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Journalism as Politics: reporting Hong Kong's handover in the Chinese press



Chinese journalism differs in many respects from that of the West. Crucially, journalism in China is judged to function primarily to guide public opinion in the direction favoured by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): journalism functions as the mouthpiece of the Party. This article analyses newspaper reporting of the handover of Hong Kong to illustrate major functions of journalism in contemporary China. The analysis offers an exploration of the historical and political significance of the handover of Hong Kong reflected in the news stories reported in the Chinese press. It focuses on how the handover was understood by the People's Republic of China (PRC) and propagated via journalists: it also examines journalism as a political institution in Chinese society. Critical discourse analysis is used to map discursive formations of news reports, and to analyse journalism as a discursive practice. Emphasis is placed on the inter-relations between journalism and political processes, and journalism as a major domain for the reproduction of social identities.
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Journalism as Politics: reporting Hong Kong's handover in the Chinese
Cao Qing
To cite this Article Qing, Cao(2000) 'Journalism as Politics: reporting Hong Kong's handover in the Chinese press',
Journalism Studies, 1: 4, 665 — 678
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/146167000441367
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Jo urnalism Stud ies, Volume 1, Number 4, 20 00, pp. 66 5–678
Journalism as Po litics: reporting Hong Kong’s
handover in th e Chinese press
School of Oriental and Asian Studies, University of London, UK
Chinese journalism differs in many respects from that of the West. Crucially,
journalism in China is judged to function primarily to guide public opinion in the direction
favoured by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): journalism functions as the mouthpiece of the
Party. This article analyses newspaper reporting of the handover of Hong Kong to illustrate
major functions of journalism in contemporary China. The analysis offers an exploration of the
historical and political signi cance of the handover of Hong Kong re ected in the news stories
reported in the Chinese press. It focuses on how the handover was understood by the People’s
Republic of China (PRC) and propagated via journalists: it also examines journalism as a
political institution in Chinese society. Critical discourse analysis is used to map discursive
formations of news reports, and to analyse journalism as a discursive practice. Emphasis is
placed on the inter-relations between journalism and political processes, and journalism as a
major domain for the reproduction of social identities.
: Chinese Studies, Discourse Analysis, Journalism
Hong Kong was returned to the Peo-
ple’s Republic of China from the United
Kingdom on 1 July 1997.
The han-
dover was a highly signi cant event for
China. Symbolically, it was perceived
as marking the nal end of foreign
domination in China. Politically , it was
the rst majo r event of internationa l
signi cance handled by Jiang Zemin,
following the death of Deng Xiaoping
earlier in the year. China se nt her
largest media team to Hong K ong to
cover the handover, and produced
a substantial amount of coverage.
This article explores the perceived
signi cance of the handover, re ected
in the news texts produced by journal-
ists. In particular, it focuses on how
journalists perform their socio-politically
determined role in the practice of the ir
profession. It aims to demonstrate how
journalism, as a major political insti-
tution in China, conveys the dominant
views through the jou rnalist’s profes-
sionalism, and how news coincides
with the contemporary political dis-
course, contributing to the reproduction
of socio-political identities in modern
The data for the study are derived
from six broadsheet daily newspapers
published in mainland China on 1 July
1997: Peoples Daily (the of cial news-
paper of the CCP Central Committee);
People’s Daily Overseas Edition
(slightly different from the mainland
edition); Zhejiang Daily
(the of cial
newspaper of the CCP Zhejiang
Committee); People’s Li beration Army
Daily (the of cial newspaper of the
ISSN 146 1-670X print/ISSN 1469-9699 online/00/040665-14 Ó 2000 Taylor & Fr ancis Ltd
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PLA); Guangming Daily (fo r intellectu-
als); and China Youth Daily (for young
people). The People’s Daily is the sin-
gle most important newspaper in
China. It commands the highest auth-
and consequently many exam-
ples are drawn from its pages. Five of
the six newspapers are national dailies
representing primarily the Party’s
views, but also including those of differ-
ent sectors of society: the army, the
educational and a cademic institutions
and young people. 1 July 1997 was
selected for focused analysis since re-
porting of the handover reached a cli-
max on that day.
A Theoretical Framework
News is a representation of the world
mediated via the journalist. Like every
discourse, it constructively patterns
that of which it speaks. Differences in
expression carry ideological distinc-
tions and thus differe nces in represen-
tation. The content of news stories
therefore represents ideas, beliefs, val-
ues, theories an d ideology (Fowler,
1991, p. 1). The major role of news
language as discourse is to supply the
categories imposed by the journalist on
the event itself (Kress, 1983, p. 120).
Journalists reporting Hong Kong’s han-
dover drew on a historical and political
repertoire for categories and
metaphors, which not only ren dered
the event r elevant and meaningful, but
in so doing reinforced values and as-
This article employs discourse analy-
sis as a central methodological tool to
deconstruct news stories about the
handover, both as a product of the
journalist in terms of discursive forma-
tions and as a process of journalism in
terms of discursive practice. Both dis-
cursive formation and practice are
understood primarily in Michael Fou-
cault’s sense of the term (Foucault,
1972), but the latter will be analysed
largely within the framework developed
by Norman Fairclough (1989,1985).
