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Seeking channels for engagement: media use and political communication by China's rising middle class.

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. Thus, the media has not been treated as an independent variable analysing how the media affects political actors and citizens. The media is not only subject to change, but it also actively takes part in the democratisation process by shaping the orientations and political engagement of other participants.

Empirical research has found that the mass media influences the values, attitudes, opinions and actions that constitute democratic engagement. (9) Studies generally examine four aspects of democratic engagement--political and civic values, political and civic attitudes and beliefs, knowledge and opinions on major public issues and participation in activities that influence the quality of public life for oneself and others. (10) These studies show that the media is correlated with the formation of political and civic attitudes and beliefs.

The media functions as a socialising agent and provides materials that contain social and political beliefs and attitudes. Studies show that political discussion increases one's sense of political efficacy, social capital, social trust and political participation. (11) Citizens form their political and public opinions through exposure to the mass media. The media helps citizens frame information in different foundational (e.g., ideology, equality and freedom) and substantive contexts (e.g., social versus economic issues and local or international concerns), and form opinions on various issues. (12) Studies also show that the media has a direct impact on political participation. (13) There is a causal relationship between media use and civic political behaviour--the more participatory citizens are, the more likely they are to follow politics, read newspapers, watch or listen to the news and visit internet news sites. Studies have revealed that the internet offers distinctive opportunities for civic engagement and political communication, allowing citizens to communicate with friends, interest groups and public officials, etc. (14) They show that internet users who rely on the web for political information have a greater sense of political participation than the general public.

The Media and Political Communication in China

A number of studies have examined political communication and the use of the media in China. Early political communication studies focussed on the government-press relationship, the effects of state policies on press freedom and reforms in the media industry. Recent studies have examined the impact of new technologies on the media and political communication. Scholars have agreed that economic development and administrative reform have weakened the Communist Party of China's (CPC) control over the Chinese mass media. (15) Lynch noted that the CPC creates and maintains a symbolic environment in order to encourage citizens to accept the regime's political legitimacy. Scholars argue that the market reforms have unintentionally liberalised China's media system by stressing the media's entertainment function. (16) Market reforms have required the media to be financially independent by increasing entertainment content and advertising income. Consequently, the content of the media has shifted from pure political propaganda to an integrated pursuit of political, social, economic, entertainment and cultural interests. Some media have been pushing the boundaries of control by raising controversial social issues. (17) Mertha argues that the media has become a major "policy entrepreneur" within the policymaking process as it has provided a platform for journalists to cover stories about controversial issues, and eventually influencing policymaking at local and national levels. (18) The media has also mobilised citizens to participate in grassroots social protests in some areas. (19)

The internet, however, has provided Chinese citizens with new opportunities to access information and enhance political communication. Online reporting sites and message boards challenge government-controlled media and facilitate conditions for the growth of civil society and the emergence of a free press. As the number of internet users has increased in China, there has been increased interest in studying the impact of the internet on political communication. (20) Both state media and commercial internet portals have begun online media reporting as well as online forums and message boards. Research shows that online forums and message boards have challenged the official monopoly over information and censorship. (21) Xiao argues that as online forums have created and fostered a virtual space for civil society to push for associative and communicative freedoms, the internet will play an increasingly powerful role, catalysing greater changes towards a more open and democratic China. (22) Research shows that internet users are more attracted to social and political communication rather than the commercial functions of the internet. (23) Yang argues that through the use of bulletin boards and forums, Chinese internet users are "engaged in the discursive construction of an online public sphere ... in a new type of political action, critical public debate". (24) Yang also believes that civil society and the internet energise each other in their co-evolutionary development in China; the internet facilitates civil society activities by offering new possibilities for citizen participation, while civil society facilitates the development of the internet by providing the necessary social basis for communication and interaction. Though the freedom to discuss politics on the internet is limited due to government control and censorship, some studies have shown that internet users are creative in bypassing state control in online political discussions. Political writings that appear on the internet often express political views, promote nationalism and mobilise public participation in political and social protests. Some scholars argue that the internet will be "a key pillar of China's slower, evolutionary path toward increased pluralisation and possibly even nascent democratisation". (25)

Online social networking sites enable Chinese professionals to post, share and update their personal information, and to socialise online. Users can build social networks based on their professional interests as well as political interests. These sites have various theme boards for their members, ranging from political and social issues and volunteer opportunities to history, literature and the arts. The popularity of these sites indicates that an online civil society is burgeoning. (26) Online social networking users have increased from 1.1 million in 1999 to 16 million in 2006. (27) Another popular form of online political and public communication is blogging. In a country where no private and freelance columnists are allowed to publish in the official press, the blogosphere provides a platform for expressing opinions on public and social issues, including views on governmental affairs and politics. Many politicians, celebrities, students, intellectuals and businessmen have their own blogging sites. Studies about the blogging behaviour of Chinese internet users, especially about their political communication on blogs, are still lacking.

