Maria Repnikova, "Media Politics in China: Improvising Power under Authoritarianism" (Cambridge UP, 2017)


Despite its extraordinary diversity, life in the People’s Republic of China is all too often viewed mainly through the lens of politics, with dynamics of top-down coercion and bottom-up resistance seen to predominate. Such a binary framing is particularly often applied to analyses of the country’s media which is understood in terms of mouthpieces of the party-state or vanishingly rare dissident voices. Yet as Maria Repnikova lucidly shows in her book Media Politics in China: Improvising Power under Authoritarianism (Cambridge University Press, 2017) there may be much more at play here than a straightforward cleavage between collaboration and resistance. Through discussion of the work of ‘critical journalists’ and their interactions with officialdom, Repnikova paints a rich and provocative picture of the flexible, creative, if nevertheless precarious, nature of state-media interactions whose implications go far beyond the media sphere.

Repnikova suggests that journalistic ‘change-makers within the system’ (to whom the book is dedicated) delicately tread the “fringes of the permissible” (p. 11), pursuing a collaborative mode of investigative work in an environment which remains saturated with Party-state power. Conversely, the authorities benefit from an ability to learn from the media’s investigations, or use media as a propaganda channel, even as they frequently step in to restrict reporting work. Repnikova's multi-perspectival consideration of various key actors in this system, carried out through multilingual textual research and in-depth interviews, adds vital insight to our understanding of media, and state-society dynamics more generally, in non-Western and authoritarian contexts. Further enhancing this late in the book is a particularly compelling comparison with Soviet and Russian cases.

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Ed Pulford

Ed Pulford is an Anthropologist and Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and indigeneity in northeast Asia.

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