Major issues of concern are: the dis-
semination of ideo logy through journal-
ism, the reproduction of social identity
and the exercise and distribution of
power through journalistic discourse
(Fairclough, 1 989, 1995; Fowler, 1991;
Hodge and Kress, 1993; Van Dijk,
1988a, 1988b and 1998). Critical
discourse analysis emphasizes a text
as the product of a process in which
discourse is closely related to social
structures in its productio n and in-
terpreta tion. With these central con-
cerns, this article focuses on journalism
as an essential discursive practice
within China’s poli tical, h istorical and
cultural context, using the handover re-
porting as an illustration.
Discursive form ation is a central term
used by Foucault in his analysis of the
“archaeology of knowledge”. By discur-
sive formation, Foucault means a dis-
course does no t consist of a single
statement, but a whole range of state-
ments working together because any
one statement implies a relation to all
the others. There are four criteria to
identify such formations (Cousins and
Hussa in, 1984, pp. 84–5): a group of
statements referring to one and th e
same object, a regular “style to the
existence of statements, a consistency
of concepts employed in the state-
ments and statements all supporting a
common theme. However, at each
level of discursive formation, a disper-
sion of statements exists governed by
what Foucault terms “th e rules of for-
mati on” (Foucault, 1972), the complex
conditions of existence of the state-
ments in dispersion. Discursive forma-
tions as a corpus of statements relate
to the existence of objects, modes of
statement, concepts and thematic
choices. In the reporting of the han-
dover such formations can be
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Table 1. Number of articles on each theme in the six daily newspapers on 1 July 1997 in China
1. Celebrations for the return of Hong Kong (66)
2. Ceremonies of the handover and the Hong Kong SAR
government inauguration (63)
3. Chinese leaders meetings with British and other prominent gures (34)
4. The People’s Liberation Army (28)
5. Explanations of the new map of the SAR (10)
6. Histor y of Hong Kong and the Unequal Treaties (7)
7. The British withdrawal from Hong Kong (7)
8. The Basic Law of the newly established SAR (3)
9. The negotiations between China and Britain about the future of Hong Kong (1)
vironment in which journalistic dis-
course occurs. The institutional
dimension constitutes a wider matrix
for journalism, such as the newspaper.
Lastly, the social dimension involves
the whole of a given society as an
organizational entity. The key to this
meth odological approach, therefore,
lies in gaining an understanding of the
relationship between a news text as the
product of a journalist, the way that it
has been produced as a professional
practice of journalism, the social con-
dition within which journalism operates,
and nally how their product is created,
promulgated and comprehended.
Text as the Journalist’s Product:
mapping discursive formations
Thematic Distribution
Desp ite differences in emphasis and
style, reports of the handover in the six
newspapers share similarities in terms
of prominent themes and foci. All news-
papers reported the event extensively.
The People’s Daily apportioned 13 of
its 16 pages to th e handover on 1 July
1997. Themes that emerged from
these new s reports can be divided into
two g roupings: the celebrations across
the country, and the ceremonies of the
handover. The thematic distribution is
summarized in Table 1.
identi ed, operating to generate con-
certed meanings in a familiar and in-
sistent way. Unlike some discursive
formations as in psychiatry or medi-
cine, the formations emerging from the
handover news stories are highly vis-
ible, although not at all explicit.
This study adopts Norman Fair-
clough’s methodological framework for
analysing journalism as discursive
practice, that relates a textual examin-
ation of the journalist’s product to a
wider social conte xt (Fairclough, 1989,
1995). Applying Fairclough’s views of
language as a social practice in jour-
nalism, news text means, rst, that it is
an integral part of society, not external
to it; secondly , it is a social process;
and thirdly, it is a socially conditioned
process. News text, in this methodolog-
ical approach, is thus both discourse
and social practice. Journalistic dis-
course is used to refer to the whole
process of journalism, of which a nal
text is only a part. In addition to the
text, this wider journalism pro cess in-
cludes the related news production and
its interpretation. News analysis, there-
fore, is just one part of discourse analy-
sis which should include both
productive and interpretative processes
of journalism.
There are three dimensions to be
considered: situational, institutional and
social. The situational dimension is
de ned as the immediate social en-
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Realizing a Centuries-old Dream
The return of Hong Kong to Chinese
sovereignty is seen primarily through a
historical lens. Emphasis is placed on
the nal end to the humiliating experi-
ence of being forced to cede Hong
Kong during the Opium War. A promi-
nent feature of the reporting is the his-
toricizing of the event. This is illustrated
by a front-page headline in People’s
: “Great Event for the Chinese
Nation that will Go Down in the Annals
of History Forever; the Victory for the
Universal Course of Peace a nd Jus-
It is the rst of four parallel head-
lines, making clear the highest
Clustered around
history are a number of key words:
justice, peace, victory, the Chinese na-
ti on and universal cause. These terms
conjure up a picture of what China
wants to present to the world: historical
justice has been done. The universal
cour se of peace and justice relates the
handover to the imperialist invasion
and colonial rule by Western powers.
The accompanying picture gives pri-
macy to the historical moment: a pan-
oramic view of the handover ceremony,
when the British a g was lowered and
China’s national ag and Hong Kong’s
new ag were raised. Signi cantly,
Peopl e’s Daily did not choose to focus
on Jiang Zemin making his “historic
speech”: typically, Chinese newspa-
pers feature photographs of leaders.
