This paper seeks to explore the impact the two national health crises - SARS and the tainted milk scandal - might have had on the public sphere in China. In both cases, insufficient information and government cover-ups hindered effective handling of the situations and worsened the outcome.
Against the backdrop of recent history and developments within Chinese media, I analysed how the official party-paper, the Renmin Ribao, and the Guangdong-based weekly Nanfang Zhoumo covered the two crises. By doing so, I was able to study the relationship between official and more liberal discourses and how these developed over time in the context of crises.
In my analysis I paid special attention to different groups’ degree of access to the debate and to which topics that were discussed. When examining the use of language in the discourses, I observed how the terms “scientific” and “openness” were applied in the rhetoric of leaders in 2003 and 2008. I also found several examples of how government critique was raised between the lines in the Nanfang Zhoumo.
I argue in my paper that the crises have contributed to a widening public sphere in terms of topics that are acceptable to discuss within the limits of censorship. At the same time, the Chinese leadership has adopted a more proactive and humble approach to crisis management, something that might strengthen the Party’s position in terms of legitimacy as well as its ability to carry out unpopular reforms on the local level.
In order to acquire a broader understanding of the dynamics of a public sphere in an East-Asian regional context, I looked at how national media covered a similar crisis in South Korea. I found that commercial pressure and strong nationalist sentiments could put a critical public debate at risk also in a democratic country where media is not owned and controlled by the government.