Regime stability is always a political priority in authoritarian China. In the information age, how does China survive the challenges arising from commercialisation and communications technology? The volume and uneven quality of information poses a threat to state legitimacy, but it has also (de)constructed the sense of social justice in China—especially when it comes to high-profile cases where public opinion goes against the court’s decisions. For this line of research, I have used a state-centred perspective to explore how the state changes its control over the media; the role of commercialisation and communications technology in shaping state–media relations; how media–court interactions construct layers of social justice; and to what extent dynamics between the state, media and courts reconstruct or dismantle regime resilience. This research has uncovered the following three theoretical aspects.
Commercialisation and communications technology have transformed the one-dimensional state–media regime into a three-dimensional one. The interaction and balance between different dimensions of state power offers structural resilience and creates new information challenges for the regime.
- Three-dimensional State Power
I first explored state–media relations from the perspective of state controls. Scholars have recognised the importance of the commercial news media in disseminating a range of information to challenge state censorship. However, these observations fail to adequately explain how and why the authoritarian regime in China has been able to tighten its control over information even after it became so widely available from the 1990s. Emphasising aspects of power, I argued that besides disseminating information, commercialisation also differentiates informational and state–media conflict, which transforms the one-dimensional state–media regime into a three-dimensional one combining coercive measures, third-party institutions, and ideological and cultural hegemony (Lin, 2012). For coercive measures, I incorporated state censorship in my research on social movements and collective action (see “Contagious China”). In the area of third-party institutions mediating state–media conflicts, I focused on the development of the court system (see “Media-Court Interactions”). For ideological and cultural hegemony, I looked at changes in state legitimacy and political ideology, as well as professional norms and cultural consumption preferences (see “Cultural China”). The combination of these three dimensions results in a situation where state–media relations have structural resilience and they create a new information regime in China.
- News production and professionalism
I have also explored state–media relations from the perspective of news production and professionalism at the organisational and individual levels.
- At the organisational level, I investigated how power relations in mainstream media affect, and are affected by, news on collective action in China. I argued that the internet compensates for disadvantages inherent in lower-level media that lack political resources, while higher-level media tend to rely on their political capital to exercise influence. At the same time, media outlets with more political resources are increasingly challenging the state. This takes place in the context of the state shifting from totalitarian to more practical information controls, even though that may result in its power being undermined (Lin, Chang & Zhang, 2015).
- At the individual level, I have interviewed and surveyed Chinese journalists and argued that the Chinese literati tradition, serving as a latent factor, influences their understandings of Western and authoritarian journalism during the localising process (Lin 2010a). The coexistence of the literati tradition, Western professionalism and party journalism makes for complex attitudes and behaviour. Journalists tend to be “inactively liberal”—they have a liberal attitude but do not get involved in social action. Professionalism comes to the fore when journalists encounter conflicts of a legal, economic or political nature, but not in cases involving moral or cultural conflict (Lin 2010b). Based on first-hand data, this research challenges the conventional approach that simplifies professionalism into a Western-versus-authoritarian dichotomy by adding a third element (the literati tradition) into the discussion of professionalism and media behaviour in the Chinese context.
Abandoning the media-centric approach, an analysis of the dynamics between the media and the courts can shed light on the development of transformative social justice and its impact on regime resilience.
Recently, courts in China began to release their documents of adjudication decisions (DADs) to the public, as part of a general legal transparency push. The DADs form a relatively systematic data source to examine the inner logic of court decisions and provide a neutral lens through which to observe how societal and political forces influence the courts. This newly available data has enabled me to examine media-related litigation (1985-2016) in different areas and discuss the impact of media–court dynamics on Chinese society, backed by three General Research Fund grants (2015–17; 2017–20; 2018–21).
- Environmental Courts (Lin, Wang, Chen, Camacho, & Lin, 2009)
My interest in bringing the legal system into media studies started with research on Chinese environmental courts (Lin, Wang, Chen, Camacho, & Lin, 2009). China’s rapid economic growth has wreaked environmental havoc, resulting in many disputes. Environmentalism has been a dominant frame in media discourse. I worked with economists for this project to evaluate the effectiveness of environmental courts and recommended ways to promote environmental justice.