The choice of history rather than leader
speaks for itself.
These history-orientated news sto-
ries centre around a central notion of
washing-away-the-shame in icted by
the British colonialists. The schematic
knowledge of washing-away-the-
shame is closely linked to a China be-
ing victimized by western imperialism.
The shame/victimhood/dream cluster
as a discursive package, accounte d
and formulated over a century by gen-
erations of nationalists, has become
pervasive in China’s national con-
sciousness. Thus Hong Kong, the
physical presence of colonialism, rep-
resents primarily an unrealized and
long-cherished dream of washing-
away-the-shame rather than anything
In the eld of history, this discur-
sive package constitutes the backbone
of knowledge. Pre-modern Chinese
starts, as agreed by most Chi-
nese historians, with the Opium War,
which symbolizes the beginning of
China’s inability to maintain national in-
tegrity in the face of an expansionist,
technologically advanced, but morally
unjust West. The feeling of being vic-
timized was reinforced with the CCPs
accession to power which de ed the
West (seen as having imperialist ambi-
tions) in a spirit of full con dence. Vic-
timhood discourse therefore nds
natural expression in revolutionary
rhetoric, claiming that the washing-
away-the-shame dream could only
be realized under the leadership of
the CCP. Thus, the centuries-
old dream narrative includes both
historical stories centring around Lin
and a contemporary political
discourse of a strong and indepen-
dent China. In such a uni ed narrative,
the shame/victimhood/dream cluster
acquires not only a status of historical
knowledge, but political knowledge
as well. Past and present, knowledge
and power, are discursively com-
bined into a coherent narrative echoed
prominently in the reporting of the han-
Closely re lated to this discursive
cluster is the emphasis on sovereignty.
The 0.5 3 12.5 front-page headline in
the People’s Daily Overseas Edition:
“President Jiang Zemin Solemnly De-
clared that the Chinese Government
had Resumed Sovereignty over Hong
is printed in red.
The lead of
this article focuses on three elements:
the raising of the national ag, Hong
Kong’s return to her motherland and
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China’s resumption of sovereignty. The
second front-page article reinforces the
sovereignty theme by focusing on the
establishment of the new Hong Kong
SAR government.
PLA Daily feature s
the takeover of defence functions from
the British, emphasizing that sover -
eignty is more than a symbolic act. The
handover symbolizes a historic mo-
ment when China walked out from the
shadow of being an unequal partner in
world politics, the previous moment be-
ing the founding of the People’s Re-
public in 1 949.
Cel ebrations and their Political
The theme of celebrations on the return
of Hong Kong takes up most of the
space in the newspapers . It consists of
a multi-dimensional discursive con -
struction. First, the scale of celebra-
tions across China and Chinese
communities around the world are
highlighted, focusing on a number of
geographical locations including the
gathering of 100,000 people in Tianan-
men Square. Secondly, the celebration
is linked to the historical achievements
of the CCP, framing previous feudal,
republic and natio nalist governments
as negative and crystallizing the role of
the CCP as a liberating force. Thirdly,
the rapid economic development in the
past two decades is projected as hav-
ing played an important role in enhanc-
ing China’s national power, and
therefore contributing decisively to the
return of Hong Kong o n China’s terms.
By such a political formulation of the
role of the economy, it legitimizes and
highlights economic development as a
long-term prioritized policy of the CCP.
It therefore reaf rms such a line of pol-
icy by the Jiang Zemin administration,
following the death of Deng Xiaoping.
Fourthly, as part of an historicized
discourse, the event is celebrated as a
landmark in the historic stru ggle for
freedom from foreig n domination. The
report of Nanjing’s celebration features
Lin Zexu’s sixth-generation grandson
striking the bell
to mark the end of the
rst u nequal treaty signed in this city. In
Humen the news reports focus on the
Opium War Museum visited by tens of
thousands a day, especially by people
from Hong Kong.
Patri otism is a cen-
tral ideology to unify the popular
masses in their common heritage of
victimhood and in th e construction of a
socialist state under the leadership of
the CCP, a road seen as the only
alternative in view of China’s past ex-
periences and contemporary inter-
national environment. It also serves as
a unifying discourse for Hong Kong,
Taiwan and overseas C hinese com-
munities. The triumphant termination of
a colonial presence and the image-en-
hancing act of take-over constitut e the
basis of a consensus which,
signi cantly, transcend s political differ-
ences, exempli ed by China Times in
Taiwan: “Chinese all over the world are
overjoyed by the historical event which
closes a chapter of shameful 19th cen-
tury colonial rule after years of blood-
shed, sacri ce and struggles by our
Even the prominent
leader of the Democratic Party in Hong
Kong, Martin Lee, widely reported in
the West for his anti-Communist pos-
ture, stated that he was proud of the
return of Hong Kong to China. The
appeal of nationalism is powerful and
succeeds in winning wide support at
home and abroad (in the C hinese
diaspora communities). Such unanimity
is unprecedented in modern Chinese
A Positive Attitude Toward
S ino-British Relations
In contrast to the British media
Chinese press constructed a positive
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attitude towards Sino-British relations.
