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The Political Logic of Media Control in China

China
Media
Comparative Perspective
Martin Dimitrov
Tulane University
Martin Dimitrov
Tulane University

Abstract

The main focus of the literature on the media in autocracies has historically been the nature and content of censorship. Recently, however, political scientists have turned their attention to the question of why autocrats may promote media liberalization. Scholars argued that investigative journalism is useful for alleviating information shortages, in particular, those related to monitoring bureaucratic performance. The problem, of course, is that because this information is available to the public, discontented citizens can use it to coordinate anti-regime collective action. From the government’s point of view, this negative side effect limits the utility of such critical newspaper reports for collecting information. This paper analyzes how autocrats deal with this double-edged nature of media liberalization by focusing on China’s two separate types of media, public and internal. Employing text analysis, the paper argues that the central function of the internal media in contemporary China is to provide time-sensitive information to the regime about popular discontent. The knowledge that is generated through the internal media system is then used to determine which events have collective action potential and should be subject to news censorship. Brief analyses of media in Cuba, Bulgaria, and the Soviet Union are also provided for understanding media control in China.