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Journalism via Systems Cybernetics: The Birth of the Chinese Communication Discipline and Post-Mao Press Reforms

Published onMay 20, 2022
Journalism via Systems Cybernetics: The Birth of the Chinese Communication Discipline and Post-Mao Press Reforms


In China’s reform era (1979–), to revitalize the newspaper for economic modernization, journalism scholars turned to American mass communication study after Wilbur Schramm’s visit in 1982. This familiar story of the birth of the Chinese communication discipline misses a critical thread. Faced with constant political contractions, systems cybernetics crept in: The supposed founder of communication, Wilbur Schramm, spoke in Claude Shannon’s name; China’s “King of Rocketry,” Qian Xuesen, pledged to augment Norbert Wiener; and Engels’s writing on dialectical materialism was seized upon as part of official Marxism. 1980s China is known for the revival of humanism. However, in the tightly controlled news sector, reformist scholars conjoined systems cybernetics and Engels’s Marxist philosophy, dismantling the human subject in the process. This articulation of the epistemology and ethic of newsmaking, which has persisted to this day in the disciplinary assumptions of Chinese journalism-communication, allowed the regime to depart from Maoism and legitimate a state-managed marketization. Excavating an unknown episode in the global history of cybernetics, this revisionist study sheds new light on the post-Mao trajectories of journalism and media governance. It also dislodges the ossified binaries between science and political ideology, and between socialist centralism and capitalist liberalism, which are prevalent in (post-)Cold War narratives.


En la época de las reformas en China (1979-), para revitalizar los periódicos con vistas a la modernización económica, los estudiosos del periodismo recurrieron a los estudios de comunicación de masas estadounidenses tras la visita en 1982 de Wilbur Schramm. A esta conocida historia sobre el nacimiento de la disciplina de la comunicación en China le hace falta un hilo conductor. Ante las constantes contracciones políticas, se colaron los sistemas cibernéticos: el supuesto fundador de la comunicación, Wilbur Schramm, hablaba en nombre de Claude Shannon; Qian Xuesen, considerado el “rey de los cohetes” en China, se comprometió a impulsar a Norbert Wiener, y los escritos de Engels sobre el materialismo dialéctico fueron tomados como parte del marxismo oficial. La China de los años ochenta es conocida por el renacimiento del humanismo. Sin embargo, en el sector de las noticias, fuertemente controlado, los eruditos reformistas unieron los sistemas cibernéticos y la filosofía marxista de Engels, desmantelando en el proceso al sujeto humano. Esta articulación de la epistemología y la ética de la elaboración de noticias, que ha persistido hasta hoy en los supuestos disciplinarios del periodismo-comunicación chino, permitió al régimen apartarse del maoísmo y legitimar una mercantilización gestionada por el Estado. Excavando un episodio desconocido en la historia global de la cibernética, este estudio revisionista arroja nueva luz sobre las trayectorias del periodismo y la gobernanza de los medios de comunicación posteriores a Mao. También desbanca los binarios incrustados entre ciencia e ideología política, y entre centralismo socialista y liberalismo capitalista, que prevalecen en las narrativas de la (pos)guerra fría.

In the warm spring of 1982, as universities scrambled to reinvigorate themselves from the ruins of the Cultural Revolution, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) welcomed the American scholar-educator-administrator Wilbur Schramm (1907–1987). This was a time when the press, journalism scholarship, and government propaganda units, which later functioned more discretely, were still intimately entwined. Overlapping groups of academic researchers, news workers, and cultural cadres comprised the media sectors’ “establishment intellectuals.”1 To reinvent journalism and revitalize the newspaper, these media thinkers turned to Western communication study, more precisely, the American mass communication tradition represented by Schramm. Today, this turn is the familiar story of the disciplinary formation of Chinese communication study or chuanbo xue.2 While textbooks portray this formation as a moment of intense intellectual enlightenment, critical voices at the margin—mostly from scholars outside of China—consider it an unfortunate adoption of the positivist scholarship of liberal capitalism propelled by the resolution to negate socialist legacies.3

It is not an either-or story.

This article illuminates a key component that is missing from existing accounts. During sporadic political contractions, systems cybernetics crept in: The supposed founder of American communication, Wilbur Schramm, spoke in Claude Shannon’s name; China’s “King of Rocketry,” Qian Xuesen, pledged to augment Norbert Wiener; and good old Engels’s writing on dialectical materialism was seized upon as part of official Marxism. In the (often overlooked) absence of a countervailing social science tradition, I demonstrate, the post-Mao discipline of journalism-communication has been profoundly shaped by systems cybernetics. By “systems cybernetics” I mean a highly infectious mixture of ideas from cybernetic and information theories that was, crucially, accompanied by gusto for system-level visions.

This revisionist history of the Chinese communication discipline adds an important but neglected case to the global history of cybernetics and systems theory. For its interdisciplinary propositions, this set of knowledge acquired extraordinary political flexibility and appeal in the hands of historical actors. It fostered cross-pollination between knowledge fields in the postwar US,4 transcended the Cold War’s divide as a “neutral” toolbox,5 and helped inoculate Soviet sciences from ideological attacks.6 In China’s “post-Mao military-to-civilian conversation,” systems cybernetics also informed the one-child policy.7 Complementing this extensive literature, I delineate the Chinese import of cybernetics through a kind of artful “rediscovery” of Friedrich Engels, exemplified in Qian Xuesen’s writings. This history brings to the fore the resonance and overlapping genealogies between systems cybernetics and dialectical materialism,8 which have been written off in the history of science and technology because the Cold War lens views Marxist philosophy as “ideology” and “unscientific.”9 With it, I highlight the structural and discursive conditions conducive for contemporary Chinese social governance to incorporate systems cybernetics, a broader historical process in need of collective research efforts.

