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Grass-mud horse: Luhmannian systems theory and internet censorship in China



Purpose This paper aims to elucidate the systemic processes underlying the enhanced information-control measures taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. The tightening of state information control has stimulated increasingly sophisticated methods of disseminating information on the part of professional and citizen journalists. Drawing on social systems theory as articulated by Niklas Luhmann and others, the authors frame the CCP’s enhanced information-control efforts as a response to the increasing systemic complexity of Chinese journalism, which is part of a self-reproducing, self-regulating (autopoietic) global journalism system. The authors use both subtle and overt protests over Chinese censorship as evidence for the journalism system’s increasing complexity and autonomy. The authors observe that levels of complexity ratchet up as the CCP and Chinese journalism counter each other’s moves. Finally, the authors suggest that the increasing complexity of the CCP’s information-control apparatus may be unsustainable. Design/methodology/approach The authors ground their argument in Luhmannian social systems theory. Findings The CCP's effort to control journalism leads to increased internal complexity in the form of huge bureaucracies that themselves must be overseen in an almost endless proliferation of surveillance. Research limitations/implications This paper contributes to theoretical work in post-humanism. Originality/value To the authors’ knowledge, no studies have examined the tension between CCP censors and Chinese journalism from a Luhmannian systems theory perspective.
Grass-mud horse: Luhmannian systems theory and internet censorship in China
Carlton Clark, Lei Zhang,
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censorship in China", Kybernetes, Vol. 46 Issue: 5, pp.786-801,
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Grass-mud horse: Luhmannian
systems theory and internet
censorship in China
Carlton Clark and Lei Zhang
Department of English, University of Wisconsin La Crosse,
La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA
Purpose This paper aims to elucidate the systemic processes underlying the enhanced information-
control measures taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.
The tightening of state information control has stimulated increasingly sophisticated methods of
disseminating information on the part of professional and citizen journalists. Drawing on social systems
theory as articulated by Niklas Luhmann and others, the authors frame the CCPs enhanced information-
control efforts as a response to the increasing systemic complexity of Chinese journalism, which is part of a
self-reproducing, self-regulating (autopoietic) global journalism system. The authors use both subtle and
overt protests over Chinese censorship as evidence for the journalism systems increasing complexity and
autonomy. The authors observe that levels of complexity ratchet up as the CCP and Chinese journalism
counter each others moves. Finally, the authors suggest that the increasing complexity of the CCPs
information-control apparatus may be unsustainable.
Design/methodology/approach The authors ground their argument in Luhmannian social systems
Findings The CCP's effort to control journalism leads to increased internal complexity in the form of huge
bureaucracies that themselves must be overseen in an almost endless proliferation of surveillance.
Research limitations/implications This paper contributes to theoretical work in post-humanism.
Originality/value To the authorsknowledge, no studies have examined the tension between CCP
censors and Chinese journalism from a Luhmanniansystems theory perspective.
Keywords Cybernetics, Globalization, Complexity, Systems theory
Paper type Research paper
This paper has been motivated by Chinese President Xi Jinpings intensifying media
censorship and public relations campaigns. Even though China has always ranked low in
the index of information freedom, no president has attempted to control the press and shape
public opinion in such a blatant manner since Deng Xiaopings open-door policy in 1980s
brought China into the orbit of international politics, nance and global information.
Grounding our argument in social systems theory as articulated by Niklas Luhmann and
others, we argue that these enhanced information-control efforts have been prompted by the
increasing systemic complexity of Chinese journalism, which is part of a global journalism
system. We use both subtle and overt protests over Chinese censorship as evidence for this
increasing system complexity. Ultimately, we suggest that the increasingly complexity of
the CCPs information-control apparatus may be unsustainable.
To our knowledge, no studies have examined the tension between Chinese Communist
Party (CCP) censors and Chinese journalism from a Luhmannian systems theory
perspective. Many scholars have argued that we now live in a globalized networked society,
often arguing that state censorship is incompatible with global information and
Vol. 46 No. 5, 2017
pp. 786-801
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/K-02-2017-0056
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
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communication technology (ICT). Two important early texts in this vein are Whites (1992)
Identity and Control: A Structural Theory of Social Action and Castells(1996) The Rise of
Network Society. More recently, in Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the
Internet Age,Castells (2012) takes up the subject of network society with reference to the
Arab Spring and other social movements. Livingston and Asmolov (2010) argue that the
global information network is unsettling traditional International Relations theory that
focuses on state actors, as transnational actors have gained inuence. Livingston and
Asmolov further argue that global ICT poses severe challenges to Chinese state censorship.
We concur. Global ICT does indeed pose severe challenges to Chinese state censorship.
However, we take a different approach. Rather than focusing on networks or linkages
between human actors and ICT, we analyze journalism as a global function system. Clearly,
the increasing interconnectedness of global journalism makes it more difcult for the CCP to
retain its current level of information control. But the issue goes beyond controlling
particular human or organizational actors because we are dealing with a global function
system that operates according to its own cognitive capacity. Journalism, in other words, is
not a mere extension of human or organizational motivations.
To develop this argument, we proceed with a brief overview of Luhmannian system
theory. Next, we make an argument that journalism has emerged as a function system in its
own right. This move represents a departure from Luhmanns placement of news and in-
depth reporting as a program strand within the mass media system. We then analyze
information control in China through this theoretical lens. Finally, we suggest implications
for policy makers.