Two headlines epitomize such a posi-
tive formulation: “President Jiang
Zemin met Prince Charles, hoping that
a good beginning of Sino-British rela-
tions will emerge”
and “Jiang Zemin
and Li Peng met Blair, stating that lead-
ers of both countries will have vision,
looking at Sino-British relations at glo-
bal and stra tegic levels to face the 21st
It is substantiated by a num-
ber of subthemes. First, a consensus
between China and Britain is empha-
sized: (1) the closu re of an old chapter
as a bridge to future relations, (2) good
prospects of economic co-operation
and bilateral trade and (3) the smooth
handover as the result of efforts by
both sides. Secondly, One country
Two systems as a policy framework is
highlighted as accepted by Britain,
Hong Ko ng and China which serves
as a guarantee to the future stability
and prosperity of H ong Kong. Thirdly,
Jiang Zemin an d Li Peng form ally
invited Tony Blair and Robin Cook
for an of cial visit to China. Fourthly,
the Labour Party was projected as
having no baggage to hinder the
development of new relations with
China, and therefore faces a good
Such re-positioning of bilateral rela-
tions re ects China’s global strategy of
developing a peaceful international en-
vironment for the Chinese economy as
advocated by Deng Xiaoping. These
formulations are linked to a forward-
looking rhetoric in Chinese world poli-
tics in th e post-Mao era. They draw on
a rich repertoire of victimhood, but re-
construct it to suit contemporary foreign
policy imperatives, based on the calcu-
lations of national interests rather than
ideological differences. The resulting
discursive formation con nes the vic-
ti mhood narrative primarily to an his-
torical domain. Modern capitalist
countries are therefore not castigated
outright as imperialists, but constructed
as having differe nt political systems
(although with hegemonic ambitions),
which China has to acknowledge to
achieve peaceful co-existenc e by
developing a constructive partnership.
More im porta ntly, western countries
are presented as a source of modern
technology and investment, badly
needed for China’s modernization pro-
gramme. Therefore, a good partnership
is framed not only as necessary but
vital. N evertheless, the articulation of
the integrity of national sovereignty as
an essential precondition has never
been compromised, and indeed was
rmly regarded as an overriding prin-
ciple manifested in the negotiations
between Britain and China in the early
1980s (Xu, 1996). Re-formulating
China from being a victim of imperialist
powers to having a growing economy
in n eed of foreign capital re ects
a pragmatic forward-looking foreign
policy. It has been crystallized as
a long-term strategy for the twenty-
rst century and consequently the re-
sulting discursive constructions have
been defensive in terms of ideology
and positive in terms of economic
Journalism As Discursive
Practice in the Socio-Political
Description: establishing
socio-cultural and political truths
Fairclough (1989, 1995) emphasizes
various analytical levels and dimen-
sions for exam ining and explaining dis-
course as a process. Three levels of
analysis are particularly useful for this
study of journalism as a discursive
practice: description, interpretation and
explanation (see the next two sec-
tions). Description is used primarily to
deconstru ct a news text’s formal
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properti es in terms of three valu es: ex-
periential, relational and expressive
(Faircl ough, 1989, p. 112). Experiential
value in journalism is a trace o f the way
in which th e experience of the jou rnalist
(or of any social group, but through the
journalist) is represented. It builds into
the analysis of the news text as a result
of an institutional journalism, the play of
knowledge and beliefs, and is therefore
intimate ly involved w ith textual content.
Relational value is a trace of the social
relationships enacted through the news
story, and so is directly involved with
social relationships. Expressive value
is a trace of the assessment of social
reality by the journalist or by social
groups through the journalist, and
therefore relates to subjects and social
identities. All these three types of value
are realized through the use of vocabu-
lary, grammar and other linguistic
devices by the journalist.
It is not possible, however, to extrap-
olate directly from the formal features
of a news story to these structural ef-
fects on the constitution of a reality.
The relationship between news and so-
cial structures is mediated largely
through the journalist and editor be-
cause the values of the discourse be-
come real only when they are
embedded in the social interactions of
journalism, where news is p roduced
and interpreted within a given socio-
historical context (Tuchman, 1978;
Bell, 1991) and operating against a
background of schemata as cognitive
constructs and con gurations of knowl-
edge (Widdowson, 1983, p. 54).
There is a high level of “experientia l
values in news reports, realized pri-
marily throug h a vocabulary speci c to
China’s historical and political dis-
course (i.e. hundreds of years of hu-
miliation, semi-colonial and semi-feudal
society, new China, three generations
of the CCP leadership). The symbolic
and metaphoric use of these terms
de ne in an emotionally loaded frame,
historical events, locating the CCP in a
teleological story harnessing the politi-
cal pa st, present and future in a uni ed
presentation of the world, by which the
revolutio nary identity of the CCP is
af rmed. The editorial
of Peoples
Daily identi es two phases of history:
China before and after 1949, and three
historical gures: Mao Zedong, Zhou
Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, each phase
and gure is identi ed with the revol-
utionary progression towards the nal
regaining of sovereignty over Hong
Kong. In such an account, Deng Xiaop-
ing is re-positioned in an historical di-
mension to establish the continuities of
the CCPs leadership, which leads to a
central conclusion in the editorial:
A t the time of the return of Hong Kong,
we feel deeply that this would be imposs-
ible without the leadership of the CCP,
wit hout the increasing power and pros-
perity of our motherland, without the
great achievements of the reform and
openi ng-up of the country, without the
unrem itting efforts of the leaders of three
generat ions of the new China, in particu-
lar without the guidance of Deng Xiaop-
ing’s theory of building a socialism with
Chinese characteristics. This is the rm
conclusion recorded by the history of
over one hundred years.
