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Mary Gallagher's Remote Control: How the Media Sustains Authoritarianism in China

By Nhu Truong

Posted: February 1, 2009

Dr. Mary Gallagher, Associate Professor of the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan, is a leading scholar among her peers on Chinese politics, law and society, and comparative politics. At CEAS China Seminar on February 24th, Dr. Gallagher presented the research findings that she discussed in a recent article titled "Remote Control: How the Media Sustains Authoritarianism in China" which she had co-authored with Daniela Stockmann. Do positive views of the legal system in Chinese media shape citizens' views and increase citizens' usage of the legal system? Can the media be a political tool which stabilizes--not liberalizes--the Chinese state political status quo? These are questions that frame the talk and discussion at the seminar.

Dr. Gallagher's analysis draws from a close examination of two weekly sections of Shanghai newspapers, one China Central Television show, and qualitative interviews with disputants in Shanghai as well as statistical data from a randomly sampled survey conducted in four Chinese cities. Based on these sources, Dr. Gallagher concludes that workers' exposure to the positive image of the legal system in the media as sympathetic toward workers' grievances has thus encouraged Chinese workers to actively participate in the legal system. Contrary to popular views of the media as a potential liberalizing tool against authoritarian regime, Dr. Gallagher argues that the media here functions instead as a stabilizing tool of the current regime's political status and power. As Dr. Gallagher concludes in her article, "Commercial liberalization of the media may not only be compatible with authoritarian resilience, it may be a factor in that resilience." By disseminating information about workers' legal rights and presenting an image of the legal system as a reliable channel for expressing workers' grievances and seeking justice, the media has effectively reinforced the legitimacy of the state and facilitated the promotion and implementation of state's policies. In other words, the Chinese state in parts directly and indirectly relies on or makes use of the media to convey and disseminate state's goals and policies to the people whom would henceforth play a crucial role in policy implementation by pressuring and increasing their usage of the state's legal system, and thus, help to push state's policy from bottom up to above.

Some important questions which emerged in the course of discussion that followed the talk included questions on the generability of the data collected to other parts of China outside of the cities which the surveys and interviews were conducted or from looking at newspaper sources other the two chosen here. Furthermore, how are other factors which may also affect the Chinese workers and citizens' view and understanding of the Chinese legal system or alternatives outside of what the Chinese state advocates for be taken into consideration here in the research?

Dr. Gallagher's informative talk and interactive discussion with those present at the seminar on this intriguing topic about the media and authoritarian rule in China, in the end, had shed a different and interesting light on how to approach and understand an important topic and issue on China's regime legitimacy today.

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