- Defamation Litigation (1993-2013)
Freedom of speech is often at stake in defamation litigation. In modern democracies, the rhetorical label “chilling effect” has been used by both legal scholars and journalists to address the impact of court decisions on the media. How to strike a balance between individuals’ reputations and the rights of freedom of speech is more complicated in authoritarian regimes that tend to repress free speech and control the media through defamation litigation. Thus, this study analysed 524 defamation cases in China from 1993 to 2013, and systematically investigated how the litigants’ capacity, political influence and the medium affected the media’s chances in the courts (He & Lin, 2017). Empirical findings offered a more nuanced understanding of the “chilling effect” in China. For most defamation disputes that are not politically sensitive, the role of the courts is more administrative than political; the courts handle these conflicts emerging from the new information era and maintain the regime’s legitimacy. This function is fulfilled when dissenting opinions are repressed both in and outside the courts. In this sense, the handling of defamation cases by the courts contributes to the resilience of the Chinese regime (He & Lin, 2017). This study was supported by General Research Fund grant (Project#11406014, 01/01/2015 – 30/06/2017, 566,666 HKD) and won the Top Faculty Paper Award at the 2016 International Communication Association annual meeting.
My second General Research Fund grant project further investigates the pricing mechanism of individual reputation in China (GRF Project #11672616, 01/06/2017 – 31/05/2020, 514,000 HKD). Modern liberalism has persuaded us that character is a private matter, but as the individual’s projection of self in society, reputation by its very nature is social; it indicates the relation between people in a given society. Thus, the defamation tort needs to articulate an individual’s reputation within the context of his/her community. Since the media inevitably plays a significant role in constructing communities, defamation cases involving individuals suing the media provide a window to investigate the constructed nature of individual reputation. Through interviews with legal professionals and a statistical analysis of 403 cases of individuals suing news organisations between 1988 and 2013, this project looks at how an individual’s reputation is valued and discusses the impact of legal remedies on social relations (Lin & He, work in progress).
- Intellectual property protection litigation (2003-2013)
I have also drawn on newly available legal data to extend my research into the field of intellectual property protection, where exists a hidden tension between the need to encourage innovation and the need to diversify media products. After decades of breakneck economic growth and as its media environment continues to evolve, China’s notoriously cavalier approach to intellectual property rights is also changing. In fact, it has recently become the most litigious country in the world when it comes to IPR protection in the digital domain. An analysis of 351 cases involving the country’s five biggest websites from 2003 to 2013 revealed that, in that decade, the win rate was 24 per cent for websites being sued—but the rate jumped to 90 per cent for websites suing others. Plaintiffs were awarded a median 5,502 yuan in damages—representing a median 10 per cent of their claims. More interesting, the data revealed the significant impact of the litigants’ situation (the party capacity effect), the type of content in dispute (the medium effect) and the jurisdiction on the outcome of cases (Lin, under review by Asia Pacific Law Review). This research adds an empirical footnote to the growing field of copyright on the internet and sheds light on the general direction of digital intellectual property rights protection in China.
- Patent litigation (1985-2016) (forthcoming)
- Suing the state (2000-2016) (forthcoming)
By comparing the legal logic behind trials, based on court documents, with the media logic behind news coverage of these cases, we propose an analytical typology to investigate the evolving nature and fluid construction process of transitional justice.
In the past two decades, China has gone from extremely restricted reporting of court cases to an explosion in trials by media. An increasing amount of coverage by news media and a proliferation of online content about trials has created a dilemma as “legal justice” defined by the courts goes up against “populist justice” perceived by the public. Courts act as the formal apparatus administrating retributive justice by determining and apportioning penalties to the guilty according to law. In the court of public opinion, however, media coverage is usually driven by commercial interests, professional routines, political ideology, and audience demands. Populist justice might work in tandem with legal justice on one occasion yet compete against it on another. Media trials have become the battlefield of different notions of justice. However, the extent to which these trials by media affect legal justice is debatable. In fact, neither approach—emphasising press freedom or rule of law—is adequate to build a complete picture of the fluid and constructed social justice evolving in today’s China. Therefore, this study does away with the assumption of a single, static concept of social justice. Instead, through a structured constructionist perspective, I examine how various forms of social justice are jointly constructed and negotiated by the media and the courts in a transitional society. To what extent and under which conditions does media logic compete against or reinforce legal logic in defining social justice? What are the decision-making processes in the courts and in the media when a trial is publicised? By investigating 50 media trials from 2000 to 2016, we propose a typology of social justice as the guiding analytical framework. For details of this typology, please refer to our paper presented in International Communication Association 2017 annual meeting (San Diego, United States): “Constructing Justice in Media Trials: An Analytical Typology of Social Justice in China” (Lin & Yang, 2017).