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People, propaganda and profit: Understanding media in China

Offer semester
1st semester

Lecture time
Wednesday 2:30pm-4:20pm

Lecture venue

Course description

Mainland Chinese are increasingly able to access media stories that expose government corruption and examine the social costs of the nation’s market-based economic reforms in China’s quest for modernization. Some see this development as a sign of China’s growing media freedom, while others view it as a sophisticated government tool for legitimizing and maintaining Communist Party power.

Despite these contradictory views, what cannot be ignored is that the proliferation of the Chinese media is transforming it from a vehicle of mass propaganda into a vehicle for mass communication.

The diversification of the media–from the rise of celebrity micro-blogs and pop idol talent shows, to citizen journalists publishing independent investigative reports, to alternative forms of cultural expression through art and film–is changing the chief function of media from merely serving as party mouthpiece to that of gathering and disseminating information and a working tool for self expression. This media development is creating new public channels that monitor and expose Party malfeasance, social ills, and reflect the views of the general public.

This course engages students in a cross-disciplinary investigation on the social implications of this changing media environment on China’s nascent public sphere. By analyzing Chinese media and cultural content including news stories, films, street tabloids, TV entertainment shows, and new media technologies, advertisements, and art, the course examines the dynamic interplay of evolving social, political, economic, and media forces and the prospects for the transformation of mass culture and civil society in China.

The course will survey the historical roots of media and mass propaganda in the Mao Era, analyzing its political, social and cultural role. This will be followed by an in-depth look at how market liberalization policies reshaped China’s media landscape within the context of continued government control. Specific examples will be used to illustrate social media’s role as a mass communication vehicle and the challenges and prospects of this shift on media, state and social relations.

Course learning outcomes

On completing the course, you will be able to:

  • Identify and describe major factors that transformed China’s media from a vehicle of mass propaganda to mass communication.
  • Investigate the emerging diverse media and popular culture forms and analyze its impact on media, state and social relations.
  • Describe the emerging of the people’s voice via the rise of new media, other diverse media and popular culture forms and analyse its contribution to the development of China’s nascent civil society.
  • Critically discuss the on-going debate concerning media autonomy and Party control by applying various media studies and sociology theories covered.
  • Assess the limitations of unfettered media commercialization and profit making within continued Party ideological domination.

Study load

ActivitiesNumber of Hours
Reading / self-study20
Assessment: Essay / Report writing60
Assessment: Presentation (incl preparation)40


Mid-term essay30%
Final essay40%
Group presentation30%

Required reading

Latham, K. (2007). Pop culture China!: Media, arts, and lifestyle. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. [e-book]

Recommended reading

Bandurski, D., & Hala, M. (2010). Investigative journalism in China: Eight cases in Chinese watchdog journalism. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Kraus, R. (2004) The party and the arty in China: The new politics of culture Lanham, MD. (pp. 1-36). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Shirk, S. L. (Ed.). (2010). Changing media, changing China. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wang, J. (2008). Brand new China: Advertising, media, and commercial culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Yang, G. (2009). The power of the Internet in China: Citizen activism online. New York: Columbia University Press.

Yu, H. (2009). Media and cultural transformation in China. London; New York: Routledge.

Top Ten Non-Fiction Books from China.

Course co-ordinator and teachers