The popular media and popular public in China
The focus of this research is whether Habermas’ ‘bourgeois public sphere’, which is characteristic of Western society, can be extended to China. My main contribution is to demonstrate that the concepts of ‘sentiment’ and ‘reason’ are central to any discussion of the public sphere in China. This is in sharp contrast to the West where rational discussion and the rule of law are the twin foundations of the classical discourse of the public sphere. China’s society is distinct from Western democracies in at least two fundamental ways. First, the political system remains ‘communist’ with a single party controlling all of the media. As a result, the degree of freedom of thought and speech is extremely limited, and there is no obvious way in which the mass media can act directly as a forum for free and informed discussion of public policy. Secondly, whereas the rule of law is understood as a central element in Western democratic culture, it has a subordinate place in Chinese culture. I examine these assumptions through a study of the readership of popular press. I wanted to discover how the popular press engages with the general public, how the general public read and judge media messages, and crucially whether the popular press could employ an indirect approach and work to constitute an ‘imaginary’ public in China. I developed four dimensions of research to demonstrate my hypotheses. These were: 1/ the ‘sentiment’ and ‘reason’ of the public sphere in the Chinese context; 2/ the press and Chinese popular culture; 3/ the popular press and its alternative aspects; and 4/ the popular press and people’s opinion. This research employs three research methods, institutional analysis of archival materials, text analysis of several newspapers within the Party press and the popular press, and dialogue analysis of eight audience focus groups (consisting of white- and blue collar workers) with sixty participants spread between Beijing and Kunming in 2007. I conclude that while China’s cultural, political and economic system of control is the main factor leading to the restriction and dissent of the general public, a ‘reasoning’ popular public might, in time, be shaped through their reading of controversies in political and public affairs in the popular press.