Early studies on the impact of the mass media on the public found that the Chinese news media has provided people with the basic knowledge needed for building a "forced consensus" by the state. (28) They also show that public opinion is not institutionalised because the CPC "has preempted all formal channels of communication and representation". (29) However, the use of the media in political communication has not been extensively studied, especially with the rise of new information technologies in China. Little attention has been paid to the use and influence of the mass media on the political engagement of China's middle class. Therefore, this study examines how mass media, as an independent variable, influences the political communication behaviours of the middle class in China.

Defining "The Middle Class" in China

Divisions among classes are often recognised by their wealth. In the democratisation literature, the middle class is set apart from the upper class and the working class by economic ownership and intellectual and professional skills within the social hierarchy. (30) It is separate from the capitalist upper class due to its lack of ownership of productive materials. On the other hand, it can be distinguished from the working class by its educational levels, intellectual skills and professional potentials. (31) In China, the new modern intermediate class has been created due to the recent economic reforms and restructuring of the labour market. China's middle class includes several intermediate-level professionals, such as business professionals, middle managers and small-business owners. In addition, the middle class has been growing as a result of the expansion of administrative jobs in the public sector, and the growth of finance and the computer and high-tech industry in the private sector.

The middle class, as defined by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, consists of several groups. (32) First, the middle class includes private business owners and entrepreneurs who emerged after 1978 and possess production materials and resources. It also includes small business owners who often run small stores and restaurants. Small vendors, who are usually self-employed with limited capital, are not considered part of the middle class. Another group is the so-called "white collars", who are office workers of foreign businesses, joint ventures and private enterprises in China. They are often mid-level managers and business professionals. The term "white collar" has become popular and been frequently used to refer to the typical middle class individual with a high level of education, professional training and living standard. (33) Managers and senior administrators of state-owned enterprises (SOE), who gained income and control over state properties and production materials as a result of the privatisation of state enterprises, are considered to be a part of the new middle class. They are referred to as "red capitalists" and shareholders of transformed state enterprises. They control the production materials of the SOEs. (34) Government employees form a public servant stratum and exert strong influence over the public and social sectors as a result of administrative reforms in the Chinese government system. Some government cadres are transferred from administrative positions to managerial positions in business. They are referred as the "quasi middle class" due to their employment status and social ties with the state and the ruling Party. (35) Meanwhile, a wide spectrum of professions has emerged in the transition towards a market-oriented economy. New professionals with knowledge in special areas, such as certified public accountants, lawyers, bio-tech and IT engineers, judicial workers and medical staff, are regarded as the typical middle class. They have a stable income. In addition, China's intellectuals, including university professors, writers and artists are recognised as the middle class. They have a relatively high level of education. In the reform era, the intellectual group has gained political recognition and social prestige as well as financial privileges.

Chinese scholars agree that professions can be used as the main denominator to identify the middle class. (36) In contrast to the lower-income strata, which include rural residents, urban working class and laid-off labourers, China's middle class possesses a high level of education, professional skills and a relatively stable and high income. CASS research shows that about 73 per cent of the respondents have a postsecondary level of education or above, which gives this group an advantage in acquiring other social, economic, cultural and political capital. (37) Middle class professionals can also be categorised into "corporate professionals", who are salaried employees of foreign businesses and enterprises and "service professionals" who are salaried employees such as teachers and college professors, intellectuals, lawyers, journalists, state administrators and cultural workers located in the state and non-profit sectors. (38) Corporate professionals include managers, engineers, architects, accountants and IT professionals, who are employed by capitalists. They have a closer relationship with the capitalists than with the working class. They tend to share the concerns of capitalists for profits, markets, client relations and efficiency. They embrace consumerism because they pursue new lifestyles and can afford status symbols. They invest in their career development and seek opportunities for career advancement. Service professionals are located in the state and non-profit sectors. They are concerned with social issues and services due to the nature of their work. They have strong ties with the state and are closer to the grassroots population than the capitalists. Their professions and the nature of their workplaces may also influence their political communication and participation behaviours.

Research Design

Questions were drawn from previous surveys on social capital. (39) A total of 400 surveys were distributed to random households in a large residential community in Beijing in the summer of 2005. The sample size was small due to the experimental character of the undertaking and considerations of cost. The middle class in Beijing is estimated to account for 20 to 25 per cent of the population. Though the level of wealth and income is relatively higher than that of interior cities, findings from a recent study show that regional inequality in urban households' personal disposable income fell sharply from 1995 to 2002. (40) The average annual income per capita in 2006 was 17,653 RMB (USD2,053) in Beijing, which is higher than the national average of 11,663 RMB (USD1505). (41) The average household size was three people. After using income as criterion for identifing the middle-income stratum as households with an annual income ranging from 60,000 RMB (USD7,250) to 500,000 RMB (USD62,000), only 216 surveys were usable for the research (see Table 1). Use of annual income as a criterion is consistent with the categorisation used by China's National Bureau of Statistics and the Social Science Academy's survey projects. The sample reflects a diverse range of professions defined as middle-income occupations, including university professors, business administrators, government office workers, small business owners, engineers and scientists, and "white-collar" business professionals (see Table 2).