This is also a sociohistorical study of how the moral and political commitments of journalism, a normative interpretive institution, found their articulations in languages of science and technology. What unfolded as China transitioned to post-socialism, however, bears little resemblance to the historical discovery of objectivity in American journalism.10 In the Mao era, it was understood that, despite its claim to represent reality objectively, the capitalist nature of the Western press inevitably led to thoughtless reproduction of fragmented appearances, which was at best “superficial truth” (biaoxiang zhenshi). The Chinese socialist press, in contrast, was aimed at assisting class struggle by delivering “substantial truth” (benzhi zhenshi), which exposed the fundamental state and relationships of society according to official Marxist insights (i.e., “the inherent logic of reality”). After Mao, Chinese journalism theory appropriated systems cybernetic ideas, but this appropriation never led to pronouncing any form of “scientific objectivity” in reporting. Rather, it held onto the cybernetic notion of ontology and, contingently, control.11 The rise of these normative conceptions of news media in the 1980s has been lost to the extant historiography on Chinese media reforms, which centers on media marketization and advocacy for liberal professionalism in the 1990s.

Indeed, this history troubles not only the binary of science and political ideology, but also the binary of socialist centralism and capitalist liberalism that characterizes many post-socialist narratives. Known as China’s “New Enlightenment,” the 1980s is defined by a “humanism fever”—beginning with Marxist humanism and taken over by liberal humanism.12 Even science’s wide appeal in the 80s has been examined for breeding humanist values amenable to democratic politics. Many scientists, such as Fang Lizhi, became liberal dissidents and spearheaded the 1989 pro-democratic movement.13 In the meantime, critics on the left see the roots of China’s neoliberalism: “the abstract concept of human subjectivity and the concept of human freedom and liberation, which played significant roles in the critique of Mao’s socialist experiment, lack vigor in the face of the social crises encountered in the process of capitalist marketization and modernization.”14 What happened to the news sector, which the Party placed under its most intense, unwavering scrutiny, deviates from this understanding. To battle Mao-era constrictions, reformist scholars wound up conjoining systems cybernetics and Engels’s Marxist philosophy, dismantling rather than reviving the human subject in the process. This articulation of newsmaking’s epistemological and ethical grounds allowed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to depart from Maoism and legitimate a state-managed marketization, with a far-reaching legacy.

Knowledge Upgrade for Party Journalism: Communication without Baggage

From late April to early May of 1982, Wilbur Schramm visited the PRC in the company of his wife and Timothy Yu (1920–2012), translator and enabler of the “icebreaking” trip. Yu was Schramm’s former student at Stanford and then-retired chair of Department of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.15 In Beijing, thanks to a request put through by the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS), Schramm met Bo Yibo, Vice Premier in charge of science, technology, and finance.16 Having led multiple UNESCO endeavors in Asia and the Middle East, Schramm’s emphasis on communication for “development” understandably appealed to the CCP leaders.17 In the uncertain early-reform period, the Vice Premier’s explicit support made Schramm’s sermon for communication all the more phenomenal. Schramm delivered a speech to hundreds of scholars and propaganda cadres that packed the top-floor auditorium of the People’s Daily’s main building, then located on Wangfujing Street, a central area of Beijing studded with aristocratic residences from the Qing Dynasty. He also spoke at Renmin University and CASS.

Schramm certainly knew how to strike a chord with his audience, which mostly consisted of scholar-educators who were experienced news workers in the Mao era and the first graduate student cohorts back to school, eager to learn and innovate. Before diving into his topic, he typically began by proudly retracing his past life as a reporter and an editor: “The blood of journalism flows in my veins. In other words, I am a newsman upside-down and inside-out.”18 Schramm then characterized journalism studies, supposedly concerned with one variety of human communication, as a subarea and “precursor” of communication study.19 He demonstrated this through an opportunistic telling of its American history: “American journalism departments turned to communication, integrated it into their journalism education, and established communication research centers.”20

This was a far cry from his own past and future English writings. Schramm had always been explicit that it was the lavish resources from governments, commerce, and the military that drove the social sciences to splinter and form a separate foundation for communication as a discipline.21 As “skills departments,” journalism coalesced with communication to increase their academic status.22 Many practice-oriented faculty, however, continued to view their research-focused colleagues as irrelevant for producing good journalism—a perennial tension once popularly referred to as the “green eyeshades vs. chi-squares” division in journalism departments.23 Chi-squares failed to see much merit in letting green eyeshades play their games either: “The fact that a single individual can teach courses in, say, magazine editing and research techniques in social psychology [a dominant approach of mass communication] is a tribute to human adaptability, not to a well-conceived academic discipline.”24 This jab was literally pages away from Schramm’s own historical narrative in the Journal of Communication, both drafted within months of the latter’s China visit. In short, at American universities it was institutional politics that coupled journalism and mass communication, and their internal division persists. For the Chinese ears, however, Schramm changed this organizational story to one about inexorable intellectual development. The Chinese inquired keenly about whether turning to communication might hinder journalism studies. “There is neither conflict nor tension between the two,” assured Schramm, “but only mutual enhancement. . . . Communication is journalism’s flesh and blood.”25

In fact, mass communication was indeed a godsend. In the early 1980s, the main hurdle faced by reform-minded journalism scholars was the incommensurability between “Marxist proletarian (or socialist) theory of the press” and its “bourgeois” counterpart. The two were considered incommensurable because the Maoist epistemology maintained that the norms of the press, or the press theory of a society, were determined by the given political economy. Therefore, to appropriate any journalistic norms from the “Western bourgeois society” invited ideological attacks. But thanks to its decontextualized abstraction, the Schrammian strand of mass communication provided a fresh start. Its circumscribed diagrams of the dissemination process invariably trace symbolic content from point A to point B. Whereas critical scholars across the Pacific increasingly recognized and critiqued this obliviousness to fundamental questions about the relationship between media and broader structures of power,26 early-reform China found it particularly palatable.

