Primetime Dispute Resolution: Reality TV Mediation Shows in China's "Harmonious Society"

By Hawes, Colin S.; Kong, Shuyu | Law & Society Review, December 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Primetime Dispute Resolution: Reality TV Mediation Shows in China's "Harmonious Society"


Hawes, Colin S., Kong, Shuyu, Law & Society Review


Through a case study of reality TV mediation shows, this article joins the debate about the recent promotion of formal and informal mediation by the Chinese government, what some scholars have called a "turn against law" (Minzner 2011). We identify three converging reasons for the sudden popularity of mediation shows on Chinese primetime television: (1) the desire of TV producers to commercially exploit interpersonal conflicts without fanning the flames of social instability; (2) the demands of official censors for TV programming promoting a "harmonious society"; and (3) the requirement for courts and other government institutions to publicly demonstrate their support for mediation as the most "appropriate" method for resolving interpersonal and neighborhood disputes. Cases drawn from two top-rated mediation shows demonstrate how they privilege morality and "human feeling" ( ganqing) over narrow application of the law. Such shows could be viewed merely as a form of propaganda, what Nader has called a "harmony ideology"-an attempt by the government to suppress the legitimate expression of social conflict. Yet while recognizing that further political, social, and legal reforms are necessary to address the root causes of social conflict in China, we conclude that TV mediation shows can help to educate viewers about the benefits and drawbacks of mediation for resolving certain narrow kinds of domestic and neighborhood disputes.

Over three decades have passed since China entered the postsocialist reform era. While economic progress has greatly improved the material lives of many people, the economic reforms and consequent decline in socialist institutions have also caused enormous upheaval and disruption of the social fabric. There has been a significant increase in social conflict, inequality, and class stratification. The decline in traditional forms of social belonging, such as work units, active membership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and other social and political organizations, such as neighborhood committees, and a corresponding increase in social isolation and the spread of individualism, together with labor mobi- lization and urbanization, have raised major concerns about col- lapsing social networks and a decline in civic virtue (Sun & Guo 2012: 1--2). How to rebuild and strengthen the social fabric against these threats is a crucial issue facing both the Chinese government, desperate to maintain social stability and its hold on power, and Chinese citizens who wish to form a civic society in a more dis- persed, less tightly state-controlled, world.

Since around 2005, the government's response to the increas- ing domestic conflicts and social instability arising from these rapid social changes has been to emphasize the need for "harmony."1 The CCP's imperative to promote a "harmonious society" has exerted particular influence in two areas: first, the legal system and the resolution of disputes more broadly, where the government has reaffirmed its belief in the "traditional Chinese" cultural ideal of mediation rather than adversarial litigation. This "new" policy approach culminated in the PRC People's Mediation Law in 2010, but it has been ongoing for several years within the Chinese court system, as we will discuss later. Second, the "harmonious society" campaign has strongly impacted the Chinese media, especially the content and genres of Chinese television programs. Several contro- versial shows that allegedly fomented unorthodox values and social instability have been censored in recent years, and television sta- tions must desperately search for ways to promote the govern- ment's ideal of "harmony" while still maintaining audience ratings and increasing their profits. One method of satisfying these differ- ing demands has been to produce reality TV mediation shows.

When the first of these TV mediation shows, "The New Family Mediator" (Xin laoniangjiu), started broadcasting in early 2008 on Shanghai Dragon Satellite TV, its "people's mediators" (renmin tiaojieyuan) quickly established a reputation for helping ordinary Shanghai citizens out of their interpersonal disputes using a mix of earthy wisdom, moral persuasion, and basic legal knowledge. …

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