By asking how often they discuss political issues with other people, the study first measured the extent to which respondents discuss politics with other people. A scale of 1 to 4 points was used: 1--almost every day, 2--frequently, 3--sometimes, and 4--not often. The result shows that about two-thirds of the respondents discussed politics frequently, suggesting that middle-class individuals were concerned about politics (see Table 3). The statistical analysis of variance result shows that due to various factors, differences exist among this group. The factors that might affect the frequency of political communication were age and income (see Table 4). Older respondents and those with higher incomes tended to communicate more frequently than younger age groups with relatively lower incomes. Education did not have a strong effect on the frequency of political communication. About 92 per cent of the respondents had college degrees, 19 per cent had master's degrees and five per cent had doctoral degrees. This is much higher than the national higher education participation rate.

Another dimension of the study examined the medium of the political communication--where individuals found political information and where they voiced their political views. The study examined access and exposure to political and public issues through four mass media: the press, radio, television and the internet. When asked where they would go to find information about political and public issues, about 71 per cent said they would turn to the mass media for political and public issues and news (see Table 5) and newspapers were the leading medium followed by TV. About 48 per cent of respondents read a newspaper daily. Meanwhile, the internet was becoming another important information source, such as, and When asked how often they read political news from newspapers, watched news on TV, listened to news on radio and read news on the internet using a scale of 1 to 4 points (1--almost every day, 2--frequently, 3--sometimes, and 4--not often), almost 36 per cent reported they followed the news on the internet almost every day (see Table 6). Internet usage was extremely high among the middle class when compared to eight per cent of the nation's internet penetration rate. The analysis of variance (see Table 4) shows that age and education were two strong factors affecting the frequent usage of the internet as an information source for political and public issues. Respondents over 50 years old tended to use the internet much less frequently than the younger age groups, especially the 30 to 39 age group. Respondents with higher education levels tended to use it much more frequently than those without college education. In terms of the other mass media, the research shows that respondents with relatively lower income levels tended to depend on TV and radio to acquire political information more than those with higher income levels. Respondents over 50 years old tended to read newspapers more frequently than the younger age groups. Newspapers and TV were still the two predominant sources of political information, though use of the internet was growing in China. Employment was not a strong factor affecting the frequent use of the mass media. However, there was difference in the frequency of using the internet and reading newspapers between the corporate professionals and service professionals. Corporate employees tended to use the internet more often than service employees to follow political news, who seemed more dependent on newspapers.

We also asked the respondents about their purpose in watching TV. Respondents could choose and rank three reasons. Looking for entertainment and amusement surpassed other objectives as the primary goal for watching TV (73 per cent), followed by 64 per cent "to learn about current political and public affairs in China and the world", 53 per cent "to learn social issues", and 47 per cent "to learn history and culture". A similar result was obtained for the internet behaviours of the middle class. When asked what type of sites they frequently visited, 76 per cent of the respondents said they would visit the web for entertainment, 64 per cent for financial and economic news, 56 per cent for political information and news and 34 per cent for culture, art and history. Thus, the internet was used for entertainment purposes more than for political purposes.

The survey reveals that there was also considerable face-to-face political communication at the workplace. When asked about what they talked about most frequently with their colleagues, about 41 per cent said that they discussed political and social issues (see Table 7). This reveals that political communication is an important part of socialisation among the middle-income group. The next most common topic was job and career security. This is not surprising given it provides the economic foundation for middle class social mobility and lifestyles. Personal finance, private investment and other issues of domesticity were also common topics among middle-class individuals.

In categorising respondents into corporate professionals and service professionals, a difference was found between the two groups in terms of political and social concerns. Middle-class corporate professionals employed by capitalists and working in the business world were less concerned with civic and political issues than the middle-class service professionals, who were concerned with the expansion of services to the grassroots population and were socially closer to the grassroots population (see Table 8).

When asked about what specific political and public issues they were concerned about, the top three issues were corruption and embezzlement, public security and safety, and environmental pollution and protection. Of lowest concern were poverty, rural issues and orphans. The findings show that the middle-income individuals were keenly aware of issues which were close to their living environment, but distanced themselves from rural and other social issues. They tended to be indifferent to the rural population and other poverty issues.