What was remarkable about this affinity, if we can call it that, was that it resulted from American communication’s own disciplinary formation during the Cold War. It was military and corporate patronage that spawned its growth, directing the discipline’s latent assumptions about when and where the effects of mass media should be investigated. Meanwhile, communication scholarship persistently veils the capitalist and imperialist constitution of media operations, a kind of “ideological work” performed in service of power.27 In a sense, the relationship between American communication and China was epitomized by Schramm’s own life. During World War II and the early years of the Cold War, he was deeply involved in US security establishments. He co-wrote Four Theories of the Press (1956), which offered a typology of ideas that supposedly encapsulate both government and the press of a given society. It classified the Chinese press as a follower of the “Soviet communist theory,” described as an expanded version of the “Authoritarian theory” originating in feudal Europe.28 In the late 1960s and 1970s, as he moved to the “development paradigm” of communication, Schramm became intrigued by China’s economic growth and relied on his Taiwanese and Hong Kong students for material.29 During his time at CASS in 1982, the Chinese brought up his Four Theories book. Did his classification change? As Timothy Yu recalls, “To this Schramm responded humorously, ‘it’s been decades and I almost forgot about this book. If I write it today, I wouldn’t say China is authoritarian. I’d think of another phrase. I’ll tell you once I have it.’”30

However, by opening itself up to communication in the 1980s, Chinese journalism studies did not embark on behaviorist empirical research on journalism phenomena because no such research paradigm was available. Early American communication PhDs typically did coursework in sociology, political science, and psychology departments, where social scientific methods were inculcated. These empirical scholars then assumed leadership roles in flourishing communication departments.31 But Schramm himself had little experience in frontier research. His yearning, instead, was for the intellectual integration of communication as a field.32 His preaching of communication study by and large glossed over the nitty-gritty of research design and execution. This omission of methodological issues went unnoticed in China due to the impoverished state of its social sciences.33 The “chi-square” had been missing in the picture for decades; the Chinese socialist “green eyeshades” could not educate themselves about it even if they wanted to.34

As a result, it was Maoist press theoreticians and China’s most ideologically entrenched literary workers who took over “communication” as a resource for their own project: to envision and justify media’s imminent reforms. The chief challenge in this appropriation has to do with values. Journalism is a socially grounded institution reputed for its normative aspirations, whereas mass communication as a behaviorist research program “presupposes the victory … of means without ends.”35 This means Chinese reformists had to search amidst whatever they took as communication for normative “ends” to supplant existing journalism ideals. This search was eventually completed on engineering terms, a turn seeded in Schramm’s visit.

Information and Feedback: Phasing out the People

To assert his vision of an all-encompassing communication study, Schramm presented an eclectic mix of concepts and ideas, among which were information theory and cybernetics. Absent sufficient context, the Chinese were left with an impression that communication study had its foundations in these areas. One and half years after his departure, in the winter of 1983, triggered by a broader intellectual advocacy for Marxist humanism, the CCP’s conservative fraction struck out to curb the rapid spread of Western-inspired liberal ideas. Communication study was attacked for “negating class struggle” and being particularly dangerous as a potential replacement of Chinese socialist press theory. This “Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign” was short-lived but admonitory for sensitive domains such as journalism. Thought experiments in journalist periodicals started segueing along this impressionist link to systems cybernetics, blowing it out of proportion. Specifically, the narrow technical definitions of information and feedback were mobilized to define “news value” as leveraging journalism from propaganda, a feat indispensable for media reforms. This constitutes a significant divergence from its American counterpart.

At CASS, Schramm declaimed that “two physicists,” Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, established information theory in order to “study the feedback phenomenon in the communication of human society”: “Through their hands, information theory has migrated from natural sciences to social sciences. Their goal is to scientifically measure the circulation of information among people.”36 This, however, could only be a knowing mischaracterization. Schramm edited the composite book The Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949) at the University of Illinois Press, which contains a reprint of Shannon’s 1948 Bell Labs paper, preceded by Weaver’s attempt to narrate the paper’s intimidating mathematics in lay terms.37 Notably, whereas Shannon insisted on limiting the application of information theory to technical communication because the theory excludes the “semiotic aspects,” Weaver optimistically called to expand its reach to human communication.38 But actual attempts to conceptualize human communication through information theory began with Schramm,39 and was extended in a few studies mainly produced by Schramm’s own students.40

The Shannon model of technical communication illustrates the transmission of a message from the source to the destination, which entails changing the message into the signal and converting it back upon reception. Admittedly, this model resembles the vision of dissemination in mass communication that features elements such as source, channel, message, and receiver. But Shannon’s mathematical theory focuses on the channel capacity of technical systems such as the telephone system. It is also for this purpose that Shannon defines information as something that reduces uncertainty for mechanical functions (measured by its ability to eliminate alternate options). American mass communication scholarship, by contrast, is predominated by its focus on the effects of communication, typically indicated by the audience’s opinion or behavioral change. This is not surprising, given that much of the field grew not to (re)structure media systems (which characterizes Chinese media reforms, as I will explain in greater detail below), but to aid administrative tasks faced by media organizations, government agencies, and corporations.

