Media Products as Law: The Mass Media as Enforcers and Sources of Law in China

Posted: 17 May 2011

See all articles by Tahirih V. Lee

Tahirih V. Lee

Florida State University College of Law

Date Written: May 9, 2011


In the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”), the texts of major national statutes (falu) and regulations (guiding) are published in the primary Chinese Communist Party newspaper, The People’s Daily (Renmin ribao) and on government-run websites. Clearly these publications are “law” in the sense that they are officially enacted as laws, but what about other media transmissions? Print and broadcast media operated by the state also contain reports of official interpretations of the law, and reports about the implementation of law and about matters that are regulated by PRC law. Can these media transmissions also be considered law? This article attempts to determine whether and how the print and television media in the PRC function as law. I survey law as a subject in mass media in the PRC to determine whether, as a historical and institutional matter, products of PRC media might be considered part of China’s “legal system” or “sources of law.” It is not difficult to make the case that state-run media are part of the legal system of China, particularly when the current apparatus is placed in historical context. It is more of a stretch, however, to argue that media transmissions are authoritative sources of law. Courts in China do not cite them in published opinions, nor do China’s legal experts view them as authoritative in a formal sense. When Chinese law is viewed in its historical and institutional context, however, it becomes clear that media transmissions about law carry a great deal of authoritative weight. Though no one else has published the argument that connects media to law in this way, the theories of several sociologists provide support for the notion that law achieves its power by the way that it is communicated in society to individuals. Taken together, the ideas of Emile Durkheim, Michel Foucault, Edward Epstein, and Carole Nagengast depict law as something that is broadcast to shape behavior. This view helps to situate law within Chinese society and makes it easier for us to understand the authoritativeness of any type of official communication about law in China. I use a case study to examine the hypothesis that the mass media in China both enforce the law and provide authoritative sources of law. The study is comprised mainly of a discursive analysis of transmissions of the state-run news agency Xinhua, two major legal newspapers run by branches of the Ministry of Justice, and other official materials. Two random samples of transmissions are used, each of which include popular and internal Party treatises, all of which touch on the regulation of procreation, marriage, divorce, and care of the elderly. The media transmissions in the second sample, which was published eleven to twelve years later, differed from those in the first sample in their greater attention to the attractiveness of the publication’s format. The purpose of both transmissions was to provide both examples of behavior that complied with the law and that transgressed it. Also in both samples, the media transmissions interpreted and amplified the relevant law in ways that signaled the mid-1990s tight control of the PRC central government over “political” matters, and a new sharing of control over “economic” matters by both the PRC central government and local entities officially recognized by the government.

Keywords: People's Republic of China, communism, media, mass media, enforcers

Suggested Citation

Lee, Tahirih Victoria, Media Products as Law: The Mass Media as Enforcers and Sources of Law in China (May 9, 2011). FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 558, Available at SSRN:

Tahirih Victoria Lee (Contact Author)

Florida State University College of Law ( email )

425 W. Jefferson Street
Tallahassee, FL 32306
United States
850-644-3833 (Phone)
850-644-5487 (Fax)

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