The study also tried to determine how people felt about political discussions--did they feel free and secure to discuss politics or avoid such topics? The results show that the middle class in urban China felt "free" to discuss political and governmental affairs (see Table 9). About 20 per cent of the respondents indicated that they felt free to talk about politics with "anybody" and about 59 per cent thought they felt free to discuss politics with "some people". Only about one in every five middle-class individuals did not feel that they could discuss with "anyone" or "some people". These findings suggest that there was a great sense of safety in political communication among the middle class in China today, and a certain degree of openness.

Respondents were also asked whether they would avoid political discussions, or not. About two thirds said they would not avoid them (see Table 10). When asked why they avoided talking about political issues, about a third of the respondents said it could be attributed to the lack of interest in politics, i.e., a belief that discussions have no pragmatic use or benefit to their lives (see Table 11). About 24 per cent said the primary reason for avoiding talking politics was the fear of hurting social and/or economic relationships. About nine per cent thought that people may feel threatened by the authorities when discussing politics with each other.

Respondents were asked what actions they would take if they observed unethical and illegal behaviours, such as corruption or embezzlement, at government agencies and state-owned enterprises. About 16 per cent would report to the concerned agencies and offices, 25 per cent would call and disclose it to the press and almost half of them would not meddle with such issues (see Table 12). When asked which approach was the most effective way to participate in and influence politics and public policy-making, nearly 53 per cent thought writing and speaking to the mass news media was the most effective way. The rest of the approaches were all rated relatively low. Demonstrations were rated as the least effective approach to influencing politics and public policy-making (see Table 13).

As blogging spheres are becoming more popular in China, the study asked the respondents how often, using a scale of 1 to 3 points (1--often, 2--sometimes, and 3--never), they would read and/or post their opinions on internet blogging sites or message boards (see Table 14). About 11 per cent admitted they would publish their opinions and comments on public and political affairs "often", while 61 per cent had never published their political opinions online. About 39 per cent said that they read opinions on political issues by others "often". Analysis of variance shows that age was a factor that might affect the frequency of posting political opinions online. Education and age were the two predominant factors (see Table 15). Respondents with higher education levels tended more often to read online than those without college education. The frequencies of reading and posting political comments were constant between men and women.

Discussion of Implications

People belonging to the middle class in China have many social and economic advantages due to their urban residency. They have adequate access to social services, education and opportunities for personal economic improvements. They have shown strong desire and need for knowledge and information about political issues through all types of mass media. Though their strong interest in political issues through the mass media can be attributed to several factors, including their educational levels, it is the desire to sustain their living standards that requires them to stay attentive to political issues and government policies. As the beneficiary of economic reform, middle-class individuals and families are primarily concerned with their wealth, personal finance, investments, private housing and other properties, jobs and career training. Their interest in their own well-being and life enrichment reflects a strong utilitarian and pragmatic culture. Their inclination towards a materialistic lifestyle diverts their priorities away from participation in political life. They seemed to be focussed mainly on maintaining a steady income and their current financial well-being and wealth acquired through economic reforms. Their political communication behaviours also revealed their great concern about social stability and social order. China's middle class citizens tend to be moderate and cooperative in reconciling political differences with the state. They tend to support the current political system and participate in political activities within the ambit of the current political system rather than initiate and organise political activities against the system. They see no need to change the political system completely and abruptly through political protests and demonstrations.

Literature on the East Asian economic experience also suggests that the middle class has shown a duality in its relationship with the state during the transition to industrialisation and democracy. (42) It is at the nexus of the relationship between economic success and authoritarian regimes. On one hand, the middle class clashes with the state as the state often uses power and authority to legitimise the state ruling. On the other hand, the middle class depends on the state to use the state's power and authority to stabilise the society in order to achieve its own needs and preserve its own benefits. Thus, the middle classes of the emerging democratic East Asian societies are slow when approaching political changes towards democracy. (43)

Apparent from the research was the division between salaried professionals working for corporations and salaried employees in the state and non-profit sectors. Business employees tended to embrace consumerism because they could afford expensive, high-end, big-brand commodities. They also strove for status symbols and became utilitarian in human relationships. They often lived in gated communities and were less engaged in civic and political activities and communications. Although they were not against democracy, they were much less enthusiastic about supporting the democratic movement. They become calculative when facing democratic activities. It was better for them to invest their energy in career development. Salaried employees in the state and non-pro fit sectors, on the other hand, were more concerned with social issues and services to the grassroots population. In social relations, they were closer to the working class and rural population than to the capitalists. The majority were state employees holding jobs in education, government, law and health care. They maintained strong ties with the state because they depended on it for jobs, funding and other facilities.