Feedback is a key term in cybernetic theory developed by Norbert Wiener during wartime to improve anti-aircraft fire. To control a system through a feedback mechanism means the system’s future conduct is constantly adjusted based on information of its past performance, so that the system continues to approximate its goal. “Feedback” was made popular as a construct in mass communication through the widely used textbook The Process of Communication by David Berlo, one of the earliest communication doctorates under Schramm’s supervision.41 Berlo modified Shannon’s original model by inserting “feedback” (while also omitting “noise”). Schramm further replicated this hybrid model in his own teaching and monographs as the “Shannon model of communication” (Fig. 1). This tinkering was, again, led by communication’s preoccupation with effects; having “feedback” in a dissemination model represented progress from the one-way notion of mass communication to account for media producers’ consideration of audience reactions when producing new content. But in reality, such consideration is neither inevitable nor predetermined.

Figure 1. The “Shannon model” with “feedback” but no “noise” from 传播学概论 [Introduction to Communication] (1984), 242, the Chinese translation of Schramm’s coauthored volume Men, Women, Messages, and Media (1982).

Simply put, besides the ubiquity of colloquial usage of these terms in communication scholarship (and everyday life), the field of communication developed largely independently from information science,42 and even more so from cybernetics.43 But the original engineering conceptions about information and feedback—such as optimizing channel capacity and utilizing signal transmission intrinsic to the system—quickly captured Chinese journalism scholarship.

After several years of sparring, the debate over (socialist) “substantial truth” versus (capitalist) “superficial truth” proved intellectually unproductive and politically precarious.44 Journalism scholars concurred that issues about “truth” should be left to propaganda/propagation work, which was tasked with spreading the right thought. But what set journalism and propaganda apart? Or were they indeed different? Scholars used the Cultural Revolution to illustrate what happens when the two are treated as the same. Newspapers were filled with long, plodding polemics full of stock phrases and lengthy coverage of the party’s guiding principles, government achievements, and the heroic deeds of exemplary individuals. Being “timely” meant letting political consideration determine the “right” moment of publicization. Even the above content easily took months to get in print. As the reform-era derision went, the press ended up supplying nothing but “political ravings,” losing touch with both the goings-on of the world and with the masses. This, theorized the reformers, was journalism abiding by “political value” alone. While both propagation and journalism should operate according to political value, what defined journalism was “news value” (xinwen jiazhi or xinwenxing).

But describing worthy news as immediate, crisp, and fresh sounded too much like a submission to capitalist journalistic norms. A less vulnerable reform proposition, news value was spelled out in terms of “information”—both in Wiener’s and in Shannon’s senses. On one hand, according to Wiener, information as feedback of the cybernetic system is a signal automatically issued upon the system’s recent performance; it is hence treated as epiphenomenal of the motion of things. To consider news as information so defined thus asserts that news can and should be non-ideological, and that words can be transparent in delivering world happenings. On the other hand, following Shannon’s definition, to best negate the amount of uncertainty in a decision-making situation, it is important to maximize the amount of information carried through limited channel capacity. Chinese scholars came up with various mathematical formulas to determine “news information content.”45 These collective efforts, though crammed with jargon and technicalities, were meant to drive slogans and bureaucratic trivialities out of newspaper pages. The new consensus dictated: “The most essential function of news is to bring the latest occurrences (shishi) to people in order to reduce their uncertainty about objective reality.”46

Articulating news value through the notion of information, which had never appeared in the vocabulary of China’s socialist cultural work, marked a watershed.47 While the aspiration for substantial truth hails the proletarian class—or more broadly, the people—as a collective subject, news value modelled after information is stripped of embodied experience and concerns about positionality. In 1987, the State Science and Technology Commission listed the media sector as “information industries.” In 1988, a nationwide polling of news workers on press reforms showed that more than two-thirds believed the primary function of journalism to be “disseminating information,” and nearly as many rejected the idea that all news should serve propagation purposes.48 This normative shift granted journalism some autonomy from the overarching propaganda imperative as a distinct field of practice.49

In parallel, Chinese scholars appropriated “feedback”—which Schramm claimed to be “the most important social science concept” that engineering science had contributed—to legitimate the functioning of the press beyond perimeters of the Party propaganda apparatus. At the time, the CASS scholar Chen Chongshan was preparing for Beijing Audience Survey, a pathbreaking exercise of representative sampling initially framed as following the Party’s mass line: “from the masses, to the masses.” She explained this Maoist principle to Schramm and asked: “Is this what you call ‘feedback’?” Schramm confirmed.50 Thirty years later, in her reminiscence of the birth of the survey project, Chen Chongshan described her thinking of Mao-era journalism education and theory as

all about the objectives and techniques of news dissemination (chuanbo), ignoring the role of the audience, ignoring their demand and opinion. This had led to the misalignment between the disseminator and the recipient. I [thus] suggested journalism theory research be turned “upside down.” First, we study the audience. Then, based on the law of how the audience receives news information, we determine the plan and techniques for dissemination, so that news dissemination and reception align with one another, achieving the optimal effects.51

On the surface, this might seem a matter of recognizing the agency and preferences of the audience (i.e., “the feedback”) in a dissemination model.52 But it is an anachronism to suppose so. Moving from the Party’s mass line to such a model took radical epistemic changes. (Chen’s wording represented the language of Chinese journalism-communication that engineering grammars have since infested.)53 Contrary to how the reform discourse later paints it, the Mao-era press was not conceived in a top-down dissemination model. Indeed, it possessed the “Party character” (dangxing) that guides and educates the masses along party ideology. But simultaneously, it also assumed the “people’s character” (renminxing)—that is, it was intended as a site for the (proletarian) people to express their worldview and share their experiences engaging in social change.54 If represented in a model, everything—the Party, the masses, the message—converges at the same spot: Within the press; there is no place for directional arrows. How is this possible? Because the epistemology of Maoism recognizes “no natural or pre-existing collective unity, ready-made and handy.”55 Instead, it requires continuous struggles, both institutional and discursive, to bridge the singular and the collective of the people. This is the essence of the Maoist political project, and integral to it is the socialist press’s constant striving for a simultaneous embodiment of the characters of both the Party and the people.

