This paper examines how market-oriented reforms to media are changing the public sphere in contemporary China with particular concern for how the commercialization of media may impact the prospects for democracy. While the authors find “public sphere” a problematic concept, they nonetheless find it useful for both normative and empirical analysis, particularly when that analysis is sensitive to China's specific historical and institutional context. The study shows that the commercialization of media in China as elsewhere has created a seemingly apolitical consumption-oriented discourse. However, the authors argue that in contrast to liberal capitalist societies, where commercial culture tends to devalue the existing democracy, in China commercial culture replaces a Leninist public sphere in which individuals were compelled to participate in a relatively monolithic official discourse. While the party-state continues to closely supervise the public sphere, the introduction of markets, the relative diversification of media producers, and the increasing volume of media introduce a degree of dynamism and unpredictability. Seeing important change but recognizing limits, the authors label the new public sphere “pluralistic.” Even while the party-state maintains its restrictive management, the commercialized public sphere nonetheless allows citizens more choices than they used to have. The authors conclude that this “pluralistic” public sphere by no means guarantees a transformation to democracy, but it does at least marginally improve the prospects for democratic change.

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