Seeking Channels for Engagement: Media Use and Political Communication by China's Rising Middle Class

Article excerpt

China's emerging middle class, which numbers about 100 million, has drawn both academic and journalistic interest in both China and overseas. (1) Studies have concluded that China remains far from being accurately called a middle class society as its middle class is still small and is forming at a slow pace. (2) For sociologists and political scientists, the key question is whether the emergence and growth of the middle class will raise the probability of a transition to democracy through political engagement and communication with the state. According to political sociologist Lipset, economic development, accompanied by the development of the mass media, the elevation of education level and the growth of the middle class, leads to political democratisation. (3) Lipset argues that the middle class has attained democratic political attitudes through education and the mass media because middle-class occupations require an educated and informed population. The development of recently emerging democracies also shows that the success of democracy does not depend only on institutional change, but also a multitude of other factors. The mass media is one such organisation that has been largely neglected by mainstream democratisation studies in spite of the fact that its performance is believed to have a pivotal role in the process of democratisation. (4) Lemert argues that the media as a democratic institution has the potential to strengthen political identities and encourage political participation. (5) He points out that citizens acquire their political knowledge through the mass media. Especially in a situation where traditional agencies such as political parties have lost their credibility, the media becomes the main source from which citizens can obtain the information they need to participate in public life. Another argument for the media as a democratic institution is the idea that it acts as a "watchdog" or "fourth estate" that keeps political authorities accountable by monitoring their activities and investigating possible abuses of political power. (6)

The study of political communication examines the relationship between three integral elements in the process by which political action is conceived and realised: political actors, mass media, and citizens. (7) In the process of political communication, political actors often use mass media channels to communicate their political agenda to the targeted audience. The media functions as transmitters of political information between political actors and citizens. Meanwhile, citizens also shape media agendas with their political interests. Furthermore, the media plays a critical role in influencing the form and content of the communication. It also provides a forum for public discussion of political issues. Therefore, an understanding of political engagement is inconceivable without an analysis of the media and its use in political communication.

With the emergence of the middle class in China, many questions remain to be answered, especially its political outlook and implications for China's political landscape. Does China's middle class possess civic values? Will China's middle class become the leading force in a transition to democracy as the result of China's social and economic development? To answer these questions and understand the civic attributes of the middle class, we need to examine how the middle class is engaged in political communication with the state with regard to political and public issues and what role the mass media plays in the relationship between the middle class and the state.

Much of the existing literature on the media in China has focused on problems relating to how the state policy affects the media: how the state has controlled and regulated the media system, and whether existing political and economic conditions foster or inhibit the media's ability to fulfil its democratic role. (8) Most studies have not investigated the media's actual role in the political communication process. …