Therefore, the composite dissemination model, and the efflorescence of theoretical discussion that it ushered in, reflect Chinese journalism scholarship’s enduring discursive efforts to externalize the people from the press as a distinct object for scrutiny. The Maoist charm, the holistic imagery of “the press as the people,” quickly dissipated. In its place was “the press for the people,” wherein the people ceased to manifest in the press but came into their own in front of the researcher, who then advised the press with their knowledge. As per official language, this might still qualify as the press’s “people’s character,” but we should note the underlying transformation in how the people are being served. In short, what transpired in the early 1980s was a (literally) “scientific” dissection that pulled much of the Maoist entanglement out of the press, pinning the audience down next to political directives; now press reforms would observe two distinct parameters.

Doing so also effectively separated the people from the Party. The priority of journalism shifted from embodying and uniting the collective will through the party organ, as in Maoist representational politics, to producing information that acts on and preempts an existing collective. This collective, now external to the Party, awaited being “studied.” Representing that collective’s beliefs and desires, however, would face onerous political risks and implementation challenges. During the “Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign,” Chen Chongshan’s surveys were attacked after English media reported them as capitalist “public opinion polls.” Further, in determining what aspects of the audience to probe, researchers were participating in the very construction of that collective subject. The dilemma was this: Audience surveys were premised on the (newly) assumed misalignment between the press (organ of the Party) and its readers (the people), and no perfect execution existed when the mission was to flesh out such a misalignment.

Toward the end of the 1980s, the eventual rise of what I call “systems journalism” bypassed this dilemma by phasing out the question of audience subjectivity altogether. “Feedback” became associated with abstracted spheres, specifically the economy, and the significance of journalism was defined not in relation to human faces, but to the interdependent systems that supposedly comprised society.

Systems Cybernetics in Reform China: Qian Xuesen and Friedrich Engels

If Wilbur Schramm served as a key ingredient and a catalyst for the fusion of disparate ideas into “systems journalism” in China, a second key ingredient can be traced to certain engineering expertise uniquely preserved through the Mao era. In the 1960s and 1970s, the CCP promoted “socialist science,” which instituted participation from the masses.56 The only group of highly specialized scientists shielded from these political imperatives (as well as discipline and punishment) were those working on military projects. Likewise, whereas cybernetics became a pervasive ideological force in shaping Soviet sciences,57 in China, Marxist theoreticians and ideologues, albeit somewhat informed of the Soviet trends, never managed to interfere with the work led by mostly US-trained scientists.58 After 1978, the latter’s expertise and more crucially their ethos of systems analysis, mounted the front stage and animated broader intellectual debates, popular science endeavors, and science fiction throughout the 1980s.59 Absent the social sciences, defense scientists also cast strong influence over social policies for modernization.60

The tide was led by Qian Xuesen (1911-2009), who was likely oblivious to Wilbur Schramm’s visit and the fermentation in journalism scholarship. Known as H. S. Tsien in his American life, Qian was an aerodynamicist trained at MIT and an endowed professor at the California Institute of Technology conducting missile research for the US Army. Qian was persecuted under McCarthyism and managed to return to China in 1955. After the 1960 Sino-Soviet fallout and departure of Soviet advisors, Chinese military projects were entrusted to Qian and other returning scientists. The successful construction, in a just few years, of the carriers of atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs, and satellites earned him the title of “King of Rocketry.” Qian also played a major role in bringing cybernetics to China. In the early 1950s, after becoming a communist suspect and shut out of military research in the US, he turned to the design of mechanical and electronic systems using cybernetic theory, culminating in his groundbreaking monograph Engineering Cybernetics.61 Its Chinese edition appeared in 1958, serving as a foundation for numerous research projects. As China reoriented itself for economic development and promoted “modern” science as a “force of production,” Qian’s proven political fidelity and scientific prowess made him the post-Mao “model intellectual.” The state honored him as something of a national treasure.62 Systems cybernetic ideas began to overspill.

In September 1978, Qian’s landmark article “The Techniques of Management and Organization: Systems Engineering,” ran in the pages of Wenhui, a major newspaper targeting educated readers.63 Building on their experience in directing massive military projects, Qian and his coauthors promoted “systems engineering”—an array of techniques including systems analysis, management science, and operational research—as a key approach to develop the national economy.64 Soon after, Qian began to talk about social, on top of material, transformation, and especially addressed the relevance of cybernetics:

In 1948, Wiener considered the idea that [his] cybernetic theory may have social efficacy “false hopes,” and that “extend[ing] to the fields of anthropology, of sociology, of economics, the methods of the natural sciences, in the hope of achieving a like measure of success in the social fields” “an excessive optimism.” The modern development of cybernetic theory has proved that Wiener’s 1948 view was too conservative. Applying engineering techniques to social domains is not “an excessive optimism,” but a reality.65

These words come from the preface of the latest and substantially expanded Chinese volumes of Engineering Cybernetics. In contrast, in the original edition of Engineering Cybernetics, he referenced the French origin of cybernétique (“the science of civil government”) and remarked: “[this] grandiose scheme of political sciences has not, and perhaps never will, come to fruition.”66 Apparently, decades in China made him change his mind.