Luhmannian systems theory
Luhmannian systems theory, inspired by Spencer-Browns (1969) Laws of Form, begins
with the injunction to draw a distinction. We should emphasis that this is indeed an
injunction or command. SpencerBrown likens draw a distinctionto a recipe or musical
composition. Two-sided forms are produced by distinctions, and a form is a command that,
if followed, opens up some possibilities while simultaneously excluding others. The
excluded possibilities remain available for future selection but are ignored for the moment.
For SpencerBrown, any mathematical operation, as well as kind of thought, relies on
drawing distinctions; therefore, communication relies on distinctions.
As Spencer-Brown (1969,p.1)writes:
We take as given the idea of distinction and the idea of indication, and that we cannot make an
indication without drawing a distinction. We take, therefore, the form of distinction for the form.
All distinctions have three values: a marked side, an unmarked side and boundary that may
be crossed. In Spencer-Browns words:
[...] a distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one
side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary. For example, in a plane space a
circle draws a distinction. Once a distinction is drawn, the spaces, states, or contents on each side
of the boundary, being distinct, can be indicated (p. 1).
The space in which the distinction is drawn is called the space severed or cloven by the
distinction(p. 3).
Following SpencerBrowns calculus of forms, autopoietic (self-producing and reproducing)
systems are not objects or substances in the ontological sense; they are system/environment
differences. That is to say, social systems theory does not treat systems in the ancient Greek
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senseaswholesmadeofparts(Rühl, 2008). Luhmannian systems theory is radically non-
reductionist in that it refuses to commit the fallacy of composition.
The fallacy of composition says that a whole is equal to the sum of its parts. One example
from economics of this fallacy is the assumption that if household saving leads to greater
household wealth, then society as a whole will become wealthier if all households save. This
reasoning is fallacious because if all households save, demand for goods and services falls,
which means that workers will lose jobs or have their pay cut and, therefore, have to spend
their savings. Thus, household savings when aggregated can lead to a decline of savings on
the macro scale. We cannot simply scale up microeconomics to describe macroeconomics
(Hodgson, 1987). Put simply, social systems theory speaks of differences rather than wholes
consisting of parts.
Functional dierentiation and structural coupling
If we continue this line of reasoning, it follows that society is not the aggregate of human
beings. Rather, in Luhmannian theory, society is a communication system. Luhmann further
argues that society, as a self-referential system, must internally differentiate itself in some
way. Prior to the eighteenth century, society differentiated itself by segmentation (families,
tribes, clans), centralization (empires, civilizations) and stratication (inherited rank).
Segmentation, centralization and stratication may co-exist, but one form must take
precedence. The fourth form of social differentiation to evolve, so far, is functional
differentiation, a form wherein global society differentiates itself as discrete, self-producing
and reproducing (autopoietic) function systems. Post-eighteenth century society has become
globalized because function systems do not recognize national borders. For instance,
scientists and scholars collaborate and share research internationally. The contemporary
economy is also clearly globalized. We have international courts, global efforts to eradicate
disease and poverty, global sports competitions and so forth.
As subsystems of world society,function systems areoperationally closed and, therefore,
construct meaning according to their own codes. Social systems are systems of meaningful
communication, not networks of human or organizational actors. The number and precise
classication of function systems is a matter of debate, but the concept of functional
differentiation is central to social systems theory. From this point of view, functional
differentiation is what distinguishes post-eighteenth century society from earlier societies.
As Roth and Schütz (2015, p. 11) argue:
There is no self-description of modern society without at least implicit reference to functional
dierentiation. The distinction of function systems such as the political system, economy, science,
art, or religion, is therefore explicitly regarded as a key concept of modernity [...]. Due to
functional dierentiation, modern man talks business, avoids politics or religion in leisurely
conversation, considers the buying or selling of political or legal decisions as corruption, and,
more often than not, tends to associate the imposition of religious imperatives upon scientic
knowledge with a revival of the age of the Holy Inquisition.
In other words, the old stratied society, which can be visualized as a pyramid with the ruler
at the apex, who often holds combined political, legal and religious authority, and where
social status is xed for life, has been overruled by functional differentiation, with none of
the function systems having a privileged position. In other words, we are living in a global
society without a center, and it reproduces itself without any overarching plan, direction or
transcendent authority.
It is important to emphasize that older forms of social differentiation are not replaced but
only overruled by newer ones. Thus, we still observe segmentation of families residing in
private homes; however, abused or neglected children and battered spouses are now
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afforded protection by the legal system. We also observe centers of power (e.g.
governmental or nancial centers) with weaker peripheries. But, the same laws apply in the
center and the periphery, and mass media extends into the peripheries. Social class
stratication is also still quite evident, and organizations (e.g. corporations, universities,
governments) still use hierarchies and rankings, but the difference is that currently people
are no longer born into xed, unchangeable social strata with unequal rights grounded in
natural or divine law. While the function systems do not actually consist of people, each
function system is supposed to be communicatively accessible to everyone. The key point,
though, is that functional differentiation, particularly when it comes to the major function
systems of the economy, politics and law, overrules any segmentation, centralization and
stratication that persists.
Autopoiesis alone cannot account for system evolution or sustainability. Structural
coupling is needed. Autopoiesis happens in a moment; it is an event that passes away as
soon as it occurs and must be replaced with another event. But, for systems to persist or
reproduce themselves, structures must emerge. Only structures persist in time a
before/after distinction must be made. The before/after distinction is important because
the structures of social systems are expectational structures, not material structures
(Luhmann, 1995). Thus, structural coupling complements autopoiesis. Luhmann
borrowed the structurally coupling concept from Humberto Maturana. As Luhmann
(2013b, p. 85) writes:
Maturana introduced the concept of structural coupling. The distinction [between this concept
and autopoiesis] allows us to say that autopoiesis must function in any case since there would
otherwise be no system. At the same time, it also indicates that coupling between system and
environment concerns only structures and, as the case may be, everything in the environment that
is relevant to these structures.
