accepts and expects that the government will teach them how to “be good”. The people have learned through societal structures how to censor each other and to censor themselves.

However, as Cheek put it, China is not uniform; there are political dissidents in every sector and the power of the internet has undoubtedly changed our societies. China has not remained immune. Even behind the Great Firewall of China, Cheek asserts that these technological advancements have fundamentally changed the cultural horizons of the Chinese population, and have made it harder for the government to have complete control over its people. Therefore, Xi Jinping has now switched to directing the public sphere towards “positive propaganda,” trying to win over people’s hearts and minds. 

Why should any of this matter to us, since we seem to have all the freedom to question and criticize? With the growing popularity of tabloid journalism and fake news, China’s directed public sphere provides an alternative model for communication. 

Cheek leaves us with the thought, “Why not have smart people guide public opinion?”  

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