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Pressing Back: The Struggle for Control over China's Journalists


Despite operating in one of the most tightly controlled media environments in the world, Chinese journalists sometimes take extraordinary risks in exposing wrongdoing by power holders. Based on interviews with Chinese news workers and others over 14 months of fieldwork, and a computer-assisted content analysis of nearly 19,000 Chinese newspaper articles, my research examines the causes and consequences of this journalistic risk taking. In doing so, I point to a new category of oppositional behavior situated between the poles of quiescence and outright resistance. This behavior, which I term "pushback," takes place when actors privileged by professional or traditional standing oppose the state or its policies in ways that they perceive to be within the boundaries of the permissible. These actors' oppositional acts, however, are made with the explicit or implicit goal of pushing long-term state policy in ways that the powerful might not currently find acceptable. Although neither necessary nor sufficient to precipitate outright resistance, pushback can - under the right circumstances - be causal and predictive of later resistive acts. Even if pushback never "progresses" to explicit resistance, it can have important, long-term political effects of its own, including shifting power out of the hands of the party/state and toward journalists.

Pushback, I argue, is spurred not by the macro-scale political and economic changes in the Chinese media, but by a type of professional orientation I term "advocacy journalism." Advocate journalists are those who view their role as advancing the development of the Chinese nation rather than either the Chinese Communist Party or Western-style press freedoms. It is ultimately these advocate journalists, who tend to be younger and better educated than average, who push back against the Party/state's confining strictures. Though circumstances vary, they also tend to move from pushback toward overt resistance when the Party/state effects a change that disrupts their everyday lives, when there is a clear target or targets for blame, and when there is a language of moral economy to rally around. It is ultimately these journalists who are pushing the boundaries of state power and potentially reshaping the Chinese political landscape.

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