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Review of  Discourse, Politics and Media in Contemporary China

Reviewer: Sibo Chen
Book Title: Discourse, Politics and Media in Contemporary China
Book Author: Qing Cao Hailong Tian Paul Chilton
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 26.405

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


China’s economic reforms since the 1980s have brought radical changes to all aspects of life in this country. These changes are occurring not only in domains such as economics, politics, and culture, but also in discourse. Because of China’s unique socio-political context, discourse has become a central battleground for struggles over meanings among various voices; and this has had a significant impact on China’s pursuit of a viable road to prosperity.

Edited by Qing Cao, Hailong Tian, and Paul Chilton, “Discourse, Politics and Media in Contemporary China” presents a series of studies on the profound changes in China’s post-reform era through the lens of critical discourse analysis (CDA). The central concern of this edited volume is how political and media discourses are constructed via various discursive strategies and how these discourses shape the framing of crucial socio-political issues and envisage future transformations in China. The volume consists of two sections: Section 1 “Political Discourse” (Chapters 1-4) examines the discursive constructions of China’s key political issues while Section 2 “Media Discourse” (Chapter 5-8) scrutinizes the dynamic interactions between politics and mass media in China.

Introduction: Legitimization, resistance and discursive struggles in contemporary China

This introductory chapter provides an overview of the volume’s theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches. It also offers a brief genealogy of the development of the discursive regime in China. This genealogy’s key argument is that China’s 3000-year-old writing system, along with a small pool of canonical texts (e.g. “Analects” by Confucius), has been crucial for maintaining the integrity of Chinese society and culture. As such, textual authority confers moral power following the Confucian tradition, which then can be translated into political legitimacy. Thus, “truth”, to a large extent, is discursively constructed (Foucault, 1972). Following the preceding argument, the chapter probes the historical, cultural and socio-political conditions in post-reform China and how these factors contribute to the transformative nature of China’s contemporary discursive practices. Specifically, Cao argues that China’s political communication is changing from a controlling model to a negotiated model as the country’s ideology has become pragmatic and fractured, which has created a unique “ideological duality”: on the one hand, the official discourse continues to rely upon ritualized, rigid, or even fossilized discursive conventions (e.g. slogans, speeches, and policy papers) to guide the public and constrain potential alternatives; on the other hand, a de-centered and heterogeneous discourse has emerged from bottom-up voices, offering diverse and sometimes even subversive interpretations of China’s reality. The chapter ends by providing an overview of the following chapters in the volume.

Chapter 1: Disembodied words: The ritualistic quality of political discourse in the era of Jiang Zemin

This chapter addresses the political use of formalized language in the era of Jiang Zemin (1989-2003), which has redefined the notions of culture, history, and nation in the post-Tiananmen China. Through a discourse-historical approach (Reisigl and Wodak, 2009), Marinelli delineates the “evolution”, “involution”, and “devolution” patterns of political discourse in Jiang’s formal addresses, which reaffirm “stability” as a core concern of the Party leadership. Marinelli further argues that such discursive strategies have created a new political discourse, rehabilitating Chinese intellectuals in a fresh socio-political context based on market economy.

Chapter 2: “Stability overwhelms everything”: Analyzing the legitimating effect of the stability discourse since 1989

Chapter 2 continues to discuss the discursive construction of legitimacy in the post-Tiananmen era. Based on a historical discourse analysis of three events (i.e. the 1989 “Beijing Spring”, the 1999 “anti-Falun Gong”, and the 2005 “anti-Japan” demonstrations) reported in the “People’s Daily” (China’s state newspaper), Sandby-Thomas demonstrates how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has actively adopted the stability discourse to legitimize its authority since 1989. The chapter’s major conclusion is that the CCP’s use of the stability discourse throughout the post-Tiananmen period is based on “consequentialist arguments”, which present maintaining stability as an issue of national interest. As such, Sandby-Thomas argues that the case of China challenges Max Weber’s (1964) overly structuralist approach to legitimation since the legitimacy of the CCP is, to a large extent, “discursively flexible” and “contextually sensitive”.

Chapter 3: A decade’s change in China: A corpus-based discourse analysis of ten government work reports

This chapter examines the Chinese government’s annual reports to the National People’s Congress during a 10-year period (1999-2008). Applying a corpus-based CDA method, Qian and Tian’s analysis captures the dialectical relationship between discourse and social change in this 10-year period. The key finding of this chapter is the shift from ideological rhetoric to a pragmatic based discourse during the decade and such discursive shift, according to Qian and Tian, has generated positive impacts in dealing with China’s pressing socio-economic changes in the post-reform era.

Chapter 4: It’s a small world after all? Simulating the future world at the Shanghai Expo

This chapter focuses on China’s re-imaged identity, values, and future visions in the beginning of the 21st century. The chapter examines the high profile Shanghai Expo in 2010 and analyzes the Expo site via a multi-model discursive perspective. In particular, Schneider details the grand narrative offered by the China pavilion, which collapses modern Chinese history into 30 years of successful economic reforms that elevate China from the “sick man of Asia” to a major world power. Overall, the chapter shows how the institutional constraints at the Shanghai Expo have reinforced the political ideals of the Chinese authorities.

