New Challenges for Communication Research in China

Zhengrong Hu, Ji Deqiang

Communication University of China

At the crossroad of social sciences, communication research has always been the site of interdisciplinary efforts, no matter the extent to which it is institutionalized as a widely-recognized modern discipline. In the reform-era China, the orthodox narratives depict communication research as the articulation of two intellectual traditions in a particular historical conjuncture, namely the Western (mainly US-based) mass communication theories and China’s party journalism studies (Hu, Ji & Zhang, forthcoming). Integrated into the overall process of rebuilding social sciences after the Cultural Revolution, communication research has moved forward in line with the developmental road of China on a basis of a series of interconnected reforms, including the introduction of the principle of (limited) market freedom to planned economy, the catch-up strategy of information and communication technologies (ICTs) following the western counterparts, the changing paradigms of political governance with timely adjustments of the role of the Communist Party, and the “by-invitation” or coincidental (David Harvey, 2005) involvement into the neoliberal world order at the turn of the century. Against this multi-dimensional background, the speech aims to interrogate the dynamics of China’s current great transformation (Shaoguang Wang, 2012), the challenges that face Chinese communication scholars, and possible outcomes for future communication research in China.

Upgrading the economy: from industrialization to informatization to“internet+”


Despite the widely-accepted evolutionary process, the historical trajectory of economic development in China is multi-linear. It involves both a one-dimensional technological-deterministic narrative, namely from industrialization to informatization to the cutting-edge notion of “internet+”, and a social narrative underpinning the unevenness between different geographical regions and social classes, exemplified by the enlarging urban-rural disparity. As a result, the communicative aspects of China’s economic development should also engage with this two-fold growth story.


On the one hand, conventional communication research is overwhelmingly based on a mode of mass-production and mass-consumption in the era of industrialization.Mass media is thus the outcome of this mode and became the centerpiece of information exchange for the entire economic system through a range of mechanisms, of which advertising is the most typical. When informatization (xinxihua) was designated by the central government as the leading force for economic growth since 1990s, redefining media or communication industries is regarded central to the paradigm shift for communication research of the time. Media conglomeration, news as infortainment and the irreversible trend towards a digital life entered the enlarging sphere of research for communication scholars in China. Soon after that, internet enjoyed a remarkable growth in the Mainland causing a successive waves of informatization and integration for economic upgrading, for instance, the portal-led web1.0, the search engine-led web2.0 and the current social media-led web 3.0. In 2015, China announced a national project after the name of “internet+”. It is suggested that the entire economic system, particularly traditional manufacturing industries, should be fully connected to the internet in pursuit of transcending the production mode of industrialization to avoid periodical crisis and seeking a considerable control over the ever-changing market by data-based monitoring and prediction.


In a word, internet is posing serious challenges for Chinese communication scholars by introducing new features of communication industries and by further integration of communication into broader economic processes. As we noted elsewhere earlier this year (Hu & Ji, 2015), at least two new features, three trends and one spirit could be identified by now to formulate the so-called “internet thinking”, as shown in the following graph.

On the other hand, the hard truth of uneven development, no matter geographically or spatially or socially, should also be taken into account. The limitations of merely focusing on the developed regions or social classes are self-evident. Instead of internalizing a neoliberal logic of economic development and simultaneously marginalizing the disadvantaged social groups in transitional Chinese society, communication scholars are facing another challenge to revitalize the notion that communication theory is by nature a form of social theory(Graham Murdock &Peter Golding, 1978) rather than technology or market-oriented media theory. The defining nature of a social theory, according to Canadian sociologist Vincent Mosco (2009), is to acknowledge the “social totality”, in which both market and communication are embedded and conflicts are always integral to the social whole. Only by doing so can communication research maintain a position in the entire system of social sciences and keep dialogue with other disciplines.


Renaming communication industries: from media-centrism to an ecological system of integration


Following the afore-mentioned reflections, communication research should respond not only to the economic upgrading, but also to the dynamic social transition at large in today’s China. However, we have to admit that the legitimacy for communication research to gain a place in such a well-developed system of social sciences lies on its media-centrism, which is definitely relying on the prosperity of media as a burgeoning industry or economic sector since 20th century. If the prospect for communication research to be acknowledged as vital as other social sciences is a long-term project, the urgent task for Chinese communication scholars is to show their expertise in drawing the map of how media, broaderly-defined, develop in such anever-changing and interconnected information and communication environment.The most obvious reason is that the changing landscape of media has attracted attentions far beyond communication scholars, and has become the common interest among other disciplines, even one of the hottest topics of public discussion.


Therefore, under the overarching theme of media integration, we argued that a new notion of media should be developed in order to broaden the view of communication research. We tentatively name it “an ecological system of integration”, which is characterized by the following new ways of thinking, including the internet-based user-centered openness and sharing, mobile and customized communication, and the restructuring of traditional media structure and operation in order to fully integrate into the new system. This system is composed of four sub-systems: technology, user, product and service, and revolutionary mechanism towards flattening structure and flexible accumulation.