To reiterate, it is the structures, that selectively couple with the systems environment. An
interesting example Luhmann gives regards the brain. An organisms brain selectively
couples with its environment. Particular brain structures (e.g. auditory system, visual
system) couple with particular types of environmental stimuli. The brain is only able to
develop its own complexity by limiting its sensitivity to environmental irritations. As
Luhmann (2013b, p. 86) writes, in the case of vision and hearing, thebrain:
[...] possesses a very narrow bandwidth of sensibilities that reduces what can be seen, limits the
spectrum of colors, and equally reduces what can be heard. It is only because things are this way
that the system is not overburdened with external inuences, and only because things are this
way that learning can take place and complex structures can be built inside the brain.
In other words, a system, to avoid overburdening itself, must constrain its own potential
structural complexity. No organism or living system could survive for long if it felt, or had to
process, all environmental irritations.
Systems that are structurally coupled to one another are easily perturbed. Structural
couplings can be tight or loose, and tighter couplings produce greater potential instability.
For instance, through economic policies, the political system and the economy are
structurally coupled. Politics cannot directly cause a particular effect in the economy, as in a
trivial inputoutput machine. All politics can do is perturb the economy and then the
economy will respond based on its own code and programs. Also and this is a key point
the effects of structural coupling are never unidirectional. A tight coupling of politics and
the economy causes governments (organizations that communicate politically) to be held
accountable for economic problems.
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Valentinovs (2014) theory of the complexity-sustainability tradeoffis relevant here.
Briey, Valentinov argues that autopoietic systems may, if unchecked, develop their own
complexity to unsustainable levels. As a means of self-regulation, a social system may
develop programs or procedures to constrain its own possible complexity. As Valentinov
puts it, complex systems may increase their sustainability in a given environment by
devising mechanisms for binding themselves to constrain and control the unfolding of their
complexity(p. 19). Valentinov offers theexampleof:
[...] corporate citizenship [...] as a mechanism that business rms utilize to control the unfolding
of their business complexity to secure their sustainable existence in the broader societal
environment (p. 19).
The political system enhances its chances of survival by binding itself to the legal system,
which means that lawmakers are subject to the laws they make. The legal system, in turn,
constrains its complexity through legal argumentation, which relies on accepted procedures,
precedent and decision-making consistency (King and Thornhill, 2005). In sum, social
systems do change and learn, but they do so in a controlled manner, combining variety with
The journalism system
As stated earlier, we classify global journalism as a function system. The classication of
journalism remains a matter of dispute, with arguments for and against counting journalism
as a function system. For Luhmann (2000), news and in-depth reporting constitute a
program strand, or internal differentiation, of the mass media system, along with
entertainment and advertising rather than a function system in its own right. As such, each
of the three programs operates according to the information/noninformation code but with
different kinds of information. Yet, Luhmann has been criticized on the grounds that news
and in-depth reporting, advertising and entertainment have too little in common to justify
being placed in the same function system (rke and Scholl, 2006). In the interests of
research, theorists have found the need to differentiate journalism from other forms of public
communication, such as propaganda, public relations, advertising and entertainment (hl,
2008). For instance, nearly three decades before the publication of LuhmannsThe Reality of
Mass Media,Rühl (1969) argued that journalism is not a system of human actors but rather
a social system with the function of providing topics for public communication.
Marcinkowski (1993) and Blöbaum (1994) also argue that journalism is a function system,
whereas Kohring (1997),Görke (1997/1999) and Görke and Scholl (2006) argue that
journalism is a subsystem of a superordinate function system called the public.
These ne distinctions, however, are not crucial to our argument. The important point is
that we can observe journalism as a communicative subsystem of society with its own
cognitive capacity rather than as a network of human actors or organizations. Thus, for present
purposes, we will simply call journalism a function system and see what follows from this
Recalling SpencerBrownscalculusofforms,wecansaythatthejournalismsystem
draws a circle with news on the inside and non-news on the outside. To produce news,
journalistic communication must be able to cross the boundary from the marked to the
unmarked sides of the form. The journalism system must continually produce news
because the moment information becomes known it loses its status as news. Non-news
that is repeated retains its meaning but it loses its news value. As Luhmann (2012,p.121)
puts it, New information is continually needed to satisfy the mass media system
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because the moment information is actualized or becomes known to the public, it loses its
informative value.
The public, we argue, belongs to the journalism system because it closes the
communication loop. In other words, once a story has started circulating among the public,
journalism moves on to a new story. This process is especially important in contemporary
global society because, thanks in part to social media, news very quickly becomes non-news.
Autopoietic systems can learn, and in this case the feedback loop with the public allows
journalism to learn to produce more news and to produce it more quickly.
As discussed above, structures allow the creation of increased system complexity in
response to environmental complexity. For instance, journalism has developed structures to
process different kindsof news. The sections of a newspaper reveal some of these structures:
world news, national news, local news, business news, entertainment news, sports, arts and
life, opinion, etc. These are all ways of reducing the complexity of journalisms environment.
Internal complexity is built up when a structure is able to focus exclusively on one kind of
information. Thus, for example, sports journalism responds only to irritations from the
sports world. This limitation of bandwidthhas allowed journalism to grow in complexity.
