Media Use and Political Participation in China: Taking Three National Large-N Surveys as Examples
Asian Journal for Public Opinion Research. 2019. February, 7(1): 1-22
In the age of continuous media change and the coexistence of multiple forms of media, the relationship between the public’s media use and political participation is an urgent area of study. This paper makes use of large national sample surveys from 2002, 2011, and 2015, summarizes the change of the public’s media use by descriptive statistics analysis, and finds that while the Internet has become an important communication channel, the use of Internet for political information and political participation is still overestimated. Compared to the weak impact of different media channels for political information on political participation, the frequency of media exposure and Internet use play a significant role in political participation. Because of the negative effect of the frequency of Internet use on political participation, the democratization function of the Internet needs to be treated with caution. This paper describes media use and its roles in contemporary China, analyzes the impact of media use on political participation, and extends the cross-cultural application of the theory of political communication.
media use; Internet; political participation; survey dataAs a fundamental channel of political mobilization and the dissemination of political information and attitudes, the mass media and its correlation with political participation have gathered a lot of attention among political scientists and communication researchers. Most research has been one-time cross-section studies and discusses the correlation or causal relationship between political participation and media use in a certain time. While a battery of empirical studies outside China illustrates the close association between mass media use and political participation, the counterpart studies in China are rare and need more empirical work. This paper therefore analyzes the change of the Chinese public’s media use habits by using data from three large national sample surveys and the resultant impact on civic participation. This paper first provides an overview of existing theories and empirical research about mass media use and political participation. In the next section, I put forward a hypothesis about mass media use and political participation. In the third section, the measures of the dependent and independent variables are described. Data from 2015 are used to test the hypotheses via OLS regression analysis. This paper concludes with a discussion of the broader implications of this study and raises questions for follow-up studies.
Literature Review: Correlation Between Mass Media Use and Political ParticipationThe theory about the relationship between media (public postings) and political participation can be traced back to Plato in Ancient Greece. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out the impact of newspapers on civic participation in his famous book
- Research HypothesesGiven the aforementioned theoretical/empirical reflections, I derive the following hypotheses regarding the effects of media use on political participation.
- Statistical Models and ResultsTo test these hypotheses, I use individual-level data from three national surveys conducted in 2002, 2011, and 2015. Using a census household list and a multistage area approach in 2002 and 2011 and a GPS/GIS-assisted area sampling method in 2015, the surveys selected the samples randomly and represent the totality of the population over 18 years old in 25 provinces and districts of mainland China. The samples are stratified to ensure adequate and proportional coverage of rural areas and minority populations. The respondents in the households that were drawn were based on PPS (Probability Proportional to Size) sampling methods and the respondent in each household was chosen according to the Kish table. The basic information of the respondents in the three surveys are in 2002 (N=3183; Male=1616, Female=1567; Urban=1181; Rural=1998), 2011 (N=3473; Male=1699, Female=1774; Urban=1113, Rural=2352) and 2015 (N=4068; Male=2047, Female=2004; Urban=1362, Rural=2657). The face-to-face interviews were conducted in respondents’ homes or workplaces in the language of the respondent’s choice. The three surveys use a standard questionnaire instrument containing a core module of identical or functionally equivalent questions about respondents’ participation behavior, media use, political values, etc. The short versions of these survey data are available in the website of Asian Barometer Survey.
- Political participation experienceOur dependent variable is political participation experience. According to the classical definition of political participation by Huntington and Nelson (1976) , “political participation is the activity of citizens trying to influence government decision-making,” so it should include the lawful or not activities of ordinary people individually or collectively to influence political decisions or behavior. There are 14 questions asked to measure the political participation experience of respondents: (1) voted or not ever since you became eligible to vote; (2) voted in unit/village election; (3) participated unit/village campaign meetings or rally; (4) mobilized others vote for a certain candidate; (5) assisted a candidate's campaign in other ways; (6) expressed an opinion to local government leaders; (7) reported to People’s Congress delegate; (8) contacted other influential people outside the government; (9) contacted news media; (10) expressed opinions to relevant departments; (11) went to court; (12) got together with others to try to resolve local problems; (13) got together with others to raise an issue or sign a petition; (14) attended a demonstration or protest march. 3 I collapsed responses to these questions into dichotomous variables. Answers of no were coded as 0; answers of yes were coded as 1. I added these scores together to create a political participation experience scale. The higher scores indicate the more frequent and active political participation. Using the value of political participation experience as the dependent variable, I tested whether media use makes the public active or indifferent citizens or in between (Sindney & Nie, 1967). Table 1 shows the descriptive statistics of political participation experience in the three surveys.
Political Participation Experience
Political Activities in China
- The Change of Media Use HabitsIn this part, I focus on the rapid growth of Internet use and its role in political participation, comparing the data in the surveys of 2002, 2011 and 2015, and discuss the changing trends during the past 15 years. Based on the survey data, the Internet had become the main media for people to communicate and learn by 2015. For the 4048 respondents: 53.4% have Internet access on their cell phones, and only 4% of respondents had no cell phone. Besides cell phone Internet access, 48% of the respondents have some other means for Internet access at home, such as telephone modems, broadband, or fiber. Among the people who have Internet access, 84.6% use social networking sites such as Weibo, QQ, WeChat, and Taobao Wangwang. For the frequency of Internet use ( Table 3 ), the respondents who use the Internet every day was 19.8% in 2013, and 43.7% in 2015. Considering that in 2002, only 12.4% answered “yes” to the question “Can you use a computer”, the increase in Internet use is substantial.
The Frequency of Internet Use
How often do you read, listen to or watch political news? ( %)
Where do you acquire information about political affairs?4
The frequency of Internet use for political information and expression
- Control VariablesAccording to existing studies about the influence factors of political participation, I include the following control variables in our OLS models.