By that time, Song Jian, Qian’s disciple, colleague, and the new Engineering Cybernetics’s coauthor, had used missile science to project population growth—with severe oversights—and led the CCP leadership onto the track of implementing the stringent one-child policy.67 This amounted to a concrete success of what Qian called “social cybernetics,” “a new science” for accelerating China’s socialist modernization and the accompanying technological revolution. “Scientific decision-making” cast in systems cybernetic language came to be framed as progressive governance. “The scope of ‘engineering’ keeps expanding,” Song wrote complacently in a 1984 encyclopedia entry, “problems traditionally reserved for the social sciences can be solved through engineering methods; in all cases [using these methods] achieves more precise, prescient outcomes than leaving them to mere bureaucratic judgments.”68 Two years later, Song became State Councilor, which ranks immediately below the Vice Premiers.

Undergirding this ascension of systems cybernetics on the political stage and official culture were some crucial discursive gymnastics that also informed the formulation of systems journalism. Qian welded systems cybernetics to the official doctrine. Remarkably, he did it in a way that grafted “modern” technoscience, which the CCP now craved, onto convictions from its revolutionary past, and thus boosted regime legitimacy amid economic and political uncertainties. Qian’s rootstock here, when looked at closely, were the ideas of Friedrich Engels, not Karl Marx, nor Mao Zedong.

To correct Norbert Wiener’s above-quoted reservation, for example, Qian resorted to Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific:

Engels once predicted, under the circumstances of socialism, “anarchy in social production is replaced by conscious organization on a planned basis.” The regulatory capacity of the socialist economy enables a self-sustaining economic system, which is essentially an automatic system…. The systemic dynamics that cybernetic theory tackles can be found in high-level systems (i.e., social systems). Therefore it is unreasonable to call the social efficacies of cybernetics “false hopes.” Instead, it is an actual hope that has already dawned on us.69

Engels’s passion for science and technology, and inspired by these topics, his law-like prediction about history, were what made him so apt for promoting a systems cybernetic conception of society. In the PRC and the Soviet Union alike, Marx-Engels existed as a mystical joint identity for orthodox enunciation. The history of global Marxisms, however, shows that Marx’s reception was usually mediated by Engels’s “defining influence.”70 Rather than authoritative accounts of Marx’s ideas, Engels’s Dialectics of Nature and Anti-Dühring (particularly its last section, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) were immensely popular simplifications and extrapolations of Marx’s often dense writings. Instead of giving voice to Marx posthumously, Engels was in fact elaborating his own. And it was a voice that centered on the subject that he, but not Marx, appeared genuinely interested in—natural science. According to Engels (in Marx’s name), both the human and the natural are subject to the law of dialectics, and they make up a totality where history is made through human mastery of nature, pushing back its boundaries.71 For example, according to Engels, the socialist replacement of anarchy with conscious planning (which Qian quoted) amounts to historical progress, for “man finally . . . leaves the conditions of animal existence.”72 Inspired by Darwin, Engels upholds the victory of socialism and communism as the teleological logic of history.

The Engels portion of the Marx-Engels orthodoxy was invoked for local needs. Neither the Russian nor Chinese Bolshevik Revolution followed Marx’s original arguments. But Engels’s scientific socialism proved much more assimilable in the ruling ideology of these Marxist regimes.73 Stalin furthered this scientistic orientation by differentiating historical materialism from dialectical materialism, positing the former as the extension of the principles of the latter.74 This unequivocally implied the inferiority of the studies of history to the studies of science.75 In early 1950s China, fixated on the lost skull of Peking Man and inspired by Engels’s “labor created humanity” theory, the newly-in-power CCP enlisted the scientific elite to propagate the idea that the apes of China evolved into modern Chinese through hard labor, a belief that brought together the entire nation.76 Although the USSR’s augmentation of Engels had profoundly influenced the doctrine of Chinese communism, Mao himself did not care for all that talk about science and scientific laws. By contrast, Mao awarded huge weight to human will and agency; for the Maoist dialectics, history is unpredictable, always unfolding as the willful human subject struggles against the power structure: There is no end to the revolution.77

In this sense, the reform rhetoric was the most efficient when official Marxism displayed the face of Engels and hid that of Mao. By resorting to Engels of the “theory of Marx-Engels,” epistemological consistency was maintained. This was how Qian built on Xu Guozhi’s ideas. In late 1979, he broadened Xu’s initial notion of the “system” to include both human practices and natural processes. In 1985, during the launch of the Chinese Association for Systems Engineering, Qian outlined his vision for “systems science,” a synergistic whole that leveraged the “messy assortment” of related areas in the West to the plane of philosophy. Qian’s systems science has three interdependent layers, moving from the most concrete techniques to the foundational basic science that Qian called “systematics” (xitong xue), which he bridged to Marxism (Fig. 2).78 By ironing out this chain of articulations and using Engels as an interface, Qian demonstrated a dialectic relationship between the development of science and technology and that of Marxist philosophy. This insistence actually made Qian the conservative stronghold in the prolonged debates about whether Marxism might serve as the totalist structure for scientific knowledge.79 On the opposite side were relatively young scientists who advocated a non-instrumentalist view of science as intrinsically valuable and autonomous from Marxism.