The advantage of structures is that they permit exibility. The journalism system as a
whole maintains its news/non-news distinction that does not change, but structures can be
established and dissolved as needed, similar to ad hoc committees.
The printing press and other dissemination media
It hardly needs mentioning that the invention of the printing press was a key event in the
development of journalism. But beyond that, Luhmann argues that the printing press played a
decisive role in the switch from stratication to functional differentiation. This dissemination
medium created a tension between hierarchy and heterarchy, as information could no longer be
controlled from above. As Luhmann (2012,p.187)writes:
In China and Korea, the printing press was a dissemination tool in ruling bureaucracies. In
Europe, which had from the outset set its sights on the economic exploitation and market
distribution of printed material, the authorities sought to resolve the conict by means of
censorship. Their failure, inevitable with the multiplicity of printing centers in various territories
and the rapidly increasing complexity of printed communication, nally obliged all hierarchies,
including those of politics and law, to come to terms with a fundamentally heterarchically
communicating society. Since the eighteenth century, this state of aairs has been celebrated as
the primacy of public opinion.As far as dierentiation forms are concerned, this corresponds
with the transition to functional dierentiation.
Modern technology takes us an important step further, as it attacks the authority of the
The public, along with public opinion, has arisen in tandem with the journalism system,
beginning with the invention of the printing press. Prior to the invention of the printing
press, there was no public as such. As Weber (2006, p. 388), in his history of the newspaper
in Europe, argues:
[...] there is no question that the reading public was brought into existence by the beginning of
printing. The same applies to the genre of political publishing and journalism in the narrower sense.
Because Luhmann died in 1998, he witnessed only the start of the internet revolution. But,
Dirk Baecker extends Luhmanns work in this area. Baecker lists four dissemination
media oral language, writing, print and the computer and argues that the introduction of
a new dissemination media introduces the challenge of dealing with an overow of meaning,
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and society solves this crisis by switching to a new cultural form. As Baecker (2008,p.7)
puts it, each new dissemination media:
[...] triggers a catastrophe by forcing society to either switch to another mode of reproduction or
to reduce the newly introduced media to some structure which is in line with societys received
and established ways for dealing with meaning, for instance to reduce writing to a device for
poets memorizing their orations, the printing press to a means for circulating holy scriptures, or
the computer to a data store.
Censorship, Baecker argues, is a means of dealing with an overow of meaning in a
printing press society not a computer-based society. Therefore, censorship alone does not
work anymore.
Information control in china
If the above is true, then the CCP, as long as it seeks to control the ow of information,
cannot just censor; it must contribute new, competing information. The CCP still censors,
but it also does the opposite of censorship. It oods the mass media with competing
information, thereby adding uncertainty (Hassid, 2008). It muddies the waters so to speak.
Or in systems-theoretical terms, it increases the variety from which the public must select
meaning. Understanding is a selection. Every utterance offers an indeterminate yet
contextualized variety of possible meanings, and understanding is a selection from this
variety. There is always a surplus of meaning that was not selected but could have been.
As an example of the Party providing excess information, The Beijing News, in 2014,
reported that two million people were employed in more than 800 public opinion monitoring
and software companies in China as Internet public opinion analysts. These workers
collect data on public opinion and pass it on to the government. As Fong (2014) reported:
Dierent from the Fifty-Cent Partywho are responsible for channeling public opinions by
writing online comments and deleting posts, Internet public opinion analysts use computer
software to monitor all the social networking sites, collect netizen opinions and attitudes, compile
reports and submit the reports to decision-makers.
The Party also recruits young bloggers to say good things about China and defend the CCP
in international forums. As Global Times, a Chinese publication, reported:
Chinas cyberspace authorities are launching a ve-year, nationwide campaign to foster good
netizenswho help spread socialist core valuesand positive energyonline. Patriotic netizens
who defend China and the government are expected to become an increasingly dominant force on
China's blogosphere. (Zhang, 2016)
Additionally, the CCPs Central Publicity Department (CPD), which regulates all Chinese
media, appears to deliberately create uncertainty around its censorship policies. David
Hassid (2008, p. 415) calls this the regime of uncertainty. As Hassid writes:
[T]he CPD is indeed powerful, though ironically enough, one of its few consistencies is the degree
of arbitrariness with which it closes publications and res or jails editors and journalists. With its
power to determinepost hocwhat is appropriate media coverage, the CPD demarcates the
boundaries of the acceptable in such a deliberately fuzzy way that news workers self-censor to a
critical degree.
Functional dierentiation in China
Ofcial CCP policy recognizes and respects cultural and ethnic differences within China.
Cultural differentiation, however, is not functional differentiation. Hence, the great tension in
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contemporary China derives from increased functional differentiation, as the CCP seeks to
control the communication within operationally closed social systems. China, with its long
history of a political centralization, must now deal with functional differentiation. A
particular challenge here relates to structural couplings between politics, the economy and
the mass media.
We noted above that when politics structurally couples with the economic system, the
government is held accountable for economic instability. This is why China observers tend
to associate economic instability with challenges to the CCPs leadership position. As
Schlesinger et al. (2016) argues:
It was easy to allow nancial media (Bloomberg, Reuters, and The Financial Times from the
West, Caijing and Caixin internally to give just a few prominent examples) to be relatively free
to publish in China when the news was seemingly always good. But once politics and economics
become ever more intertwined and the news became bad if not dangerous slowdowns, layos,
protests, currency questions then, to a man like Xi [Jinping], the need to control, rectify, and
regulate the media and the commentariat became urgent.