Chapter 5: Contesting journalism legitimacy: Discourse of Chinese journalism in the post-reform era

This chapter discusses how Chinese journalism maintains its legitimacy through discursive constructions and contestations since the 1980s. Along with the decline of party journalism, Tong identifies three types of discourse on defining journalism: the 1980s “liberal discourse”, the 1990s “populist discourse”, and the 2000s “professional discourse”. On the one hand, these new sets of journalism discourse, according to Tong, have established a “public journalism” that redefines the practices, roles, and values of Chinese journalism. On the other hand, Chinese journalism today still heavily relies upon state apparatus for its authority and discursive power. Thus, the journalism discourse discussed here re-confirms the coexistence of the party line and the commercial line in current Chinese journalist practices (Zhao, 1998).

Chapter 6: China’s road to revival: “Writing” the PRC’s struggles for modernization

This chapter moves the discussion to media narrative of modern historiography. Focusing on the TV documentary series “Road to Revival” and its accompanying multi-media opera, Schneider and Hwang explore how the Party and the state deploy a range of discursive strategies to re-write China’s modern history, creating a re-worked narrative to justify the CCP as China’s ruling party.

Chapter 7: China’s soft power: Formulations, contestations, and communication

This chapter presents a critical analysis of the media’s role in constructing and mediating the “soft power” discourse in China. Following Fairclough’s (1995) notion of “media as a discursive site”, Cao explores how different views of “soft power” compete for recognition, legitimation, and authority in China’s media realm. The chapter’s key argument is that the conceptualization of “soft power” in China is significantly different from the original concept elaborated by Joseph Nye (2004). The Chinese version of “soft power”, to a large extent, has functioned as a reconstruction of cultural identities in the intellectual discourse and an ideological reformulation in the official discourse.

Chapter 8: Issues in discourse approach to social transformations in China: A synopsis

In the final chapter, Tian and Chilton discuss theoretical and methodological issues of applying CDA in the Chinese context. The authors argue that China’s unique social, cultural, and political contexts require a reconfiguration of the Western originated paradigm of CDA when it is applied in China. Specifically, Tian and Chilton review four relevant issues: (1) a “wider” angle critical perspective (i.e. the critical perspective in CDA should be more flexible in the Chinese context), (2) a focus on the functionality of discourse (i.e. more research attention should be given to the social actors within discursive practices), (3) the emergent public sphere, and (4) qualitative research methods.


This edited volume presents an in-depth and comprehensive analysis of China’s socio-political transformations through the lens of CDA. Covering a wide range of topics, the volume effectively demonstrates the complexity of political and media discourses in contemporary China and offers a systematic account of these discourses’ production, circulation, and (potential) implications. Throughout the volume, the legitimization effect of discourse has been given special attention and the relevant discussions have made an important contribution to our understanding of how discourse has become a key “battleground” in China’s post-reform era. As such, this volume can be an informative reading for academics and students in communication and media studies, Chinese studies, and language and discourse studies.

Unfortunately, the current version also has some minor limitations, which might be addressed in future editions. First of all, the critics and discussions made in the chapters, though valid as well as impressive, only provide liberal-pluralist interpretations regarding China’s current socio-political context. As Cao acknowledges in the Introduction, various perspectives (e.g. liberal-pluralist and radical-Marxist) have been applied in studying different dimensions of China’s radical transformations. Thus, one potential improvement for future editions is to include more studies from the radical-Marxist perspective, which would offer a more holistic picture of the heated debates occurring in China’s intellectual discourse. Second, the current version has several notable editorial errors, especially in some key terms’ Chinese translations. On page 179, for instance, the term “scientific approach to development” is translated as “和谐发展观” (the meaning of this translation is “harmonious view of development”) and similar mistakes can be found in other chapters as well. Last but not least, the historical perspective adopted by many chapters in this volume means that many discussions here are made from a macro perspective, and as a result, readers without sufficient knowledge regarding China’s political economy may find some arguments seem to lack empirical evidence. One desirable improvement for further revisions is to include more background explanations of China’s current political economy in the Introduction.

Nonetheless, overall the volume is ideal reading for academics interested in political and media discourses in contemporary China, and it can be useful recommended reading for related graduate courses as well.


Fairclough, N. (1995). Media discourse. London and New York: Edward Arnold.

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of Knowledge. London: Tavistock Publications.

Reisigl, M. and Wodak, R. (2009). The discourse-historical approach. In R. Wodak and M. Meyer (eds.), Methods of critical discourse analysis 2nd ed. (pp. 87-121). London and Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Nye, J. (2004). Soft power: the means to success in world politics. New York: Public Affairs

Weber, M. (1964). The theory of social and economic organization (A. M. Henderson, Trans. and T. Parsons. Ed.). New York: The Free Press.

Zhao, Y. (1998). Media, market and democracy in China: between the Party Line and Bottom Line. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Sibo Chen is a PHD student in the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. He received his MA in Applied Linguistics from the Department of Linguistics, University of Victoria, Canada. His major research interests are language and communication, discourse analysis, and genre theories.