Models of Correlation Between Media Use and Political Participation Experience
Models of Correlation Between Media Use and Political Participation
- Relationship Between the Channels for Acquiring Political Information and ParticipationBased on the variables in the OLS model, the channels Chinese people get political information from have a very weak influence on their political participation. Thus, the validity of H4, the media channels of access to political news affect the political participation experience, was not supported by the data. From the model, there is no statistical significance for domestic TV news, foreign TV news, overseas Internet, or personal contact; and a very weak significance (p<0.1) in newspapers, cell phone text messages and domestic Internet. Among other variables, radio and newspaper have a positive influence on political participation; and Internet and social networks such as text message, WeChat, and Weibo play a negative role in political participation. That is perhaps because the main form of political participation in China now is voting and most of the elections are mobilized by officials, who have a close relationship with the government controlled media, such as newspapers and radio. Usually interpersonal communication (such as interpersonal political discussion and grapevine) lead to the highest level of participation, followed by organizational communication; the least important predictor of participation is mass media ( Shao, 2005 ). This research also shows the positive statistical significance of political discussion between families or friends and grapevine to political participation (H2). Compared to traditional mass media whose audiences are not distinct, interpersonal communication is based on an actual interpersonal interaction network without government supervision. Further, the information can be spread and make political mobilization easier through face-to-face communication. Political discussions between families or friends and grapevine as unofficial channels for the dissemination of political information are effective methods to get information and raise political interest. The data support H2, and is consistent with the analysis of the data collected by the China General Social Survey (CGSS), which proposed that interpersonal communication could enhance social capital which is related to political participation ( Zeng, 2018 ).
- Impacts of Frequency of Access to Political Information and Internet Use on ParticipationExposure to political news has a statistically significant relationship with political participation no matter what kind of channel the respondents choose, which supports H1, which stated that the frequency of political news exposure, an important indicator of political information obtained, has a positive effect on political participation experience. According to empowerment theory, political news exposure promotes the acquisition of political knowledge and provides a basic resource for participation, to follow the news about politics and government, the sense of immersion (involvement), and on the whole advances political participation. Compared to where one gets political information, how often one gets it plays a much more important role in political participation. The frequency of Internet use has a negative impact on the political participation experience, despite a large number of other studies that indicate the Internet has become an agent for expressing political pressure and political mobilization ( Tang & Huhe, 2014 ; Wang & Ji, 2017 ). This further clarifies the relationship between Internet use and political participation (H3). Because the use of the Internet in China mainly focuses on nonpolitical information, not political knowledge, it has little impact on political awareness or political participation. In contrast, Internet use verified the time extrusion effect. Because of the limits of one’s time and effort, the more people were involved in using the Internet, the less possibility for their political participation. The control variables in the statistical models show that political interest and political efficacy positively influence the political participation experience, while there is no statistical relationship between political trust and participation experience. As for the demographic variables, rural people, males, and elderly people have a high participation rate. Because the two most prominent types of political participation experience (voted in unit/village election and participated unit/village campaign meeting or rally) measured in this study were related to voting in unit/village election in which only local residents who live in the rural places get involved. Thus, the higher participation rate of rural people found in this study might be related to the measurement of political participation experience; and whether the urbanization in China nowadays may decrease the political participation deserves more observation. For the positive relationship between age and participation, on the one hand, we can say the older generation in China is more active than the younger; and the older people have much more time to have a political participation experience. In addition, CCP members tend to engage in political issues.
ConclusionPolitical participation in China is quite different from the Western countries where voting is the most important participation activity. In China, multiple forms of participation coexist, though most members of the public have only participated in fewer than three types, and they show obvious structural characteristics, such as high level of contact participation, low levels of communication and contentious participation ( Xiao & Yi, 2016 ). This research does not show that the new media has replaced traditional media, but it supports the integrative development of mass media. Even though the Internet and text messages have become important sources for political news, the traditional media, such as TV, still play a crucial role in political learning and participation. More and more traditional media have begun to issue electronic editions and go hand-in-hand with the Internet. In addition, the impact of the Internet on political participation is not very positive. Although the Internet can connect the whole world, the social contexts and ideology lived by the netizens vary, so the Internet’s influence on politics depends on society and culture. Mobile phone communication is a favorable tool for accessing abundant information and for safeguarding personal rights. Censorship and control from authority is harder than it is for TV and broadcast. The new media have the potential to change political behavior to a certain extent, but the initial outcome of information integration is to intensify social tensions ( Meyrowitz, 1985 ). Mass media are not democratic or anti-democratic by nature; their contribution to political life depends on the laws and the users’ socioeconomic background. Special attention is needed for the study of correlations between media use and political participation where existing political predispositions and awareness are key intermediate variables. As a main form of mass communication and a principle role in political socialization, media facilitates political participation not only by diffusing political information, political knowledge, and political attitude and values; social media enables ordinary people to express their own opinions and attitudes on political affairs, as a means of political participation. However, the practical effect of Internet use on political participation within the Chinese society is still controversial. The uniqueness of media use and political participation in China explains the complex relationship between media use and political participation. It is important to notice that after controlling for variables including political interest, political trust, political efficacy, and other variables, the impact of the frequency of political news exposure on political participation is much more stable than the channel for political news. In addition, notions about the dangers of Internet-driven empowerment and revolution in China should be seriously rethought. It should be noted that this study did not analyze the specific kinds of political participation, such as electoral and non-electoral participation (Wang, 2013; Xiao & Yi, 2016 ). This does not mean that the complexity of political participation in China can be ignored. In fact, the diversity of news and political information from traditional media such as newspapers, TV, and radio, and the new social media, such as text messaging and social networks, may shape different kinds of political participation, which should be detailed in follow-up research.
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