What Schlesinger is describing here is the effect of linking the political system very closely
to the economy. If these systems are tightly coupled, any instability in one system resonates
with the other. The way liberal democracies have dealt with this problem has been to allow
the economy greater autonomy. In other words, in liberal democracies, politics is less tightly
coupled with the economy. Politics can also be tightly or loosely coupled to religion,
education, art, journalism, medicine or any other function system. But, tighter coupling
always carries the risk of greater political instability. For instance, in western democracies, a
religious controversy is unlikely to seriously destabilize a government because western
constitutions have not allowed a tight coupling between politics and religion. Similarly, a
crisis or upheaval in the journalism system, such has been produced by the internet, is
unlikely to produce serious instability for a political system that allows journalism to retain
autonomy. At the most, a political party may be voted in or out of power, but the political
system itself will likelyremain dynamically stable.
Democratic governments have gained autonomy, in part, by limiting their own power;
they have self-limited their reach to what they can realistically control or inuence, thus
protecting the governments sense of legitimacy (Thornhill, 2012). Framers of liberal
constitutions recognized that the more nation-states attempt to control systems such
religion, the economy and the press, the more they put their own autonomy at risk. For
instance, James Madison declared religious liberty an inalienable natural right and, as such,
concluded that government must remain noncognizant, or blind, to religion (Muñoz, 2003).
In this way, Madison insulated the political system from unnecessary irritations. Similarly,
freedom of the press is less the result of political liberalism or faith in the wisdom of the
public than a recognition of the excessive costs of control (Weber, 2006).
The political system and the Chinese Communist Party
The function of the global political system is to prevent function systems from converging
into one another, or to protect functional differentiation, and it accomplishes this through
collectively binding decisions. The political system, according to Luhmannian theory,
applies power to enforce decisions in questions which cannot be resolved within any other
system of society and which may cause general social instability. For example, as King and
Thornhill (2015, p. 71) write:
[If] an investment policy begins to have disastrous consequences for the health of the inhabitants
of a particular region, or if medical treatment has serious nancial implications, the political
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system might attempt to resolve the issue by means of a collectively binding decision concerning
the relation between the two systems concerned.
During the 2007-2008 nancial crisis, the US government, along with governments of
other nations, stepped in to restabilize the global economy. Other examples of when the
political system exerts its power might be if a poorly functioning education system
threatens to destabilizes the economy or the religious system threatens to destabilizes
science or education. Politics, then, can prevent function systems from excessively or
unexpectedly perturbing one another, thus minimizing general social instability.
The CCP, in systems-theorectical terms, is an organization that communicates
politically. This is a key point. A government is not the political system itself because
the political system is global, and it consists of political communication and nothing
but political communication. Organizations are social systems too but not function
systems. For Luhmann, an organization is a recursive network of decisions.
Organizations reproduce themselves by making decisions out of prior decisions
(Luhmann, 2013a, p. 143). In other words, organizations consist of decisions, not human
actors. Human actors are a necessary precondition, but they are not elements of the
We mentioned in the discussion of the fallacy of composition that society is not an
aggregate of human beings or human actors; the same may be said for function systems and
organizations. Social systems have their own cognitive capacity that is qualitatively different
from the cognition of human beings; that is to say, social systems carry out operations that
do not arise directly from human actions or human motives. For instance, the legal systems
only operation is to draw the lawful/unlawful distinction. The courts, while providing an
organizational context for the legal system, are not the legal system. Neither are legislatures,
law rms or any other organizations or institutions. Put simply, the legal system is legal
communication. It is a system of communications which identies itself as law and is able to
distinguish between those communications which are part of itself and which are not(King
and Thornhill, 2005,p.36).Asforlawrms, these are organizations (recursive networks of
decisions) with their own reasons for being. An attorney working for a law rm will have her
own motives for practicing law. But, the motives of the law rm and the attorney are not the
motives of the legal system. To form systems, we cannot just scale up from the micro to the
A journalist employed by a news organization might have motives similar to any other
professional, but those are not the motives of the journalism system (Rühl, 1969,1980). A
news organization will also have motives for existing, and a person can be expelled (red,
excommunicated, etc.) from an organization if she does not contribute to the organizations
autopoiesis. Human or organizational actors may attempt to use journalism to promote
democracy or some other agenda, but the journalism system is not cognizant of these goals
and may not cooperate (Löffelholz, 2008,p.20).
Journalisms history as a function system
Journalism, as an autopoietic system, established its autonomy in the eighteenth century by
separating itself from the political system. In the early years of newspapers, printers simply
printed content that powerful gentlemen paid them to print, usually political information to
be read by other powerful gentlemen, without editorial comment or narrative framing. This
practice insulated printers from interference by political actors; however, once the
newspapers started editorializing and this practice became normalized, it was too late for
political power to stop it. The costs were just too high. As Weber (2006, p. 404), in his history
of the newspaper, writes:
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In its early years [17th century]... the new medium of the political press had a low prole: it
escaped the attention of the authorities and was left alone, even though by rights it ought to have
caused oence in terms of the political ideology of the time. Later, as the newspaper scene
expanded and became more varied, and as new titles with dierent political colourings were
established, it became impossible for the authorities to exert rigorous control, let alone suppress
newspapers entirely. It is true that from the earliest days of newspapers onwards there were
repeated attempts to impose measures of repression and censorship on printers and their
publications, but these eorts were powerless to prevent the new medium from winning basic
acceptance, and nowhere was there a threat to its existence.