Figure 2: Qian Xuesen’s Systems Science

With his scheme of systems science, Qian undertook a grand journey to appropriate and reinterpret bits and pieces from a variety of fields including cognition, physiology, behavioral science, architecture, aesthetics, education, and ecology. He insisted on thinking across boundaries between machines and bodies, and nature and society, promoting a fundamentally posthumanist outlook.80 Qian’s enormous state support and cultural prestige helped popularize a distinct way for conceptualizing the world: It framed all things in relation to larger complex, hierarchical, nested systems that are interconnected (co-variant) via flows of information (in a cybernetic sense). In an incidental and ironic manner, viewing society in terms of interdependent systems enabled an intellectual current free from the yoke of Marxist economic determinism.81

Systems Journalism

In the aftermath of the 1983 Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign and the suppression of American references to mass communication, journalism scholars similarly grafted systems cybernetics onto Engels’s scientistic Marxism. Engels’s general evolutionary take on the development of science and technology was leveraged to promote information technologies and press infrastructures as proxies for historical progress. His claim that motion in nature and human history, as well as the motion of thought, all abide by one unitary set of dialectic laws became the final seal to a view of news production, distribution, and consumption that leaves no role for human subjectivity.

One of the first such pieces, entitled “Information dissemination and historical materialism,” performed acrobatics like Qian’s systematics and in the process assimilated systems thinking in the scholarship.82 Journalism was “the subsystem of social information dissemination,” the author specified, and hence was interwoven with other subsystems such as politics, economy, and ideology. He further opposed considering journalism part of the superstructure or ideology, a bold conclusion reached with seemingly Marxist analytics. Quoting Engels on the industrial revolution, he argued that because the press of a given society inherited the same relations and means of production, the relationship between the resulting information system and society should be more precisely described as “isomorphic.” This arc of arguments smacks of the cybernetic flavor of information (i.e., news as signals generated by a system in motion), glossing over the ideological negotiations by media owners and producers from certain class positions. Importantly, while the press as the subsystem processed output from the economic subsystem (rather than audience feedback), the press itself functioned as the feedback central to the evolution of the larger cybernetic system that is society. The author’s objective was to push for press reforms by arguing that actively restructuring this crucial subsystem would effect desirable changes of the suprasystem.

In response to student demonstrations demanding political—in addition to economic— reform from January to May 1987, the CCP wielded another campaign to “combat bourgeois liberalization.” After this round of political contraction, major journalism periodicals saw a burst of works integrating systems cybernetics through Qian-styled ideological acrobatics. In 1988, a renowned annual academic publication, Annals of Journalism Studies, dedicated the entire volume to “analyzing journalistic phenomena using ‘systems science.’” Many even set out to reconstruct typical concepts and propositions from American communication in terms of systems cybernetics. “Evidently,” wrote one, “Schramm has underestimated the value of information theory, cybernetics, and systems theory in building the theoretical frameworks of [human] communication study.”83

In early 1989, a monograph entitled Systems theory of journalism (xitonglilun xinwenxue) came out, one of the first publications with similar titles. Using the vocabulary of Engels’s materialist metaphysics, the author stated that news is the agentic reflection of the objective reality in the mind of the reporter: “When both ‘natural information’ and ‘cultural information’ [of motion in nature and in society, respectively] come into contact with the reporter’s thinking brain, news is the register left on his brain.”84 The book went on to spell out news value using Engels’s Darwinian-Marxist argumentation about humans’ continued transformation of nature: Occurrences in news (xinwen shishi), after coming to public attention, affect the public’s inner world and spur action to change the material world; if these changes are positive, the news is deemed to have “social effects,” which was the ultimate measure of news value.85 News value was no longer defined by how much information about world happenings it contained, as was argued when Shannon’s formula was the main influence. It was now measured by the news’s effects on the larger system. Depending on the selection of actual occurrences in the news, its dissemination could aid or hinder system functioning, by which the author meant the state-led modernization project. Importantly, in this conception, neither news production nor reception involves meaning-making or more generally, “the anthropological principle of human interaction with the world.”86

Yet the logic of systems journalism consolidated from a position of structural power. In the first Hong Kong journalism conference joined by mainland colleagues, local scholars were deeply impressed when the deputy director of the CASS Journalism Institute started drawing the plan for Chinese press reforms.87 Commissioned by the central propaganda department, CASS surveyed newspapers across the country and mapped bureaucratic affiliations (all state-owned) and specialties of the rapidly expanding press universe (CASS 1986). Through reform, announced the team, this universe should develop into a “party press-anchored, multi-layered press system” that efficiently disseminates information to meet the variety of needs of economic modernization. Importantly, with the anchoring layer of party organs in place, the whole press system would allow localized management experimentation.88 In line with this general aspiration, other scholars pointed out that, as modernization begot exponential information growth, the conventional mode of linear media control hindered timely transmission and response to feedback. Employing concepts such as noise and filter, they advocated that each newspaper was itself a cybernetic subsystem that must have necessary decision-making power to adapt to its changing environment, so that the whole press system remains resilient and constantly improves information delivery for the suprasystem.89 Put differently, the press needed some autonomy for “self-organization” in order to better fulfill its obligation as a state apparatus. At once strikingly totalistic and excitingly open-ended, this vision can only emerge from the center of a press universe where all the outlets are legible, responsive, and subject to large-scale coordination. It is also a vision of technocracy, held liable for the role of media in society and its “subsystems.”