2 5
This conclusio n summarizes the pri-
mary political signi cance of Hong
Kong’s return. The CCP’s political ex-
perience as well as modern China’s
historical experience are expressed in
a uni ed fashion, realizing the primary
function of journalism as a political in-
In terms of “relational values”, social
relationships are textually enacted
through a discursive projection of a
progressive history. The emphasis
placed in news report s on a historical
inspirati on and contemporary realiza-
tion seeks to present an inclusive nar-
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rative embraci ng the CCP and the en-
tire Chinese nation . Thus, on one hand
the state represented by the CCP is
coherently related to the wider, more
neutral notion of the nation. On the
other hand, a political genealogy is es-
tablished. The references to Mao and
Deng are deliberately encode d with
symbolic signi cance for the Jiang
leadersh ip by linking their names to
collective leadership. Furthermore, in
this uni ed historical account the par-
ticipant subjects are positioned in a
highly signi cant manner. Britain repre-
sents primarily a colonial power w hose
imperialist practice in the nineteenth
century was fundamentally unjust.
Hong Kong is thus implicitly presented
as sharing a co mmon struggle against
colonialism with mainland China and
Taiwan. This notion of the Chinese na-
tion as a family is metaphorically em-
phasized by the celebration of Hong
Kong as returning home after one-and-
a-half centuries of separation.
In terms of expressive values the
handover reporting actively draws
readers together as participants in their
common heritage of humiliation on the
verge of subjugation. Recounting the
road from humiliation to rejuvenation
characterizes most editorials on 1 July
With this activated memory of
victimization is associated the optimis-
tic expression of pride and joy in the
takeover, and thus a discursive line of
emancipation, progress and betterment
is established in the minds of the
reader. The metaphor deployed in the
representation of imperialism as one of
the three mountains the CCP over-
threw, the present return of Hong Ko ng
as its nal completion, symbolize s the
CCP’s role as a liberator of the nation
and people, and therefor e its leader-
ship credentials. Further metaphorical
usage in references to the road of ad-
vancement and to the road of building
sociali sm carry an encoded meaning in
association with the story of the Long
March. This leads to the nal con-
clusion of the People’s Daily editorial:
A t present, under the guidance of the
P arty’s basic theory and policy, and un-
der the strong leadership of the Partys
Cent ral Committee with Comrade Jiang
Zem in at the forefront, we enjoy political
stabi lity, economic development, ethnic
unity and social development. The world
will see that China’s future will be even
bright er. The Chinese nation that has
5, 000 years’ history of civilisation will ad-
vance with giant strides on its road to
m odernisation. The nal complete re-
uni cation and all-round rejuvenation will
become a glorious reality.
2 7
Interpretation: social determinants
of journalism
For Fairclough, Interpretation is con-
cerned with participants processes of
text production and text interpretation.
Interpreta tions are generated primarily
through a combination of the content of
the journalistic text and the reader’s
particular schematic knowledge. For-
mal features of the text are the cues
which activate elements of the reader’s
schema. Therefore, interpretations are
generated through the dialectical in ter-
play of cues and schemata. There are
three dimensions of interpretation: tex-
tual, intertextual and contextual. The
textual dimension consists of semanti c
and pragmatic features and textual
structure. The intertextual dimension
relates the journalistic text to a histori-
cal series of texts. Therefore, intertex-
tual interpretation is a matter of
determining to which textual series a
particular journalistic text belongs and
what can be taken as interpretative
common ground for participant read-
ers. Contextual interpretation refers to
what has previously been described as
situational, institutional and social (sec-
tion 2) context as societal determinants
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of journalism. The analysis of interpret-
ation breaks open received delusions
of autonomy on the part of subjects in
journalistic discourse.
Textu ally, news stories are a self-
contained narrative o f the history of the
Chinese State and people from victim-
hood to rejuvenation. Intertextually, the
news reporting links into a solid corpus
of historical writings, detailing the ris-
ing-up of China against its external
predato rs. First, the news reports inter-
sect with a broad discursive back-
ground in referring to anti-colonial
history about Hong Kong. An article in
PLA Daily
features attempts by pre-
1949 governments to recover Hong
Kong in a historical background of wars
against foreign powers. Secondly, the
news stories draw on the CCP’s writ-
ings, including those of Mao and Deng
(Gong et al., 1997; Xinhua News
Agency, 1997), re ecting on China’s
status as a victim of im perialism. Both
types of writing are characterized by a
denunciation of imperialist invasions,
and the exposition of internal revolution
and reform as the necessary prerequi-
sites for national independence, reju-
venation and international standing.
Thirdly, the news discourse interwoven
tightly into the fabric of the editorials of
major newspapers comes from Deng
Xiaoping’s theory, surrounding the ex-
position of the One countryTwo sys-
tems policy as a framework for H ong
Kong’s return. Fourthly, the news sto-
ries are entwined with previous report-
ing of Hong Kong, starting around 1984
when the Joint Declaration between
China and Britain was signed.