In this way, newspapers began to create public opinion and, arguably, the public itself. A
similar process occurred in China. As Judge (1994, pp. 64-65) writes:
Yulun, the character compound the reformists used for public opinion,dated back to at least the
third century, and had been used throughout Chinese history to describe elite opinion within
the bureaucracy. The constitutionalists invested this old term with a new political meaning in the
early 1900s, redening it as the collective opinion (gonglun) of the common people (yiban renmin)
toward government and society[...]. Leading in this eort to empower public opinion was the
Shanghai daily newspaper Shibao, one of the most innovative representatives of the late Qing
political press [...] Linking print to politics, Shibao was both a molder and a mobilizer of public
Public opinion may be thought of in terms of content, but we must also consider how the
newspaper as medium changed the publics temporal orientation in particular, how the
expectation for regular installments of news causes tension between journalism and politics.
That is to say, the very idea that there should always be something newto report on a
periodical, typically weekly, basis went against the grain of tradition and authoritarian
politics. Thus, it was not just the content but the periodical medium that shaped the attitude
of the public (Weber, 2006, p. 409). In the European context, by the time objections to the
periodical newspaper arose, it was too late. The expectation for news, even when nothing
new seemed to happening, had become normalized.
This does not mean journalism became structurally independent of the political
system The journalism system became operationally autonomous but not structurally
independent, when it began to create news from news, as one news story serves as the
premise for a subsequent story or one story connects to another story. The journalism
system determines what counts as news, just as the legal system determine what counts
as law and the health system determines what counts as disease. Yet, structural
coupling is necessary. Journalism could not have established itself as a function system
without a money-based economy and a political system capable of maintaining some
kind of social order, along with an educational system capable of producing readers.
But, the economy, politics, and education system remain operationally excluded from
the journalism system.
The economy, journalists, news organizations, governments and material technologies
like the printing presses and the internet all exist in journalisms environment. Journalism
can and must be inuenced by its environment. The crucial point, however, is that
journalism selects the environmental irritations it is inuenced by and builds expectational
structures to process those irritations into information. Information, as famously stated by
Bateson (1972, p. 315), is the a difference which makes a difference. As an operationally
autonomous system, journalism selects which environmental irritations are able to register
as information (e.g. produce a difference in the system), and it remains noncognizant of
everything else in its environment.
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Selection is the key factor. Structural couplings are highly selective (Luhmann,
2013a). Nothing in the environment can force the journalism system to interpret
environmental irritations in a particular way. Environmental irritants can be de-
selected as well. For instance, journalism, as it evolves can stop selecting
environmental factors that it once replied upon. As the system evolves, environmental
elements such as printing presses and the whole infrastructure of transporting the
news to the public can be dispensed with. Journalism can also de-select governmental
and religious censors. It simply no longer recognizes these perturbations, as the censors
do not make a relevant difference.
Censorship under president Xi Jinping
In this section, we offer evidence of evolution in the journalism system, whereby it is no
longer perturbed in the same way or to the same extent by politics. That is to say,
journalismcancreatenewsfromnewsinmoreefcient ways, bypassing state control.
This change, we argue, has increased the tension between the CCP and global
On February 20, 2016, the front page of Southern Metropolis Daily, a liberal leaning
newspaper published in Guangdong province, itself became news. A two-line banner
headline reads:
The party- and government-run media are.
Propaganda bases and must be surnamed Party.
Below it was a large photograph of people sorrowfully scattering into the sea the ashes of
Yuan Geng, co-founder of China Merchants Bank and Pingan Insurance, who died at 98.
The photo was accompanied by a pithy headline: Soul Returns to Sea”—a culturally
familiar mourning phrase that ts nicely with the grieving image of the people.
Taken separately, the front page reported two important events: First, Chinese president
Xi Jinpings tour of the headquarters of the three leading state media organizations during
which he declared, Media run by the party and the government is a propaganda base and
must follow the surname [display complete loyalty] of the party. And, second, thedeath of a
prominent local businessman who was a symbol of Chinas economic reform and opening to
the outside world. However, if the last two characters from the banner headlines are read
vertically with the lower headline, a more interesting combination emerges:
The Media are Surnamed Party.
[Their] Soul Returns to the Sea.
This may be read as Media displaying absolute loyalty to the party have their souls
returned to the sea. The alternate reading sends a blunt warning of the death of
professional journalism in China under President Xis media crackdown. This kind of subtle
protest in not new in China. Chinese poets and essayists have a long history of embedding
political messages between lines; imperial literati often coded their political critiques
through innocuous-seeming imagery or language play. Currently, these messages often take
the form of internet memes.
Among the many resistance memes, the most famous is the grass-mud horse, Cao Ni Ma.
As the story goes, in the hostile environment of Ma Le (Gobi) desert lives a lively, intelligent,
fun-loving, nimble, courageous, tenacious creature called Cao Ni Ma, grass-mud horse. It
ghts a courageous battle, defeating River Crab to protect its grassland and to survive.
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Because Mandarin is a tonal language, cao ni ma can mean either grass-mud horse or
fuck your mother, and the CCP often refers to itself as the peoples mother. As for the
river crab (he xie), this term is a homonym for former President Hu Jintaos catch phrase,
harmony. Thus, Chinese netizens have humorouslyreferredtotheirdeletedpostsas
being harmonized. The gentle cao ni ma, which resembles an alpaca, became an iconic
image of resistance to internet censorship. People have composed catchy songs, cartoons,
photo albums and even a fake animal-world documentary to mock online censors. The
grass-mud horse song, sung by a children's chorus, was released in 2009. When lm critic
Cui Weiping linked the release of the song to the Special Campaign to Rectify Vulgar
Content on the Internet, people used the song to mock the government campaign. Cui
Weipings original publication on the origin of grass-mud horse was deleted, but a copy
was preserved by China Digital Times, a California-based bilingual news site covering
China (Xioa, 2009).
