The Tug-of-War between Regulatory Interventions and Market Demands in the Chinese Television Industry

Matthias Niedenführ


In the People’s Republic of China, the media industry has become increasingly commercialized over the past three decades, but like many other areas of the economy, it remains subject to the tensions between state and market priorities. In some aspects, market interests may seem to be in the ascendancy. Many programs and program formats, which for various political and social reasons would have been taboo just 20 years ago, have been produced to meet market-led objectives. Nevertheless, through the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, the authorities monitor and regulate media products to ensure that they do not stray beyond the parameters of acceptable political discourse. The state, therefore, remains the ultimate arbiter of what content reaches the audience.

This article examines the relationship between state and market priorities in the case of television drama. Historical dramas in particular provide an explicit example of a program format which is popular with audiences (and therefore revenue generating), but which is also profoundly affected by the political requirement to protect the past and present legitimacy of the Communist Party. The authorities adopt an adaptive–reactive approach, which combines formal regulation with ad hoc interventions to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and self-censorship among media producers. The analysis connects debates over controversial programs to the various rules and regulations which have been issued in response, which in turn shape the production of new content. The institutional dynamics through which conflicting political and economic objectives have been negotiated in the media industry are reflective of a wider tug-of-war between state and market forces in China.

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