The development and limitations of citizen journalism in China

Research purpose

Citizen journalism is starting to pick up in China – at least in certain quarters. But when we correlate citizen journalism to China we’ll surely be confronted with such a mixed picture which suggests that a more nuanced theoretical approach to the relationship between the Internet and people is required, one that gives due attention not only to the properties of specific technologies qua technologies, but also to the political, social, and cultural context in which they are deployed. Moreover, with the Chinese-language Internet soon to become the largest part of the global Internet, we need more bridges, more collaboration, more dialogue, and better understanding. With the development of technology, citizen journalism will introduce fresh voices into the national discourse on various topics, and help build communities of interest through their collective resources.

The cultural milieu and social context in which Chinese citizen journalism becomes a possibility and the social transformation it brings about are the main concern of this research. Since the mid-1990s, Internet usage in China has grown very rapidly. As of September 2007, China boasted 172 million Internet users, the world’s second largest, behind only the United States, and 523 million mobile phone users, by far the largest in the world. As China entered the 21st century, a number of journalists and scholars felt that media commercialization might push the country toward more independent media.

Therefore, the thorough scrutiny and understanding of Chinese Internet media calls attention to scholarly work that helps to the citizen journalism. Does the Internet bring more democracy to the country? Is there more freedom of expression on the Internet? Can we get the full and authentic image of China via the Internet and public journalism? In the process of Internet formations of journalistic learning and practices, what had once been defiantly marginal and oppositional gradually became, in its turn, orthodox–a brand new condition which we never had before.

Review of literary relevance to the problem

  • Briefing on Chinese journalism in the last decade.

When describing the different phases of journalism development in China in the 1990s, scholars use different chronologies and appellations to name the Chinese journalism. Some use the terms such as ‘Journalism since 1989’ (Hugo de Burgh, 2000) or ‘Journalism in post-Deng China’ (Zhou Yuezhi, 2000) or, as Feng Ai (1996) defined, ‘Semi independent journalism’. But, apart from other social and political elements, all these discussions missed a critical point that the looming of Chinese Internet in the mid 1990s and the recent development of blogosphere and public journalism make the Netizens and freelance writers robust rather than hesitant about the question of Chinese development, social problems and freedom of speech because their own input into it, our their sense of the direction in which it should go, will constitute a significant part of whatever is made, and, moreover, will lead to some definition of the considerations that would apply in deciding a direction is both hard and necessary to achieve, precisely because of the uncertainty deriving from various social resources.

  • Open source journalism and official surveillance

Above all, the uncertainty goes with the definition of citizen journalism. There is no easy answer to this question and depending on whom you ask you are likely to get very different answers. Some have called it networked journalism, open source journalism, and citizen media. Dan Gillmor (2006) sees it as a wider phenomenon of ‘a global conversation that is growing in strength, complexity, and power.’ The Internet has enabled citizens to contribute to journalism, without professional training. Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis gets to the heart of it: ‘The act of a citizen, or group of citizens, playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information. The intent of this participation is to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information that a democracy requires.’ (Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, 2003: 10)

The idea behind citizen journalism is that everyone who disseminates information to the public should be presumptively entitled to invoke the reporter’s privilege, whether based on journalistic laws.(Mary-Rose Papandrea, 2007) Unless it involves citizens using the web to report what is happening in dire situations like that in Zimbabwe right now, citizen journalism is short of credibility. So, will the so-called ‘citizen journalist’ turn out to be a global phenomenon or will it only flourish in certain countries?

The answer requires more open source as well as the availability and conglomeration of information, upon which the influences had been impose by the electronic censorship under Chinese rule. And this will cause restrictions and limitations of a truly informed journalistic citizenry.

Internet and online journalistic surveillance are the main paradox China today faces. On the one hand, the government understands that information technologies are the engine driving economy. On the other hand, China is an authoritarian, single-party state. These two reasons made the electronic panopticon model unstable. Through the Internet doors are being opened, and path dependencies created, which cannot easily be reversed. Transnational social, political, and economic networks are beginning to permeate Chinese society, burrowing deeper and wider into more sectors of life. In a sense, we can say that the electronic panopticon is falling, largely due to the increased volume of Internet traffic in China (Greg Waltson, 2001:5).

Although firewalls are formally employed to block access to them, in practice such firewalls are easily sidestepped by net-savvy Chinese journalists. (Ronald J.Deibert, 2002:153) For example, when the dissident blogger Michael Anti’s site was shut down, its content was copied and distributed cross the net. (Mark Leonard, 2008:79)Therefore, in this respect, citizen journalists in China have the many opportunities to be activists within the communities they write about. This has drawn some criticisms from traditional media institutions, which have accused proponents of public journalism of abandoning the traditional goal of ‘objectivity’ and swamping the most vital information.(Andrew Keen, 2007) Many traditional journalists view citizen journalism with some skepticism, believing that only trained journalists can understand the exactitude and ethics involved in reporting news.

