Columbia Public Law & Legal Theory Working Papers


Watchdog or Demagogue? The Media in the Chinese Legal System

Document Type



Columbia Law Review, Vol. 105, No. 1, January 2005,


Over the past decade, the Chinese media have emerged as among the most influential actors in the Chinese legal system. As media commercialization and increased editorial discretion have combined with growing attention to social and legal problems, the media have gained incentives to expand their traditional mouthpiece roles in new directions. As a result, the media have emerged as one of the most effective and important avenues of citizen redress. Their role in the legal system, however, has also brought them increasingly into conflict with China's courts.

This Article examines the implications of the media's roles in the Chinese legal system for China's legal development. It shows how media commercialization has resulted in incentives for the media to expand the scope of critical reporting, to challenge propaganda department content regulations, and to influence court decisionmaking. This Article details four distinct mechanisms by which the media influence China's courts, demonstrating that the media's effectiveness and influence stem from a combination of their continued position as an arm of the Party-state and their ability to reflect and create public opinion.

Media commercialization may be reinforcing traditional norms of Party-state interference in the courts, while at the same time media scrutiny increasingly highlights problems in the Chinese justice system. Despite significant reforms and increasing caseloads, the authority of China's courts remains limited. Yet the media's ability to enjoy significant autonomy within the confines of Party supervision also suggests that a similar model of autonomy may be possible, and is perhaps already emerging, for China's courts.

Date of Authorship for this Version

January 2005


Chinese law, Chinese legal system, Chinese media, media commercialization, Chinese courts, Party-state

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