Restructuring the governance: the adjustment of the party-state and the inclusion of multiple players


Since President Jinping Xi coined the term of building China’s “modern state governancesystem” (xiandaiguojia zhilitixi) in 2014, Chinese scholars have dedicated to explore the possibilities to restructure the governance system by rethinking the role of the party-state on the one hand, and by including more social forces on the other.


It is obviously that the technological empowerment to diverse social groups has shaken the vested power structure. Chinese society is accordingly in the dialectical process of fracturing and reuniting. Given the fundamental principle of founding China as a Communist Party-led socialist state, the Party is forced to adjust its role in ruling the country and balancing the contesting interests. As a result, the Party and the Party-led governmental system is getting active in shaping the information and communication environment in order to maintain a certain extent of stability in public opinion, let alone the fact that one of the politburo standing committee proposed the importance of legitimacy for the Party for the first time in the Party’s nearly 100 years’ history. In a way, the Party realized that in order to consolidate the leadership over such a fracturing society, a new system of governance should be introduced, which might include both a higher level of openness and transparency in administration, exemplified by the intensive anti-corruption campaign, and the involvement of multiple players in the society to let more voices heard and more different interests to be achieved, only if those changes are contained by the party-state.


Communication scholars are expected to investigate the changing structure of governance with a special focus on how communication process facilitates the dialogue, negotiation and even disputes in the emerging new model of, if we simply put it, “co-governance”.


Seeking alternative paradigm for future? Local knowledge and interdisciplinary endeavors


In a retrospective analysis, we concluded by arguing a three-step methodology for a possible paradigm shift of communication studies in reform-era China, namely (1) contextualizing western communication and journalism theories, (2) seeking a consistent historical interpretation by combining the pre-reform and reform periods, and (3) positioning China and Chinese communication issues in a world structure and a world history (Hu, Zhang & Ji, 2013). Following this discussion, the afore-mentioned challenges and previous studies rethinking the “cognitive justice” by “looking East, going South” (Yuezhi Zhao, 2010), it is fair to say that a possible new paradigm of communication research that will emerge in China is different from its western counterparts. Both American and European communication theories are outcomes of the industrial age and deeply rooted in their respective social and cultural traditions. For instance,to a large extent, whether mainstream administrative analysis or critical observations of media and society are theorization of the political, economic and cultural roles of media, despite its various forms, of the time. The wartime, periodical presidential or parliament elections in either liberal or socialist democracies, advertising/PR-facilitated capitalist market, social movements and other local-based historical and social settings gave birth to the maturation of media and communication theories that have been included in the globally published or distributed textbooks. It is no doubt that most of those theories come out of particular social, historical and even geographical settings as a crystallization of certain local knowledge. The process of globalization, no matter flat or not, helps move that knowledge from local to global.


With this critical reflection of history in mind, we believe in the coming future, communication research in China will be founded on a triangular framework, and alternative theoretical paradigm might emerge from it, that is: (1) transitional Chinese society with dynamic power players, (2) internet-based interconnectivenss of almost everything, and (3) interdisciplinary efforts. It is the mission of communication scholars today to open their eyes to the ever-changing media landscape and to shed light on the broader social process and to collaborate with other social sciences in order to gain a better understanding of China and beyond.


About the speaker:


Zhengrong Hu is Ph.D. and Professor of communication at Communication University of China (CUC) in Beijing. He is the Director of the National Centre for Radio & TV Studies and Vice President of CUC. His research areas include media policy and institutional transition, media development strategies, political economy of communication, and new media, etc. He has published widely in both English and Chinese and has been leader for a number of research projects. His most recent publication is China: media and power in four historical stages in Mapping BRICS Media, Routledge, 2015(co-edited by Kaarle Nordenstreng & Daya Kishan Thussu).




David Harvey (2005), A Brief History of Neoliberalism, USA: Oxford University Press.


Graham Murdock & Peter Golding (1978), Theories of Communication and Theories of Society, Communication Research, 5(3), pp. 339-356.


Shaoguang Wang (2012), Karl Polany’s The Great Transformation and China’s Great Transformation, Beijing: SDX Joint Publishing Company.


Vincent Mosco (2009), The Political Economy of Communication, Sage.


Yuezhi Zhao (2010), “Looking East, Going South: Exploring the New Perspectives in Communication Research,” Chinese Journal of Communication Research (Taiwan), Vol. 18 (12), pp. 3-30.


Zhengrong Hu (2015), Building An Ecological System of Convergent Media Industries, People’s Daily, October 11, 2015.


Zhengrong Hu & Deqiang Ji (2015), The Transformation of Media-Specialized Think Tanks in the Age of Media Convergence, China Higher Education, 2015(7), pp.14-16.


Zhengrong Hu, Deqiang Ji & Lei Zhang (forthcoming), Building the Nation-State, Journalism and Communication Studies in China, in Dave Park (ed.), The International History of Communication Study, Routledge.


Zhengrong Hu, Lei Zhang & Deqiang Ji (2013), Globalization, social reform and the shifting paradigms of communication studies in China, Media, Culture & Society, 35(1), pp. 147-155.