Since the initial release of Cao ni ma, internet resistance memes have grown
substantially. China Digital Times has even compiled a grass-mud horse lexicon, an
online glossary of terms used by Chinese netizens to resist online censorship. To outwit
censors, Chinese netizens have demonstrated extraordinary creativity in using coded
words, satire, ction and multimedia production to vent their frustration and circumvent
In the Southern Metropolis Daily headline case, three people at the newspaper were
punished, and Liu Yuxia, the headline news editor, was promptly red for showing a
serious lack of political sensitivity(Gan, 2016). Liu Yuxia rejected the allegation that she
had arranged for a hidden message in the newspaper (Tatlow, 2016). But, if the Southern
Metropolis Daily incident was indeed a subtle protest, it would be one of many protests amid
the recent crackdown on freedom of speech in China.
Since the founding of the Cybersecurity Administration of China in 2014, President Xi
Jinpings administration has enforced widespread controls over the internet and the media
through a combination of brute force, education campaigns and legislation. In 2015,
Reporters without Borders ranked China 176th out of 180 countries on press freedom and
media pluralism. In 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists identied 199 journalists
jailed worldwide and China accounted for 49 of them, making China the worlds leading
jailer of journalists for the second year in a row (Beiser, 2015).
The intensifying crackdown on media freedom may have been prompted by fear of social
unrest amid troubling signs of economic slowdown, among other social and environmental
problems that have plagued the country. Xis administration apparently wants to ensure
that the media is an effective vehicle for promoting the governments message and
discouraging any political action that might undermine public support for the government.
Arguably, however, the crackdown may have happened even if the economy had been
performing better simply because the journalism system had increased its complexity in
ways not conducive to one-party rule.
When President Xi Jinping took ofce in 2012, Western observers hoped that Xi would
represent a more liberal voice. After all, President Xi enrolled his only daughter at Harvard
College to receive an elite Western education. However, Xi has tightened ideological control
to a level unmatched by his predecessors with the exception of Mao. In 2013, Xis
administration started cracking down on internet rumors. Anyone deliberately posting lies
may face up to three years in prison if their posts are shared more than 500 times or viewed
by more than 5,000 people. The rst person convicted of rumormongering, Qin Zhihui, was
sentenced to three years in prison. The government then moved to detain inuential Sina
Weibo users or Big Vs(those with a veriedonline account with a large following); one
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of them is Chinese-American venture capitalist Charles Xue (legal name Xue Bigun), who
used his Sina Weibo account with 11.5 followers to call for political reform. Xue was arrested
on prostitution charges, made a televised confession for posting irresponsible information
online and served seven months in jail before being released because of serious illness. On
February 27, 2016, retired property mogul and outspoken social media user Ren Zhiqiang,
who had nearly 38 million followers, had his Sina Weibo account deleted after he rebutted Xi
Jinpings call for the media to be surnamed Party. Ren, who is a Communist Party
member, declared on Sina Weibo that the state media is supported by the Chinese taxpayers
and should serve the people not the party (Wong, 2016). The deletions and silencing of these
inuential microbloggers likely reected the Xi administrations fear of the internets
growing social inuence.
Xis demand of absolute loyalty from the press and crackdown on inuential
microbloggers such as Ren Zhiqiang has created a erce backlash against the
administration. In February 2016, Xinhua News employee Zhou Fang posted a letter
denouncing the suppression of online expression and triggering tremendous fear and
outrage among the public(Rudolph, 2016a). The recent Internet security incident of
surrounding and attacking Ren Zhiqiangin a kind of Cultural Revolution-style mass
criticism brought the delinquency of responsibilities and abuses of power by the Internet
authorities to an extreme, said the letter which was quickly censored. But this was followed
by another letter, signed by loyal party members, calling for Xi Jinpings resignation,
criticizing him on many fronts, including for branding himself as the core leader and
demanding absolute loyalty from the media. The loyal party members wrote:
Your condoning of this cult of personality, disallowing improper discussionof the central
government, and one-voice Partymethod, make those of us who experienced the Cultural
Revolution unable to not secretly worryour Party, country, and people cannot bear another
decade of calamity (Rudolph, 2016b).
Despite the blocking of Facebook and Twitter (which is, at least in part, meant to protect
domestic social media platforms from competition), social media use has become a
cultural norm in China, and the mass media system registers norm violations (Luhmann,
2000). Thus, when a highly popular microblogger has his account deleted, it is a Man
bites dogkind of story. In other words, when the Central Publicity Department closed
Sina Weibo accounts of popular microbloggers to warn the public not to criticize the
government, an expectation was disappointed (i.e. a norm was violated) because millions
of Chinese had become accustomed to using their accounts with no problem. Violating
this expectation was, therefore, marked as news by the journalism system. The point is
that criticism of the CCP that is deleted from one location very quickly reappears
somewhere else and spreads.
For example, Ren Zhiqiangs microblog was shut down on February 27, 2016. On
February 28, the story appeared in the New York Times. In the Times article, Edward Wong
wrote, An ofcial statement said that the tycoon, Ren Zhiqiang, had exerted a vile
inuence on the country by spreading illegal information on the website, which was on the
Sina Weibo platform. A LexisNexis search revealed that as of August 24, 2016, 29
newspapers and seven web-based publications had covered this story. The most articles, 14,
appeared in The South China Morning Post.The New York Times published 8 articles, and
Global Times (a Chinese newspaper that was established to compete with international
media and is allowed more freedom) published 7 articles. Considering Chinese state
censorship more broadly, a LexisNexis search for the dates January 1-August 25, 2016 using
the search terms Xi Jinping AND censorship returned 478 newspaper articles, including 20
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from The South China Morning Post. Clearly, the attempt to control government criticism
has not succeeded.