Reporting, seen primarily as a politi-
cal task, marks the situational context.
In April 1997, the CCP’s Public Infor-
mation Department organized a work-
shop to train over 80 party newspaper
chief editors for the handover event. It
also jointly issued a guideline of princi-
ples with the Of ce of Hong Kong and
Macao Affairs under the State Council
for the coverage and the political terms
to be used. Such mobilization would
ensure that the reporting was to be
carried out pr ecisely as stipulated by
the CCP. The Xinhua News Agency,
the of cial news agency in China (Xin-
hua News Agency, 1997), provided the
majority of important news reports. The
Xinhua handover tea m consisted of
114 reporters. The meanings enclosed
within the reporting are given within a
Party discours e for wide public dis-
semination. China Central Television
(CCTV) mobilized 1,800 personnel to
cover the handover in eight cities
across C hina, and 15 major cities
around the world for an unprecedented
72 hours non-stop broadcasting. Six
hundred and ten journalists w ere sent
to Hong Kong, representing 16 media
institutions in the mainland (Gong,
1997). The primary political function,
although by no means th e only func-
tion, of reporting was understood by all
the journalists and editors of the han-
dover teams.
In terms of institutional context the
reporting is situated by the nature of
journalism as a mouthpiece of the
CCP. One primary function of news
media in China is to promulgate the
policies, of cial views and instructions
of the CCP and the government.
Therefore, in addition to emphasizing
the political meanings of the handover,
news reports highlight basic policies
towards Hong Kong by reiterating the
commitment to maintaining Hong
Kong’s stability and prosperity through
a rigid implementation of the basic law.
Hence the People’s Daily editorial calls
on “the cadres and broad masses to
carefully stud y and strictly abide by the
basic law of Hong Kong”.
This em-
phasis follows the commitment under-
lined by the speeches made by
President Jiang Zemin and Prime Min-
ister Li Peng in Hong Kong.
The institutional feature of journalism
is characterised by the Party character
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(dangxing) of journalism—to adhere to
the CCP’s basic line of policies and to
identify with its political stand. It is ar-
gued that journalists will be able to
re ect the world objectively and pre-
cisely, and guide public opinion cor-
rectly only when they resolutely adhere
to the Party character of socialist jour-
nalism (Gan, 1994, p. 40; Li, 1999,
p. 26). Since the early 1980s the peo-
ple character (renminxing) has been
raised by some practising journalists a s
a new standard for professionalism to
“ba lance” the Party character. It was,
however, criticized as compromising
the Party character. Jiang Zemin made
a speech at a seminar in journalism on
28 N ovember 1989, stressing:
Our Party is the vanguard of the indus-
trial worker’s class, representing the fun-
dament al interests of them and the
largest majority of t he broad
masses Adhering to Party character is
to adhere to serving the fundamental in-
terests of the industrial worker class and
the broadest masses. The two principles
are identical (in Wen, 1998, p. 18).
In such a formulation the Party charac-
ter, in theory, includes the people
char acter of journalism. The theoretical
“on eness” underpins an institutional
function of journalism as the mouth-
piece of the CCP in the form of guiding
public opinion (yulun daoxiang ) in ac-
cordance with the CCP’s policies.
A number of key orthodox tenets of
Chinese journalism are clustered under
the concept of the Party character.
They include, as Gan summarizes
(1994), the view that in any society
journalism is subordinate to politics. It
is an opinion tool for a given class,
serving the interests of the given class.
It is the socialist journalism that this
“fund amental law of journalism is
openly recognized. However, the
Party character, it is argued, does not
hinder the journalist’s professionalism,
such as objectivity, speediness of re-
porting, reducing distance from the
audience, and even the dependence of
journalism’s su rvival on the feedback
from the audience. Violation of these
tenets of professionalism is what the
Party character tries to avoid and it can
be avoid ed. In short, the Party charac-
ter is formulated not only to include the
people character, but universal princi-
ples of journalism. Therefore some ex-
perience of western journalism is
recognized as worth having (Wen,
1998, p. 18, Zhu and Sun, 1998,
pp. 14–15). Within thi s theoretical
framework reform of journalism has ba-
sically remained to bridge the gap be-
tween the increasing demand for a
wide variety of media products and the
institutional capacity to provide them.
The changes have been remarkable
since the early 1980s, although not
without problems (Lee, 1994; Zha,
1995; Zhao, 1998; FlorCruz, 1999; Lee,
The social context is characterized
by the authoritative p ower of journalism
as a political instrument of the CCP.
This is achieved largely throug h the
function of journalism as guiding public
opinion, which is seen as the moral
duty of a responsible journalist. Guiding
publ ic option is believed to be able to
elevate people’s political conscious-
ness and their ability to differentiate
right from wrong, making the public
more united in their common cause of
building a prosperous and strong state.
Doing otherwise means creating politi-
cal division and ideological backward-
ness—which is to be strictly avoided in
journalism (Gan, 1994).