The role of the mass media in political communication among the middle class is conflicting. On one hand, the media has weakened middle class citizens' interests in political participation by shying them away from politics and encouraging them towards popular and consumer culture. On the other hand, the media has strengthened its role as a mediator between the state and citizens in communication on public and political affairs. This study reveals that the middle class' interest in the communication with government is weak. Even though this group possesses high social capital and maintains extensive social and political networks and close ties with the state, only a small percentage believed that communicating with government agencies and officials would be an effective approach to political participation. The majority of the respondents expressed their inclination to express their views about political issues through online forums and the blogosphere. The mass media in China is perceived to play a critical role in mediating between the government and the citizens, which is different from the role of the state-run mass media as a mouthpiece of the state and Party to exert control over the public. Though the state keeps strong control over the mass media, market forces have unintentionally weakened such control and forced the mass media to be positioned between the state and the public. Middle class citizens feel their social and cultural interests are being served by the media as the media industry targets them specifically. The mass media is perceived as a major "policy entrepreneur" and a frontrunner for disclosing controversial political and social issues such as AIDS, SARS, corruption, environment pollution and poverty. Furthermore, the mass media serves well as the intermediary between the state and the public from a Chinese cultural perspective as people traditionally tend to look for a third party as a mediator to reconcile and resolve conflicts. The mass media is regarded as a platform to communicate with the government, especially on serious social problems at the local level, in the hope of getting central government intervention.

As the middle class is seeking channels to communicate with the media and the state, online virtual communities and blogospheres have emerged and permeated the lives of the middle class. The research reveals that the Chinese middle class citizens tend to engage in digital rather than traditional forms of civic and political participation. Though the internet is heavily censored by the state, there is perceived safety and freedom among online users. They view the internet as an open and free venue for political participation and discussion. Given that internet use will diffuse much further and that today's youth will continue its use in the future, cyberspace will likely continue to be an effective channel of public and political communication for the growing middle class. The need for entertainment, sports and popular culture on the internet overpowers political communication among the middle class. However, there is a growing tendency towards over-reliance on the internet as a primary information source, especially among the middle class.

As the middle class has been accumulating wealth and pursuing personal financial well-being, a strong consumer culture has been nurtured among them. Though the interrelationship of consumer culture with civic and political participation is not the focus of this study, findings of the study suggest that the mass media has helped to foster an entertainment and popular culture among the newly rich middle class. The majority of the respondents agreed that the primary purpose of using the media is for entertainment rather than political information and communication. The mass media in China has become apolitical in order to accommodate the middle class with its consumer, popular and leisure culture. It may eventually weaken the political and civic interests of the middle class and affects their motives in terms of future political participation. As the consumer culture pervades the civic and political life of Chinese citizens, it creates over-worked and over-shopped consumers who have less time and energy for engaging in civic and political life and political communication.

As the majority of middle class individuals are business professionals and office workers, they place their career and professional life at the centre of their social life. The political and social issues they are concerned with are those that are immediately related to their lives and jobs, rather than those outside their own narrow world, such as the rural and poverty issues. It is too early to predict what will result from the increased public awareness of the middle class and its search for new channels of public and political communication. As its search for a more prosperous life continues, political interests will continue to be limited and the channels for political communication will be narrow.

The author wishes to acknowledge that this study was supported in part by funds from the Vice Provost for Research at Baylor University.


Xin Wang ( is Assistant Professor and Associate Director of Asian Studies at Baylor University in Texas. He received his EdD from the same university. His primary research areas include Chinese higher education reform and policymaking, civic culture of China's rising middle class and cultural transformations.

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(4) Katrin Voltmer, Mass Media and Political Communication in New Democracies (London: Routledge, 2007).

(5) James Lemert, Criticizing the Media: Empirical Approaches (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers, 1989).

(6) James Curran, "Rethinking the Media as a Public Sphere", in Communication and Citizenship: Journalism and the Public Sphere, ed. Peter Dahlgren and Colin Sparks (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 27-57.

(7) Brian McNair, An Introduction to Political Communication (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 5.

(8) Daniel C. Lynch, After the Propaganda State: Media, Politics, and Thought Work in Reformed China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999); J.M. Chan, "Media Internationalization in China: Processes and Tensions", Journal of Communication, no. 44 (1994): 70-88.

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(11) William Gamson, Talking Politics (New York: Cambridge Press, 1992); John Gastill, By Popular Demand: Revitalizing Representative Democracy through Deliberative Elections (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

(12) John Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

(13) Pippa Norris, A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Postindustrial Societies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Survey reports conducted by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press are available at <>.

(14) Richard Davis and Diana Owen, New Media and American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

(15) Lynch, After the Propaganda State, 1999; J. M. Chan, "Media Internationalization in China", 1994.

(16) Leonard L. Chu, "Continuity in China's Media Reform", Journal of Communication, no. 44 (1994): 4-21; Hong Liu, "Profit or Ideology: The Chinese Press between Party and Market", Media, Culture and Society, no. 20 (1998): 31-41.