  • Criticisms of citizen journalism and its confrontation in China.

As Aaron Barlow (2007: 140) put it, the rise of blogosphere has changed the ideology of civic journalism, which is a ‘deliberate attempt to retool a profession that has lost its way’, into the practices of citizen journalism and in this process journalists end up struggling to continue the conflict instead of working for resolution, for the conflict itself becomes their métier. But, as a matter of fact, the practices of citizen journalism will be affected by various elements from commercialization, politics and conventions of its participants.

An article by Tom Grubisich reviewed ten new citizen journalism sites and found many of them lacking in quality and content. Grubisich (2006) followed up a year later with, ‘Potemkin Village Redux.’ He found that the best sites had improved editorially and were even nearing profitability, but only by not expensing editorial costs. Also according to the article, practically the citizen journalism sites are more or less profitable market-oriented. For example, Backfence(an American citizen journalism site), with its investor funding, has been able to expand in three major markets in a little more than a year, and, like YourHub, hire ad staffs to generate revenue.

In addition to it, the conditions of citizen journalism in China are that it is not only driven by the economic and market purpose but also by political and partisan impetus, which deeply blurs the integrity of journalism via online resources. Therefore, others criticise the formulation of the term ‘citizen journalism’ to describe the concept, as the word ‘citizen’ has a conterminous relation to the nation-state. The fact that many millions of people are considered stateless and often without citizenship (such as refugees or immigrants without papers) limits the concept to those recognised only by governments. Additionally, the global nature of many participatory media initiatives, such as the Independent Media Center, makes talking of journalism in relation to a particular nation-state largely redundant as its production and dissemination do not recognise national boundaries. So, the problem with citizen journalism is that it tries to force news back to what it was. (Steve Boriss, 2007)

Structure of the research

Even though Daniel Bell predicted that in the information society, “the most significant of these is a shift in the majority of the labour force from agriculture (the primary sector) and manufacturing (the secondary sector) to services (the tertiary sector), (William H. Dutton, 2004: 23), it doesn’t mean that every country will undergo the same development of Internet. Quite the contrary, each country should have its unique way to develop Internet and online community according to different milieus. As what is aforementioned, citizen journalism in China is now undergoing pressures from both government and market and the image of it has thus become muffled and complex.

  • Social basis of this research

Considering the complexity of the research, I plan first to make a brief overview of the social context and general description of journalism in the last decade, analysing the three prevailing social theories which articulate a distinctive emancipatory significance for the state–market nexus with consequences for journalistic freedom and equality in China.

Liberal pluralism, first of the three social theories but a general framework against which all of its alternatives must be measured, sees the market as a positive counter balance to state control of news media. The other two social theories, as Lee Chin-Chuan (2000) put it, can be broadly termed as the Chinese “old left” of the 1980s aligned with the ill-fated political reform, and the Chinese “new left” of the 1990s situated within current western critical discourses which offer radical critiques of media commercialization. The three social theories have internal connections, but the rise and fall—as well as running battles—are also closely related to the larger socio political contexts inside and outside China.

These social theories converge on the central importance of democratizing China’s party-state, but diverge on the role of the market in this process. While liberals empower the market to foster “negative freedom” for journalism, radicals attack the anti-democratic tendencies of media commercialization. Among the Chinese intelligentsia the “New Left” is sharply critical of both liberal-pluralism and the “Old Left”. As Lee Chin-Chuan (2000) put it, new democratic discourses must explain the relationships between China’s journalism and the state–market nexus in the context of globalization, the rebalancing universalistic principles with national narratives.

The complexity of Chinese citizen journalism, a more nuanced theoretical approach is required, which is established on the sociological readings of the development and limitations of Chinese Internet, new media, and citizen journalism.

  • The relationship between the social context and the research of citizen journalism in China

Based on the general analysis and discussion of the basic ideas that have propelled the social theories concept into public consciousness highlights not only the increasing significance of ICTs as a new strategic resource, but also the substantial value gained from understanding the social, political, cultural, institutional, and economic factors that shape outcomes from the design and use of citizen journalism. However, popular conceptions of the citizen journalism fail to provide adequate insights into the technology’s role in social and journalistic transformation. A key reason for this is indicated by Castle’s (2000: 2) critique of traditional views of development and globalization: ‘the very notion of development often implies a technological belief in progression towards a pre-fixed goal: the type of economy and society to be found in the “highly developed” western countries. Social transformation, by contrast, does not imply any predetermined outcome, nor that the process is essentially a positive one.’

