Authored by Max Abramson1

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Chinese media, specifically state-run news organizations such as the Global Times, Xinhua, China Daily, is frequently accused of being “overly simplistic and potentially dangerous… selling ‘patriotic conspiracy theories’” or “suppressing news… overwhelming it, flooding the market with [their] own information” in their role as the largest media sources in China.2 These allegations are supported by the many international organizations charged with ranking countries according to their press freedom and internet restrictions. Freedom House has deemed China’s press “not free” with a nearly identical classification for its internet access rights. Political rights and civil liberties are ranked at 7, meaning least free possible, and 6 respectively, giving China an overall score of 6.5. Unpacking this classification, both media reporting and group activism have “struggled in the midst of a multiyear crackdown” in the fight for human and labor rights in China.3 This view has been echoed by other groups such as Reporters Without Borders’ RSF Index and Knoema’s (a digital statistics firm) China Press Freedom Index.4

These depictions of Chinese media raise the question of what the stances of Chinese state-owned media sources should be when reporting on specific issues. Analyzed through the lens of Western media and international organizations, it seems as though one should expect a unified ideological line based on the official Chinese Communist Party (CCP) position. For example, if a news outlet truly was focused on creating a “flood” of information passed down from the government, its tone towards the CCP should be consistent with the official government position and narrative. These concerns at the academic level are based on analyses of Chinese media and how Chinese media still retains much of the original Soviet model of journalism, where the media acts as a “mouthpiece” for the state.5 Others still go as far as to say that the Chinese state uses state-owned media sources to “manufacture consensus” through the agenda-setting effects provided coverage of certain issues. However, this notion is controversial as some scholars have argued that the effect is minimal or non-existent.6 Contributing to this debate, while some studies have found variation in the presentation of overall coverage by Chinese state-owned media, these studies also found that many of the media outlets regularly arrived at similar ideological conclusions despite large variation in share of voice and tone.7

To analyze the level of control of Chinese media-state interactions, a proper indicator is an issue of immense importance. Such an indicator carries significant implications for the both the state narrative and the correctness of information disseminated by state-owned media, while also accounting for sufficiently available data such that a meaningful connection can be established.8 More specifically, one of the most contentious and informative issues in terms of Chinese control over the media narrative regards the coverage of labor disputes and strikes. These disputes are viewed not only as a source of public dissatisfaction with the government, but also a threat to corporate reliance on cheap labor that encourages manufacturing investments from abroad. As a result, labor disputes are a valuable indicator of the Chinese media’s ability to produce coverage regarding challenging issues given strict government standards.9 In this context, no dispute is more high profile and consequential than that of the Foxconn labor struggle (2008- present), which are largely viewed as an indicator of larger labor unrest in China.10 This case study provides an illuminating analysis regarding CCP influence over media in the context of labor and provides a much clearer statistical picture than a data set that might include a number of confounding variables.11 Furthermore, the struggle surrounding Foxconn is a significant Chinese labor dispute, and reveals information regarding the tone with which actors are recognized and the share of voice they receive by Chinese state media in similar contexts.

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  1. A version of this paper was presented at the 2019 REALC Undergraduate Students Research Symposium and is also published in the 2019 REALC Undergraduate Students Research Symposium Special Edition of the Emory Journal of Asian Studies
  2. Zheping Huang, and Zheping Huang. “Inside the Global Times, China’s Hawkish, Belligerent State Tabloid.” Quartz. August 10, 2016.; Isaac Stonefish. “Is China’s Xinhua the Future of Journalism?” Newsweek. September 10, 2010.; Andrew Higgins. “Hong Kong Clings to Separate Identity.” The Independent. October 08, 2012.
  3. “Freedom in the World 2017: China.” Freedom House. March 20, 2017. Accessed April 03, 2019.
  4. “New Report Finds Media Freedom Declined Globally.” VOA. April 20, 2016.; “China Press Freedom Index, 2002-2018.” Knoema.
  5. Z. He, “How do the Chinese media reduce organizational incongruence? Bureaucratic capitalism in the name of communism.” in Chinese media, global contexts, (London: Routledge, 2002), 196–214; Guoguang Wu. “Command Communication: The Politics of Editorial Formulation in the People’s Daily.” The China Quarterly137 (1994): 194. doi:10.1017/s0305741000034111.
  6. H. Fang, A comprehensive history of Chinese journalism, Vol. III. (Beijing: Renmin University of China Press, 1996), 81-85.; G. Yu, Tracking the change: Chinese journalism practice and theory in a transitional era, (Beijing: Central Compilation & Translation Press, 1996), 120-137; G. Zhang, “An analysis of the “agenda setting function” of the Chinese media,” The Journalist Monthly 6 (2001): 3–6.
  7. Shaun Breslin, and Shen Simon. “Online Chinese Nationalism.” WRAP. September 01, 2010.; Ying Jiang, Cyber-nationalism in China: Challenging Western Media Portrayals of Internet Censorship in China. (Adelaide: Univ. of Adelaide Press, 2012), 31-54.
  8. Dan Wu, Therese Hesketh, and Xu-Dong Zhou. “Media Contribution to Violence against Health Workers in China: A Content Analysis Study of 124 Online Media Reports.” The Lancet386 (2015). doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(15)00662-5; Ying Jiang, “‘Reversed Agenda-setting Effects’ in China Case Studies of Weibo Trending Topics and the Effects on State-owned Media in China,” Journal of International Communication20, no. 2 (2014): 168-83. doi:10.1080/13216597.2014.908785
  9. Caldwell Ernst, “Horizontal Rights and Chinese Constitutionalism: Judicialization Through Labor Disputes,” Chicago-Kent Law Review 88(1) (2013): 63-91; Kan Wang, and Manfred Elfstrom, “Worker Unrest and Institutional Change: Perceptions of Local Trade Union Leaders in China,” China Information31, no. 1 (2016): 84-106. doi:10.1177/0920203×16682491; Fang Cai, and Meiyan Wang. Labour Market Changes, Labour Disputes and Social Cohesion in China. (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2012), 78-95.
  10. Jan Larsen, “Recent Labor Unrest in China,” Transfer: European Review of Labour and Research 17 (1) (2011): 91-93; Qijin Cheng, Feng Chen, and Paul Sf Yip. “The Foxconn Suicides and Their Media Prominence: Is the Werther Effect Applicable in China?,” BMC Public Health11, no. 1 (2011). doi:10.1186/1471-2458- 11-841; Michael Bush, “Foxconn Crisis Proves Need for Global PR,” Advertising Age 81(40) (2010): 6; Sarah Waters, “Workplace Suicide and States of Denial: The France Telecom and Foxconn Cases Compared,” TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society15, no. 1 (2017): 191-213. doi:10.31269/triplec.v15i1.801; Jenny Chan, “Dying for an IPhone: The Labour Struggle of China’s New Working Class,” TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society12, no. 2 (2014). doi:10.31269/triplec.v12i2.637.
  11. Feagin, J., Orum, A., & Sjoberg, G. A case for case study. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 115-150.