This feature of journalism can be
traced back to three important tradi-
tions. One is the well-known Marxist
instrumental view of journalism outlined
above. The other is the indigenous Chi-
nese journalism of the early nineteenth
century. Chinese thinke rs at that time
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such as Liang Qichao, Sun Yatsen and
Zhang Taiyan founded a tradition for
the Chinese press tha t p rides itself on
political commentaries. The last one is
the revolutionary experience of the
CCP which, during the pre-1949 war
period and post-1949 socialist con-
struction era, relied heavily on journal-
ism to mobilize the popular masses for
the revolutionary causes.
public opinion has become not only a
political but an ethical issue in Chinese
journalism, a tradition different from
that of western journalism that attaches
importance to truth”, “objectivity” and
the “free circulation of information”
(Belsey and Chadwick, 1992).
Guiding public opinion is realized pri-
marily through two technical methods.
One is to publicize the CCP’s position
on particular issues through editorials
or commentaries . T his is an open and
direct approach to public opinion. The
other is an integration of “objective re-
porting with the journalist’s political
leaning through such techniques as
loaded vocabulary. Both are to be used
for effective repo rting. Such reporting is
believed to combine opinion guidance
with objective reporting. “One-sided
opinion guidance ” will create ideologi-
cal chaos among the people by con-
cealing information people are entitled
to know, whereas “one-sided objective
reporting” will do the same by display-
ing anything in the news media. There-
fore, the aim of Chinese journalism is
to achieve the following objectives as
of cially summarized by Jiang Zemin in
It should help implement the Party’s
roa d, direction, and policy among the
masses most extensively and in the
quickest tim e, and transform them into
their concrete actions. It should exten-
si vely re ect opinions, appeals, desires
and wishes of the masses; transmit in a
tim ely manner various domestic and in-
ternat ional information; in uence directly
t he thoughts, actions and political orien-
t ations of th e masses; and guide, en-
courage, mobil ise and organise the
m asses to realise what is in t heir own
int erests and to ght for them (in Wen,
1998, p. 18).
Thus journalism in China is primarily
an elite-guiding-the-public enterprise.
To educate the public in the direction
envisaged by the CCP is more import-
ant than to inform and to e ntertain it.
Discursi ve formations identi ed in the
previous section with reference to
Hong Kong’s handover are therefore
more a product of the political culture
than that of the journalist. C hinese jour-
nalism is, to a large extent, identical
with political processes in both the
theoreti cal and practical sense of the
term. The reporting of Hong Kong’s
return illustrates how the CCP’s
agenda is explicitly and organically en-
meshed with the historica l and cultural
identities of the Chinese nation—a
unity of the Party character and the
people character. This is the broadest
social context in which news stories of
the handover are produced, propa-
gated and understood.
E xplanation: journalism as a
domain of reproducing
socio-pol itical identities
Explanation, according to Fairclough, is
a portrayal of discourse as part of so-
cial p rocess, as a social practice,
showing how it is determined by social
structures, and what reproductive ef-
fects discourses can cumulatively have
on those structures, sustaining them or
changing them (1989, p. 163). When
aspects of schematic knowledg e a re
drawn upon as interpretative proce-
dures in the p roduction and interpret-
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ation of journalistic texts, they are
thereby socially reproduced . Social de-
terminations and effects are mediated
by schematic knowledge drawn up on
by the journalist in a dialectical relation-
ship between social structures and
schematic knowledge through dis-
course. Th us social structures shape
schematic knowledge, which in turn
shape discourse; and discourse sus-
tains or changes schematic knowledge,
which in turn sustains or changes so-
cial structures. Social structures, how-
ever, are embedded in rela tions of
power and the social processes and
practices of journalism are sites of so-
cial struggle.
The reiteration of history in reporting
is situated in a com plex modern his-
tory, and is central to mobilizing con-
sensual legitimacy derived from the
ful lment of two key historical tasks: to
prevent China from being victimized
and to build a prosperous and strong
nation. China witnessed 100 years of
foreign invasions from the Opium War
(starting in 1840) to th e Resistance
War against Japan (ending in 1 945). It
was 100 years of desperate struggle
for survival. These two tasks, naturally,
have a strong appeal among th e peo-
ple. Framing history by giving primacy
to these tasks and making them goals
of the CCP establishes a common
cause with the people, and by assign-
ing responsibility to itself for the attain-
ment of these goals establishes a
legitimacy. T his is the fundamental
claim made by the CCP, and is one
primary function of the news reporting
of Hong Kong’s return. Thus what is
highlighted in the news discourse func-
tionality is the repositioning of the CCP
in relation to Hong Kong’s past, present
and future. Through this, truth and
power simultaneously enable a legiti-
mated and legitimating authority to be
established in a discursive terrain of
For Foucault, “each society has its
regime of truth, its general politics’ of
truth: that is, the types of discourse
wh ich it accept s and makes function
as true” (1980, p. 131). Reporting the
handover of Hon g Kong has special
signi cance for the Chinese. The por-
trayal of the event represents how the
handover is perceived by the PRC
through journalists as interpretative
communities (Zelizer, 1993). The legit-
imation of what to report and how to
report, however, it is largely drawn
from socially approved assumptions
de ned by the CCP, with which soli-
darity can b e derived from the reader.