(17) Alex Chan, "From Propaganda to Hegemony: Jiaodian Fangtan and China's Media Policy", Journal of Contemporary China 11, no. 30 (2002): 35-51; Yuezhi Zhao, "Media Commercialization with Chinese Characteristics", in Media, Market, and Democracy in China: Between the Party Line and the Bottom Line (University of Illinois Press, 1998); and Xiao Qiang, "Cyber Speech: Catalyzing Free Expression and Civil Society", Harvard International Review 25, no. 2 (2003). China Central Television's evening TV news magazine, Jiaodian fangtan (Focus Interview), has been a popular programme with its criticism of local cadres, attracting a daily audience of 300 million, though it remains conservative in its subtle and cautious control of the frequency, timing, level and content of the criticism; Nanfang zhoumo (Southern Weekend) has published a series of reports on poverty and social injustice and revealed social issues such as AIDS, SARS and homosexuality. Nanfang zhoumo reported a protest organised by the Xiamen citizens against a proposal to build a chemical industry in the city in 2007. Though local news media mainly focussed on the economic benefits of the proposed project, the central government intervened. A front-page editorial in People's Daily urged local officials to abandon this project to preserve the environment. Such a pattern is also seen in recent collective action taken by Shanghai citizens to hold a protest march against an expansion plan of the magnetic levitation train, or maglev, in 2008.

(18) Andrew Mertha, China's Water Warriors: Citizen Action and Policy Change (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008).

(19) Ibid.

(20) By June 2007, the number of Chinese internet users reached 162 million, about 12 per cent of the total population. About 71 per cent of the users were under 30. The penetration of internet usage was only 5 per cent in rural areas. Internet usage was correlated with age and education. About 44 per cent of users had postsecondary education degrees. Source: China Internet Network Information Center Survey Report, July 2007. See <> [17 Mar. 2008].

(21) Xiao Qiang, "Cyber Speech", 2003.

(22) Sites such as People's Daily's Strong Country Forum had more than 200,000 registered users in 2003.

(23) Guobin Yang, "The Internet and Civil Society in China: A Preliminary Assessment", Journal of Contemporary China 12, no. 36 (2003): 453-75.

(24) Ibid.

(25) Michael S. Chase and James C. Mulvenon, You've Got Dissent! Chinese Dissent Use of the Internet and Beijing's Counter-Strategies (Santa Monica: RAND, 2002), p. 90.

(26) Michel Hockx, "Virtual Chinese Literature: A Comparative Study of Online Poetry Communities", The China Quarterly, no. 183 (Sept. 2005): 670-91; Guobin Yang, "Environmental NGOs and Institutional Dynamics in China", The China Quarterly, no. 181 (2005): 46-66.

(27) CNNIC Internet Development Report.

(28) Tsan-Kuo Chang, Jian Wang and Chih-Hsien Chen, "News as Social Knowledge in China: The Changing Worldview of Chinese National Media", Journal of Communication 44 (1994): 52.

(29) Alan P. Liu, Mass Politics in the People's Republic: State and Society in Contemporary China (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), pp. 6-7.

(30) Erik O. Wright, Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

(31) Renske Doorenspleet, "Development, Class and Democracy: Is There a Relationship?" in Development and Democracy: What Have We Learned and How?, ed. Ole Elgstrom and Goran Hyden (London: Routledge and ECPR Studies in European Political Science, 2002).

(32) Lu Xueyi, Research Report on the Social Strata, 2002.

(33) "White collar" was used by the American sociologist C. Wright Mills to refer to the new office workers as the new middle class in his seminal work The American Middle Classes. See C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951). Mills observed the shift in the American labour force and argued that office workers, namely, "white collar" people on salary, were the new middleclass of the mid-twentieth century. He explained that the white-collar middle class has new "styles of life" which form the middlebrow culture in American society. Mills' book was translated into Chinese and published by Zhejiang People's Press in 1987 and by Nanjing University Press in 2006. The term "white collar" was adopted by Chinese scholars and citizens in the late 1980s to refer to Chinese office workers for foreign companies, who have higher English proficiency and educational levels and can afford to pursue a "petit bourgeoisie" lifestyle (xiaozi).

(34) Bruce Dickson, Red Capitalists in China: The Party, Private Entrepreneurs, and Prospects for Political Change (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

(35) Li Qiang, "Market Transition and the Generation's Alteration of China's Middle Class", Strategy and Management, no. 3 (1999).

(36) A study by the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS) in 2001 used occupation as the primary indicator to define the Chinese middle-income stratum. Some scholars define the middle class as the socio-economic group with annual household earnings of 30,000 RMB ($3,600) (see Yang Yiyong, ed., Equality and Efficiency: The Issue of Distribution of Income in Contemporary China [in Chinese] (Beijing: Today's China Publishing House, 1997). In its 2005 report, China's National Bureau of Statistics estimates that the annual income of middle-income households ranges from 60,000 RMB (USD7,500) to 500,000 RMB (USD62,000) (People's Daily, "China's Middle Class Defined by Income" [in Chinese], 20 Jan. 2005).

