Public opinion supervision : a case study of media freedom in China

Author: Anne Cheung

In: Keller, P (Ed.), The library of essays on Chinese law: the citizen and the Chinese state, p. 491-518. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2011.


This paper, through the study of news coverage of a housing development and relocation scandal in Hunan province, explores the scope of freedom that media enjoy in the Mainland, focusing particularly on the phenomenon of “public opinion supervision.” The case chosen involved 1100 households and 7,000 people living in the small county of Jiahe. Though relocation projects are common in China, this project involved active and direct local government intervention, with officials bending the law and harassing the residents. Despite attempts by residents to solve the problems through administrative channels and legal means throughout the year of 2003, this was of no avail. As a last resort, the residents sought help from the media. In the short period between early May and early June of 2004, a media relay commenced.

Through tacit co-ordination among local newspapers, Beijing news groups and the China Central Television (CCTV), the story was eventually covered. Public condemnation against local officials came pouring in and the fate of local residents was changed dramatically. Behind the glorious façade of victory, the pressure that journalists faced was enormous. To the journalists, the battle had not been won completely. In the process, law was manipulated to be used as an oppressive tool by the local officials. However, without legal intervention at the final stage, and intervention by higher officials, media coverage may not have its impact felt.

To capture the above intricacies and dynamics, I interviewed the journalists, lawyers that were directly involved in the case, and sought the views of other journalists and academics in media studies. My argument, sadly, lies in the reality that freedom of the press is heavily dependant on the administrative rank of the media institutions, the rank of the target to be reported and the discretion of the Central Party. Press freedom is a highly volatile political game, a struggle inside and outside media institutions, with boundaries for each round set anew.

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