Conclusions and implications for future research
Based on the above analysis, the CCP cannot control the news circulating within China or the
news owing out of China. The effort to control journalism leads to increased internal
complexity in the form of huge bureaucracies that themselves must be overseen. The overseers
must be overseen in a potentially endless proliferation of surveillance. More and more decisions
must be made just to manage the information-control bureaucracy, and every decision has
potential unintended consequences. One serious risk that comes with bureaucratic proliferation
is that organizations, as they emerge as self-reproducing social systems, gain operational
autonomy. The organizationssolepurposethenbecomestoreproduceitself.
Having realized that censorship alone cannot protect the ofcial narrative, the CPD
oods the Chinese mass media with narratives that compete with narratives critical of the
Party. The CPD also adds ambiguity and uncertainty, increasing the variety of meaning
from which the public, as a social system, must select.
One aspect of the Chinese censorship issue that we did not have room to cover was the
issue of trust. With mass surveillance and government public relations campaigns, the
public comes to believe that nothing is true until the government denies it. Indeed, for
Luhmann (2013a), trust is a central issue in all communication. He argues that:
[...] a society that uses language and signs gives rise to the problem of error and deception, of the
unintentional and intentional abuse of signs. It is not only that communication occasionally
miscarries, goes astray, or takes the wrong track. The problem, since it can occur at any time, is
always present [...] With this in mind, it is understandable that society morally appreciates
sincerity, truthfulness, and the like, and in the communication process it has to rely on trust
(Luhmann, 2012, p. 135).
Trust is not merely something that is needed when dealing with experts or unfamiliar
people, trust is required for any communication at all. It is not the actions or potential actions
of others that raise the trust issue; on a more basic level, it is communication itself that
requires trust. Trust reduces complexity by relieving the social system of the task of
verifying every bit of information. If the social system has to verify everything before
communication happens, then communication will never happen. Future research will no
doubt explore the trust factor.
We have argued that journalism may be treated as a function system of global society;
however, whether we call journalism a function system in its own right, a subsystem or
program strand of the mass media, a subsystem of the public or something else is not
vitally important. The point is that treating journalism as some kind of autopoietic
system takes the focus away from human and organizational actors, as in social network
theories, and puts it on mechanisms by which journalism resists political control (or
control by any other system) and achieves its own autopoiesis. If we follow the usual
practice of treating journalism or the mass media as the aggregate of journalists or
organizational actors, we will logically scale up from descriptions of micro-motives to
macro-motives, thus committing the fallacy of composition. We may then assume that
journalism seeks what journalists or news organizations seek. But, if Luhmannian social
systems theory teaches us anything it is that social systems develop their own cognitive
capacities that are not formed by scaling up from human cognition. Thus, in the context
of recent discussions of post-humanism, the theoretical perspective discussed in this
paper has a great deal to offer.
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Corresponding authors
Carlton Clark can be contacted at: and Lei Zhang can be contacted at: lzhang@
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... The rise of mass-media-oriented communication may be related to a loosening of the CCP oversight and allowing a relatively independent print news industry, which has occurred along with the economic reforms (Tanner, 2009;Clark & Zhang, 2017 (Barboza, 2008). ...
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Mit dieser Studie wird erstmalig eine vollständige Darstellung der deutschsprachigen und angloamerikanischen Wissenschaftsjournalismus-Forschung vorgelegt. Bilanz dieser kritischen Bestandsaufnahme: Die journalistische Berichterstattung über Wissenschaft, Technik und Medizin wird stets einseitig auf eine wissenschaftszentrierte Aufklärung der Gesellschaft verpflichtet. Der Autor zeigt die Unangemessenheit dieser normativen Aufgabenbestimmung auf. In konstruktiver Auseinandersetzung mit der aktuellen Journalismustheorie entwickelt er einen neuen Entwurf zur Funktion des gesellschaftlichen Journalismussystems und leitet daraus die Funktion journalistischer Beobachtung von Wissenschaft ab. Die Arbeit leistet somit auch einen wichtigen Beitrag zu einer systemtheoretisch orientierten Journalismustheorie.
Niklas Luhmann’s social theory stands in direct opposition to the dominant ‘anthropocentric’ traditions of legal and political analysis. King and Thornhill now offer the first comprehensive, critical examination of Luhmann’s highly original theory of the operations of the legal and political systems. They describe how from the perspective of his ‘sociological enlightenment’ Luhmann continually calls to account the certainties, the ambitions and rational foundations of The Enlightenment and the idealized versions of law and politics which they have produced.
Although James Madison has been invoked by justices and judicial scholars for over 100 years, Madison's principle of religious liberty has never been fully grasped or adopted by the Supreme Court. Judges and scholars have failed to understand Madison's radical but simple teaching that religion is not part of the social compact and, therefore, that the state may not take religion within its cognizance. In this article I set forth Madison's principle of "noncognizance" in light of the social compact theory he articulates in the "Memorial and Remonstrance." I then attempt to show how it consistently explains Madison's political actions and writings on religious liberty. I conclude by explaining how a "Madisonian" approach, properly understood, would adjudicate the First Amendment's religion clauses.