(37) Lu Xueyi, ed., Research Report on the Social Mobility in Contemporary China [in Chinese] (Beijing, China: Social Science Documentation Publishing House, 2004).

(38) This concept is discussed by Alvin Y. So, "Western Sociological Theories and Hong Kong's New Middle Class", in Discovery of the Middle Classes in East Asia, ed. Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao (Taipei: Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, 1993), pp. 219-45.

(39) A survey instrument was devised and modified based on three commonly used questionnaires: Inglehart's the World Values Survey, Almond and Verba's Civic Culture Survey and the World Bank's Social Capital Survey.

(40) Azizur R. Khan and Carl Riskin, "China's Household Income and Its Distribution, 1995 and 2002", The China Quarterly 183 (2005): 356-84.

(41) Data from the National Bureau of Statistics: <> [25 Feb. 2008].

(42) Hagen Koo, "Middle Classes, Democratization, and Class Formation: The Case of South Korea", Theory and Society 20, no. 4 (1991): 485-509; John Girling, Interpreting Development: Capitalism, Democracy, and the Middle Class in Thailand (Cornell University South East Asia Publications, 1996); Hsin-huang Hsiao, Discovery of the Middle Classes in East Asia (Taipei: Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, 1993).

(43) Ibid.
Table 1. Sample Classification by Average Annual Household Income

Annual Household Income Percentage of Samples

60,000 and 80,000 RMB 46
(USD7,250 to 10,000)

80,001 and 120,000 RMB 38
(USD10,000 to 15,000)

120,001 and 200,000 RMB 10
(USD15,000 to 25,000)

Above 200,000 RMB 6

Table 2. Sample Representation by Profession

Occupations %

Civil servants 10.6
University professors 10.2
School teachers 3.7
Researchers 4.2
Technology and computer engineers 8.3
Business professionals 38.9
 (foreign/state-owned/private enterprises)
Administrators and managers 4.2
Medical professionals 5.1
Legal professionals 2.3
Small business owners 6.9
Independent freelancers (writers, actors, etc.) 5.6
Total Percentage 100

Table 3. Frequency of Political Talks with Others

Frequency %

Almost everyday 7
Frequently 65
Sometimes 22
Not often 6
Total (n = 216) 100

Table 4. Frequency of Political Communication and Exposure to
Mass Media by Age, Gender, Education, Income and Profession

 Frequency of Political

 Mean F-ratio Sig.


Under 30 2.44 3.125 0.027
30-39 2.38
40-49 2.26
Over 50 2.13


Male 2.23 0.685 0.562
female 2.32


Non-college 2.60 0.489 0.691
College 2.23
Graduate degrees 2.36


60K-80K RMB 2.35 2.851 0.038
80K-120K RMB 2.25
120K-200K RMB 2.13


Service Professionals 2.23 0.626 0.430
Corporate Professionals 2.30

 Frequency of
 Exposure to Newspapers

 Mean F-ratio Sig.


Under 30 1.82 3.00 0.032
30-39 1.85
40-49 1.69
Over 50 1.66


Male 1.74 1.41 0.241
female 1.60


Non-college 1.38 2.262 0.082
College 1.70
Graduate degrees 1.79


60K-80K RMB 1.70 0.809 0.490
80K-120K RMB 1.68
120K-200K RMB 1.68


Service Professionals 1.62 2.748 0.99
Corporate Professionals 1.79

 Frequency of Exposure
 to TV and Radio

 Mean F-ratio Sig.


Under 30 1.47 0.610 0.544
30-39 1.54
40-49 1.66
Over 50 1.29


Male 1.55 0.656 0.520
female 1.45


Non-college 1.31 0.720 0.488
College 1.56
Graduate degrees 1.60


60K-80K RMB 1.40 2.201 0.113
80K-120K RMB 1.60
120K-200K RMB 1.64


Service Professionals 1.54 0.384 0.536
Corporate Professionals 1.48

 Frequency of
 Exposure to the Internet

 Mean F-ratio Sig.


