Contentious Media Events, Symbolic Politics, and Authoritarian Deliberation -- Crafting Resonance in Legal Social Dramas in China

Project: Research

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China’s recent social and economic transformation is accompanied by a loss of ideological hegemony and increased social stratification. Occasionally, these conflicts burst into mediated “social dramas”, constituting either “moral outrage” highlighting miscarriage of justice or “resistance stories” in which the underprivileged revenge against the powerful. These stories offer rich symbolic texts in studying contentious politics in China and media’s interaction with other institutions. This proposal constructs a typology of cases according to “the nature of offense”(including “moral outrage” and “resistance story”) and “effect on society” (ranging from “consensus” to “perpetuated conflict”). While “excused resistance” and “corrected moral outrage” achieve reconciliation, “punished resistance” and “divided moral outrage” perpetuate conflicts. By examining the events’ discursive processes, this project highlights a crucial but under-studied dimension of “media events”, i.e., the embodiment of a liminal phase that brings the “normative” (morally compelling) to bear on the “indicative” (politically efficacious) and holds potential for social renewal. Ideally, reflexivity can be achieved through deliberation. However, there is also the danger of populist moral gloaming. At an explanation level, the project seeks to identify the circumstances under which an event achieves “ritualization”, i.e., moving from contest to consensus, through studying how structural forces (e.g. political, economic and organizational factors) inform discursive choices and their relative success. At an interpretation level, through studying the craft of journalists as both reason-givers and storytellers in defining a society’s supreme virtue – justice – this project tries to unpack the meaning of these events as moral tales in contemporary China, revealing not only “large, universal truths of life, death, goodness and evil”, but also “parochial truths involving class, privilege, ambition, and resentment” (Tucker 1994: 61). To sum up, this project proposes a synthesized model for studying media events as ritual, strategy and deliberation, by trying to disentangle the different layers of “truth” embedded in mediation. These include individual-level truth attainable through the strategies of professionalism, social-level truth on the nature of underlying social problems through deliberation, as well as cultural-level truth or the meaning of the resonant moral tales. The negotiation of different levels of “truth” and the final form they take constitutes the “deliberative” or “populist” nature of events, with outcomes ranging from a narrowing of the gap between the “normative” and the “indicative” which produces social reconciliation, to an expansion of the gap that produces perpetuated schism, to rare instances of transformation resulting in deeper changes to institutions.  


Project number9042750
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/1927/06/23