The two broad discursive packages
emerging from the news stories
the predominant history-orientated
victimhood/dream and the mo re
substantiated present-orientated only-
the-CCP-can-save-China —operate in
two interrelated discursive domains
of nationalism and socialism, be-
twe en which an effort is made to
arrive at a unity. This entails a series
of discursive strategies including a re-
counting of the history of China, the
de ning of the identity of the Chinese
nation, and a re-position ing of the role
of the CCP in relation to Hong Kong’s
return. Meaning and signi cance are
prima rily achieved through the
activation of schematic knowledge
shared within a discursive community
by the journalist in the form o f com-
mo n-sense assumptions and supposi-
Journalism as discursive practice
provides a major channel in Chinese
society where power is circulated, pro-
ducing truth and kno wledge. The inter-
pretations provided by journalists about
the return of Hong Kong are ltered
through many considerations mediated
by the CCP. The result of such journal-
ism is that certain convictions, assump-
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tions and ideologies are reinforced and
The author wishes to thank the C entre
for Asia-Paci c Studies at the Notting -
ham Trent University for its support in
the production of this paper. The trans-
lations from the Chinese texts are the
author’s own.
In China’s media reporting, Hong Kong was “returned” at zero hour on 1 July 1997. In the British media,
ho wever, Hong Kong was “handed over” at 24 hours on 30 June 1997. A different choice of time reects
dif ferent perceptions of the event.
Basical ly, there are two types of newspaper in China: the party’s newspapers and papers run by different
go vernment departments. The Party’s papers consist of the CCP Central Committee paper, the Peoples Daily,
the CCP provincial Committee pap ers such as Zhejiang Daily in Zhejiang province, and CCP municipal
Com mittee papers. Technically all newspapers in China are of cial newspapers. In the six selected newspa-
pe rs, three are Party newspapers, three are government departments papers.
The front pages of all major newspapers o n 1 July 1997 were exactly the same as, o r similar to, th e front page
of the People’s Daily.
Alth ough data for detailed analysis are taken from 1 July 1997, this study is not limited to that day’s
ne wspapers. The article is based upon an exam ination of extensive reporting in the Chinese media before and
aft er the return of Hong Kong.
The count includes reprints from the People’s Dail y in other ne wspapers. There are only two articles explaining
the new Hong Kong SAR map, which are reprinted in other papers.
SAR is the shortened form for Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region.
This is the leading article of the People’s Daily which was reprinted in all the other newspapers on the same
da y.
Peo ple’s Daily (1997), 1 July, p. 1.
It is common in the Chinese newspaper to ha ve more than one headline for an article.
For more discussions of victimhood discourse in mod ern China, see Neil Renwick and Qing Cao (1999)
“Chin a’s Political Discourse Towards the 21st Century: victimhood, identity and political power Eas t Asia”, An
Int ernati onal Quarterly 17 (4).
See ing Hong Kong as a source of investment and as a gateway to international trade is only a recent
ph enom enon. Even so, washing-away-shame looms large during the Chinese and British negotiations over
the future of Hong Kong. Deng Xiaoping stated that the re was no room for manoeuvre in matters of
so vereign ty, despite his remarkable exi bility in maintaining stability and the way of life in Hong Kong (Xu,
19 96).
Pre-m odern (jindai), modern (xiandai) and contemporary (dangdai) histories are de ned in mainland China as
sta rting, respectively, in 1840 (the Opium War), 1919 (May 4 Movement) and 1 949 (the founding of the PRC).
A well-known Qing Dynasty court general who, before the Opium War, took drasti c actions against the British
op ium smugglers by burning the con scated opium. He has been respected as a national hero and written
ab out in most history textbooks.
Peo ple’s Daily (1997), 1 July, p. 1.
It is a tradition in Chinese newspapers to print important headlines in red.
The People’s Daily carried three front-page articles on 1 July 1997. All major newspapers across the country
ca rry these three articles with only slight difference. The Guangmin Daily and the Peoples Daily Overseas
Edi tion front pages are comple tely identical tp the Peoples Daily.
Peo ple’s Daily (1997) “Nanjing: the sounding bell reminds new generations o f history”, 1 July, p. 7.
Peo ple’s Daily (1997) “Dongguan: the joy of Humen”, 1 July, p. 7.
In Sing Tao International (1997) “Asians upbeat on return stressing trade and security”, 3 July, p. 1.
The British media highlighted To ny Blair’s warning against Chinese lead ers not to interfere with Hong Kongs
aff airs and marginalized his positive remarks about building a new bridge.
Peo ple’s Daily (1997), 1 July, p. 4.
Peo ple’s Daily (1997), 1 July, p. 4.
Peo ple’s Daily (1997) “Jiang Zemin and Li Peng meet Tony Blair”, 1 July, p. 4.
Peo ple’s Daily (1977) “Grand Occasion of the Century: warm celebration of the return of Hong Kong to h er
mo therla nd”, 1 July, p. 3.
Ibi d.
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Peo ple’s Daily (1977) “Grand Occasion of the Century: warm celebration of the return of Hong Kong to h er
mo therla nd”, 1 July, p. 3.
PLA Daily (1997) “The great Return: marking the Chinese government’s resumption of the sovereignty of Hong
Kon g”, 1 July, p. 8.
For discussions on changes before 1989, see also Part Two of Voices of China (1990), edited by Chin-chuan
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