Therefore, we need to make a careful investigation of citizen journalism in China rather than stiffly enforce it into the vested occidental ideologies and research structures. This is because the current Chinese journalism is neither totally independent nor completely under government control and this is partly the consequences of the three social theories I mentioned above which make the de facto image of journalism in China blurring and comparatively distinctive from its western par.


This study aims to explore the relatively new research area of cultural distinctions in Chinese citizen journalism and the new social transformation it has caused through the methods of content analysis, social investigation and personal interviews (This is feasible because I myself am now writing for GVO and I know a lot Chinese bloggers and citizen journalists). Also, the nature of this study requires various social and cultural methodologies and resources.

  • Hofstede’s dimensions

I got this methodological inspiration after reading a piece of research paper by Hofstede. As Internet exists in different languages, differences in the creation of articles across the language versions might occur. Specifically, I investigate the relation between users’ behavior on line and their cultural backgrounds as defined by the cultural dimensions proposed by Hofstede. He collected data from 116,000 IBM employees working in over 70 countries.(Gert. J. Hofstede, 2003).From the findings of the research, Hofstede identified four central dimensions of cultural diversity, which he proposed were largely independent, which can be measured across nations and expressed in scales.

This theory had been reconfirmed later by Ulrike Pfeil and Panayiotis Zaphiris (2006) in theory to the study of Wikipedia to prove that the web is not a culturally neutral medium, but is full of cultural markers that give country-specific websites a look and feel unique to the local culture, and members of different cultural groups prefer different icons, colors, and site structures. (Ibid)

These findings give rise to implications regarding how aspects of collaborative work in the public journalism are influenced by pre-existing cultural and social differences. In this perspective, it can provide some facts and advices to the development of Chinese Internet and a better method for theoretical discussion. For instance, people from a country, such as China, with a high Power Distance (PDI), which describes the relationship between the higher-ups and lower-downs of a society and how human disparity and differences in power and wealth are dealt with, are more likely to add information.

Apparently, they hypothesize that Hofstede’s dimensions, which on the whole involved the study of cultural differences across many nations, provide insight into how Netizens act in real life, are also applicable to the research of citizen journalism model, which by definition is part of the wider phenomenon of social Web.

  • Case studies and comparative studies

In the case studies, I firstly want to make an analogy comparing the development of citizen journalism in China with journalistic transition in western history. In their book The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel make a compelling argument that each time there has been a period of significant, social, economic and technological change, a transformation in news occurred. This happened, for instance, in the 1920s with radio and the rise of gossip and celebrity culture; the 1950s at the onset of the Cold War and television. ‘The arrival of cable, followed by the Internet and mobile technologies, has brought the latest upheaval in news.’ (Kovach, 2001: 13)

Making a historical comparison is good for the study of current citizen journalism in China. New technology, along with globalization and the conglomeration of media, is causing a shift towards journalism that is connected to citizen building and one that supports a healthy democracy. This theory approach could effectively illustrate the whereabouts of citizen journalism in China.

Secondly, I intend to make a comparison between a few Chinese citizen journalism sites or organizations and their counterparts in other Asian and European countries. For instance, the study of ‘OhMyNews’ and ‘The’, pre-eminent Korean and English citizen journalism websites respectively, and ‘’, a Hong Kong-based Chinese citizen journalism website, will provide some interesting insight into the differences between different versions of public journalism. OhMyNews in South Korea is a highly successful ‘citizen journalism’ site with 33,000 citizen reporters, alongside professional editors. Founded by Oh Yeon-ho in 2000, it has a staff of some 40-plus traditional reporters and editors, with the rest coming from other freelance contributors who are mostly ordinary citizens.

OhmyNews has been credited with transforming South Korea’s conservative political environment, but Rebecca MacKinnon(2004) of Global Voices pointed out that the success of it could be put down to South Korea not having a long-established free press.

The interesting thing is that mainland China and Hong Kong also don’t possess a long-established free press, but why does Hong Kong successfully follow the Korean model and establish their relatively consummate citizen journalism? Instead of commercial citizen journalism model, China established its citizen journalism on the basis of blogosphere (the sharp-cut and open-minded blog site, for example), which can be attributed to the social context. As I noted in the former parts of the article, the sociological reason of it can be inferred from three hypotheses: First, the semi-capitalism regime made the public journalism unstable; secondly, when the Internet is supposedly the force guaranteed to change China, in the event, however, it is China that has changed the internet: forcing internet giants like Google and Yahoo to play by the formidable rules set by Chinese government (Mark Leonard, 2008: 77); thirdly, the Chinese market-directed economy is directing citizen journalism to a more merchandized and entertained formation and thus debilitating the independence and impartiality of citizen journalism practices. And these hypotheses determine that the Chinese citizen journalism will lead its unique way of development under pressures and effects coming from every social element.


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