The Alternative Public Sphere in China: a Cultural Sociology of the 2008 Tainted Baby Milk Scandal

  • Haoyue Cecilia LiEmail author


This article studies critical news reports about the 2008 Chinese tainted baby milk scandal, which the World Health Organization identified as one of the largest food safety crises in recent years. Examining the discursive practices adopted to legitimize journalistic criticism in authoritarian China, it reveals that critical-minded journalists avoid criticizing the state during the period of heavy censorship, preferring instead to target local governments. Journalists develop more explicit criticisms of the state as censorship becomes loosened, but they continue to rely on the strategic use of official statement and a heavy dose of praise to appear complimentary. Findings indicate that while critical journalism is constrained by political censorship, the Chinese critical press has managed to circulate counter-hegemonic interpretations of the scandal through strategic discursive practices.


Food safety Critical press Alternative public sphere China 



I would like to thank Ronald Jacobs, Richard Lachmann, Elizabeth Popp-Berman, the editor and the six anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments that greatly contributed to the final version of the paper.


  1. Althusser, Louis. 2006. Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (notes towards an investigation). The Anthropology of the State: A Reader 9(1):86–98.Google Scholar
  2. Benson, Rodney, and Abigail C. Saguy. 2005. Constructing social problems in an age of globalization: A French-American comparison. American Sociological Review 70 (2): 233–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Charmaz, Kathy. 2006. Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. London: SAGE.Google Scholar
  4. De Burgh, Hugo. 2003. What Chinese journalists believe about journalism. Political Communications in Greater China: The Construction and Reflection of Identity 83.Google Scholar
  5. De Burgh, Hugo, and Rong Zeng. 2012. Environment correspondents in China in their own words: Their perceptions of their role and the possible consequences of their journalism. Journalism 13 (8): 1004–1023.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Fan, Yijing. 2005. Southern strategy [Nanfang Zhanlue]. Guangzhou: Southern Daily Publisher [Nanfang Ribao Chubanshe].Google Scholar
  7. Feng, M., P.R. Brewer, and B.L. Ley. 2012. Framing the Chinese baby formula scandal: A comparative analysis of US and Chinese news coverage. Asian Journal of Communication 22 (3): 253–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Fernandes, Sujatha. 2006. Cuba represent!: Cuban arts, state power, and the making of new revolutionary cultures. Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Forment, Carlos A. 2003. Democracy in Latin America, 1760-1900: Volume 1, civic selfhood and public life in Mexico and Peru. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  10. Freedom House (2016) Freedom of the press 2016: China. Available at: ( Accessed 12 April 2017.
  11. Ghazi-Tehrani, A.K., and H.N. Pontell. 2015. Corporate crime and state legitimacy: The 2008 Chinese melamine milk scandal. Crime, Law and Social Change 63 (5): 247–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss. 2009. The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. New York: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  13. Habermas, Jürgen. 1990. Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge: MIT press.Google Scholar
  14. Habermas, Jürgen. 1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge: MIT press.Google Scholar
  15. Habermas, Jürgen, and Maeve Cooke. 2000. On the pragmatics of communication. Cambridge: MIT press.Google Scholar
  16. Huang, Chengju. 2007. Editorial: From control to negotiation: Chinese media in the 2000s. London: Sage Publications Sage UK.Google Scholar
  17. Ikegami, E. 2005. Bonds of civility: Aesthetic networks and the political origins of Japanese culture. Vol. 26. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Jacobs, R.N. 2000. Race, media, and the crisis of civil society: From Watts to Rodney king. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Jacobs, R.N., and E. Townsley. 2011. The space of opinion: Media intellectuals and the public sphere. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lee, Chin-Chuan, Zhou He, and Yu Huang. 2006. ‘Chinese party publicity Inc.’conglomerated: The case of the Shenzhen press group. Media, Culture and Society 28 (4): 581–602.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Lei, Ya-Wen. 2016. Freeing the press: How field environment explains critical news reporting in China. American Journal of Sociology 122 (1): 1–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Lei, Ya-Wen. 2017. The contentious public sphere: Law, media, and authoritarian rule in China. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Lei, Ya-Wen, and Daniel Xiaodan Zhou. 2015. Contesting legality in authoritarian contexts: Food safety, rule of law and China’s networked public sphere. Law and Society Review 49 (3): 557–593.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Liu, Qing, and Barrett McCormick. 2011. The media and the public sphere in contemporary China. Boundary 2 38 (1): 101–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. O’Brien, Kevin J. 2004. Neither transgressive nor contained: boundary-spanning contention in China: Kevin J. O’Brien. In State and Society in 21st Century China, 118-135. Routledge.Google Scholar
