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Freedom of the Press in China: a conceptual history, 1831-1949
thesisposted on 29.03.2022, 01:13 by Yi Guo
Today's conception of press freedom is fundamentally related to its past. While scholars criticise that individual speech is still suffering from arbitrary restrictions and that mass media in China remains within an authoritarian mode as defined in the classic Four Theories of the Press, the history of press freedom in the Chinese context has so far received little examination. Unlike the conventional historical account of press freedom dedicated to narrating the institutional development of censorship and people's resistance against arbitrary repression, this dissertation aims to present a conceptual history of press freedom, which sheds light on the transcultural transference and localisation of the concept in modern Chinese history spanning from its initial transplantation in 1831 to 1949. Inspired by Reinhart Koselleck's theoretical legacy of conceptual history and James Carey's critical thoughts on the cultural approach to journalism history, this dissertation focuses on the changing meaning of press freedom by examining three genres of discourse (intellectual elite's thoughts, common people's attitudes, and official opinions) along with the social-cultural factors that were involved in negotiating Chinese interpretations and practices. The central argument is that socio-cultural factors, originating both from the domestic situation (including traditional intellectual resources) and international engagements, exerted an enormous influence on the emergent and ongoing Chinese discourse of press freedom and thereby defined the changing meanings of the concept in China. As a result, despite there being moments in time when there was the potential for an institutionalised press freedom to develop which may have satisfied Western expectations, in the end this became impossible in modern China. This dissertation is underpinned by John Dewey's thesis that freedom is a product of special circumstances and is tied up with the culture in which it arises. Even though freedom of speech and the press was impossible in late imperial and early republican China, the one-hundred-year history of China grappling with the concept of press freedom still provides insights for understanding the issue of press freedom in China today.