Under 30 2.15 10.937 0.000
30-39 2.00
40-49 2.13
Over 50 3.67


Male 2.23 1.699 0.151
female 2.52


Non-college 3.85 7.259 0.000
College 2.26
Graduate degrees 1.85


60K-80K RMB 2.33 1.164 0.328
80K-120K RMB 2.48
120K-200K RMB 2.09


Service Professionals 2.38 0.536 0.465
Corporate Professionals 2.26

Table 5. Information Sources about Political Issues

Sources %

Friends, relatives 10
Colleagues at workplace 4
Newspaper 40
TV and radio 31
Internet 15
Total (n = 216) 100.0

Table 6. Frequency of Exposure to the Mass Media

Frequency Newspaper TV and Radio Internet

Almost everyday 48 56 36
3-4 times weekly 35 37 16
From time to time 16 7 32
Not often 1 0 10
Never 0 0 6

Table 7. Common Discussion Topics at Working Places

Frequency %

Political issues 8.8
Social issues 32.4
Jobs and career opportunities 21.3
Personal finance, investment, etc 7.4
Entertainment and popular culture 21.3
Domesticity (child's education, home improvement, etc.) 8.8
Total (n = 216) 100.0

Table 8. Common Discussion Topics by Profession

 Common Topics with Colleagues
 (total count and percentage)

 Political Social
Professions Culture Issues

Service professionals (Count) 12 44
within service professionals 10% 37%
Corporate professionals (count) 7 6
within corporate professionals 7% 6%
Total 19 50

 Jobs Personal
 and Finance and
Professions Careers Investment

Service professionals (Count) 26 7
within service professionals 22% 6%
Corporate professionals (count) 20 9
within corporate professionals 21% 9%
Total 46 16

 and Popular
Professions Culture Domesticity

Service professionals (Count) 22 6
within service professionals 19% 5%
Corporate professionals (count) 24 13
within corporate professionals 24% 13%
Total 46 19

Professions Total

Service professionals (Count) 117
within service professionals 100%
Corporate professionals (count) 99
within corporate professionals 100%
Total 216

Table 9. Feelings o f Restriction or Freedom in Discussing
Political and Public Issues


Feel free to discuss with anyone 20
Feel free to discuss with some people 59
Don't feel free to discuss with some people 16
Don't feel free to discuss with anyone 4
Others 1
Total (n = 216) 100.0

Table 10. Will You Avoid Political Discussions with Others?


Will avoid political topics and issues 33.8
Will not avoid political topics 66.2
Total (n = 216) 100.0

Table 11. Why People Avoid Political Discussions with Others

Reasons to Avoid Political Topics %

Unpleasant--Disturb personal relationships 11
Can hurt one's economic interests--hurt 13
 business, endanger job
Can get you into trouble with authorities, 9
 government, and the police
People are uninterested in 32
 politics. It's useless.
People are biased, have already made up their minds 25
I am too ignorant of politics. 5
 Others know more. I would be confused
Will not change the reality. It's useless. 3
Don't know 2
Total (n = 216) 100.0

Table 12. What Actions Would You Take When Observing Unethical
and Illegal Behaviours, such as Corruption or Embezzlement?

Actions %

Report to government 16
Report to media 25
Keep silent 20
Don't care; not my business 29
Tell other people 7
Don't know 3
Total (n = 216) 100.0

Table 13. What are the Most Effective and Least Ineffective Approaches
to Influencing Politics and Government Policy-making?

Approach to influence politics and Percentage feel
government the approach is the
 most effective

Contact personal friends and relatives 4
 in government
Write Letters to Government officials 8
Organise friends and relatives 7
Work through the Party 16
Through the press and mass media 53
Demonstration 9
Public vote 3
Total (n = 216) 100.0

Approach to influence politics and Percentage feel the
government approach is the least

Contact personal friends and relatives 28
 in government
Write Letters to Government officials 20
Organise friends and relatives 7
Work through the Party 6
Through the press and mass media 10
Demonstration 28
Public vote 1
Total (n = 216) 100.0

Table 14. How Often Do You Post and Read Political Opinions or
Comments on the Internet?

Frequency Percentage of Percentage of
 Posting Online Reading Online
 Political Opinions Political Comments

Often 11 39
Sometimes 28 52
Never 61 9
Total (n = 216) 100.0 100.0

Table 15. Frequency of Posting and Reading Opinions on Political
or Public Issues on the Internet by Age, Gender, Education and Income

 Frequency of Posting Opinions on Political
 Issues on the Internet

Age Mean F-ratio Significance

Under 30 1.56 1.305 0.257
30-39 1.70
40-49 1.85
Over 50 2.00


Male 1.72 0.094 0.760
female 1.75


Non-college 1.53 0.347 0.558
college 1.80
Graduate degrees 1.72


60K-80K RMB 1.71 0.354 0.553
80K-120K RMB 1.85
120K-200K RMB 1.56
Over 200K RMB 1.63

 Frequency of Reading Public Opinions
 on Political Issues on the Internet

Age Mean F-ratio Significance

Under 30 1.61 4.190 0.016
30-39 1.50
40-49 1.64
Over 50 2.00


Male 1.60 1.146 0.320
female 1.71


Non-college 2.15 12.096 0.000
college 1.63
Graduate degrees 1.50


60K-80K RMB 1.60 0.204 0.815
80K-120K RMB 1.73
120K-200K RMB 1.59
Over 200K RMB 1.38
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Author:Wang, Xin
Publication:China: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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