  26. O’Brien, Kevin J., and L. Li. 2006. Rightful resistance in rural China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Polletta, Francesca. 1998. Contending stories: Narrative in social movements. Qualitative Sociology 21 (4): 419–446.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Repnikova, Maria. 2014. Investigative Journalists’ coping tactics in a restrictive media environment. Chinese Investigative Journalists’ Dreams. 113–32. Plymouth: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
  29. Repnikova, Maria. 2017. Media politics in China: Improvising power under authoritarianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Sausmikat, Nora. 2006. More legitimacy for one-party rule?: The CCP’s ideological adjustments and intra-party reforms. Scholar
  31. Scott, J.C. 1985/2008. Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of peasant resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Scott, J.C. 1990. Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Smith, P., and N. Howe. 2015. Climate change as social drama: Global warming in the public sphere. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Sparks, Colin. 2008. Media systems in transition: Poland, Russia, China. Chinese Journal of Communication 1 (1): 7–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Straughn, Jeremy Brooke. 2005. “Taking the state at its word”: The arts of Consentful contention in the German Democratic Republic. American Journal of Sociology 110 (6): 1598–1650.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Svensson, Marina. 2012. Media and civil Society in China: Community building and networking among investigative journalists and beyond. China Perspectives 3: 19.Google Scholar
  37. Svensson, Marina. 2017. The rise and fall of investigative journalism in China: Digital opportunities and political challenges. London: SAGE Publications Sage UK.Google Scholar
  38. Tong, Jingrong. 2011. Investigative journalism in China: Journalism, power, and society. London: A and C Black.Google Scholar
  39. Tong, Jingrong. 2015. Investigative journalism, environmental problems and modernisation in China. Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Tong, Jingrong, and Colin Sparks. 2009. Investigative journalism in China today. Journalism Studies 10 (3): 337–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Yang, Guobin. 2009. The power of the internet in China: Citizen activism online. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Yang, Guobin. 2013. Contesting food safety in the Chinese media: Between hegemony and counter-hegemony. China Quarterly 214: 337–355.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Yang, Guobin, and Craig Calhoun. 2007. Media, civil society, and the rise of a green public sphere in China. China Information 21 (2): 211–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Zelizer, Barbie. 2008. How communication, culture, and critique intersect in the study of journalism. Communication, Culture & Critique 1 (1): 86–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Zhang, Hongzhong. 2004. Choice of expansion models for China’s media industry (woguo chuanmeiye kuozhang Moshi de xuanze), Press Circles (xinwen jie).Google Scholar
  46. Zhao, Yuezhi. 1998. Media, market, and democracy in China: Between the party line and the bottom line. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  47. Zhao, Yuezhi. 2000. From commercialization to conglomeration: The transformation of the Chinese press within the orbit of the party state. Journal of Communication 50 (2): 3–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Zhao, Yuezhi. 2008. Communication in China: Political economy, power, and conflict. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.Google Scholar
  49. Zhao, Dingxin, and Feng Lin. 2008. Media and social movements in China: A relationship without the constraint of a hegemonic culture. The Chinese Journal of Communication and Society 6: 93–119.Google Scholar
  50. Zheng, Yongnian. 2007. Technological empowerment: The internet, state, and Society in China. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  51. Zheng, Yongnian, Zhengxu Wang, and Liangfook Lye. 2005. China political review 2005: Promoting a harmonious society to cope with a crisis of governance. Nottingham: China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of Albany, SUNYAlbanyUSA

Personalised recommendations