These conditions hardly exist in liberal capitalist societies. Chinese journalism scholars had been enthralled by a bird’s-eye perspective of mass media even before the CCP’s repetitive censures against “liberal-capitalist” influences (in 1983, 1987, and finally, 1989). In 1982 they were introduced to “The Structure and Function of Communication in Society” by Harold Lasswell, a political scientist that Schramm canonized as a “forefather” of communication study. Inspired by postwar structural functionalism, this article discusses mass media by “viewing [it] as a whole in relation to the entire social process.”90 This high-level conceptualization of media as an (oddly holistic) institution found resonance among Chinese scholars. In 1980s China, the dearth of such structural analyses about “the media system” from American mass communication91 was keenly noticed.92 And it was Chinese journalism scholarship’s institutional position, rather than mere intellectual curiosity, that explained its preoccupation with media-society relationships. In a sense, it resorted to systems cybernetics to displace a perceived vacuum in mass communication study. Moreover, whereas functionalism provided little inspiration for initiating structural transformation, systems journalism was premised on continued evolution. Even better, it regarded the press as a locus to initiate changes in other interdependent systems and eventually society’s material development, effectively granting agency to media reformers (and later the propaganda leadership).

Weeks after the release of Systems theory of journalism, protesters filled Tiananmen Square. Appropriating systems cybernetic ideas, the 1980s journalism reformers painstakingly loosened restrictions over organizational management, format, and genre—what we may call newsmaking infrastructures. The limited amount of “press freedom” thereby achieved was, it would not be far-fetched to say, seized upon by the broader cultural currents—an explosive combination of liberal and Confucian humanism—in a bid for political reforms. Following the crackdown on June 4th, the CCP took a series of drastic measures to “tidy the house,” and the media sector was hit hard. Scholarly conversations in Chinese journalism again went through severe rectification, particularly with regard to the field’s “blind” adoption of Western communication study.

But the systems journalism strain remained intact. It was particularly telling that, in the post-1989 climate, Systems theory of journalism kept releasing reprints into the new millennium.93 With regard to news value, the functioning system made further headway to displace “objective reality.” In a 1993 theory article entitled “The ontology of news,” the author builds on Engels’s and Qian’s argumentation to contend that news is “information” rather than “actual occurrences” (shishi, typically translated as “facts”), as information represents human praxis transcending the object-subject binary. News is worthy if people, “as they set goals and make plans for themselves, can utilize the information” to “constantly adjust the relationships between the system and its environment and between various subsystems, in order to optimize the overall benefit and steadily improve their self-organization.”94 There was little mention of “objective reality”; journalism was enclosed in the system. This was never what Wilbur Schramm had in mind, despite his interest in integrating information theory into communication study. As early as 1955, he acknowledged a chasm between Shannon’s information, “concerned with the number of binary choices necessary to specify an event in a system,” and “our concept of information in human communication,” which was really “concerned with the relation of a fact to outside events.”95

The CASS Institute of Journalism became “the Institute of Journalism and Communication” in 1992, a naming convention immediately followed by numerous journalism departments across China. The juxtaposition indicated by “and” quickly came off as redundant. Significantly, it was also in 1992 that the Ministry of Education confirmed xinwen chuanbo or “journalism communication study” as a first-tier discipline, a direct signal of academic stature and resource allocation.96 In Chinese, this phrase literally means the “study of news dissemination.” I hereafter use “Jcomm” to avoid its easy conflation with “communication” in an Anglophone context.

Legacies of Systems Journalism

As “icebreaking” as Schramm’s visit was later portrayed to be, the birth of Jcomm entailed much more than a takeover by—or, depending on one’s stand, a critical adoption of—American communication study. It entailed reformist journalism scholars carrying forward normative notions about journalism with a series of articulations relayed through the ideas of Schramm, Qian Xuesen, and Engels.

Systems journalism could only have emerged in the broader cultural currents of 1980s China. First was the dream of unified science, shared by all three men. Schramm assured the Chinese that communication would eventually integrate all other social sciences and announced it as part of a broader convergence between social and natural sciences.97 This prediction tapped right into the particular zeitgeist, with Qian Xuesen on his crusade to synthesize all the disciplines, albeit in his own comfort zone of engineering and systems analysis. And given the precarious political environment, all this cross-border knowledge hybridization nonetheless gained momentum because Chinese Marxism consisted of Marx’s arguments about human history and Engels’s conjectures from the non-humanistic dimension of natural science. Literally a “worldview,” this Marxist orthodoxy revered universal iron laws (i.e., dialectics) on moral and ideological grounds. Further, the Deng Xiaoping regime shared with Engel’s natural dialectics the pragmatism in human’s unfolding interactions with technology. Finally, the post-Mao regime’s characteristic predilection (i.e., “Cross the river by feeling the stones”) bore some “ontological affinity” with cybernetics—that is, leaving the “black box” closed but instead preoccupied with continuous performative engagements between heterogeneous agents.98 In Euro-America, by contrast, this goes against the “modern ontology” presumed by scientific and bureaucratic establishments, which explains cybernetics’ quick retreat into in “nomad sciences” and countercultures.99

The formulation of systems journalism also hinged on institutional conditions. Qian Xuesen believed that “social cybernetics” would never emerge in capitalist societies (“because the problem with capitalism is that from the onset of production there is no conscious social regulation”).100 To be clear, however, in liberal democracies, systems approaches had heavily influenced human sciences and state bureaucratic management.101 The adoption of operational research in the US, for example, was entwined in the rise of the military-industry-academic complex.102 Social administration by systems cybernetics, therefore, is less productively explored as a feature of authoritarianism (or according to Qian, socialism). Rather, it boils down to its interaction with the concrete political, economic, and discursive contestations in a domain, and the consequences of the exact engineering measures.103 In the case of Chinese population control, for example, systems cybernetics triumphed because the state’s intervention in reproduction was deemed legitimate, the bureaucratic capacity at its disposal extraordinary, and competing social science expertise weak.

One finds similar circumstances in China’s news sector, where Party propagandists took it upon themselves to revamp the normative injunctions about the press. But journalism also is distinct, for it belongs to the realm of the symbolic. Systems cybernetics had to wiggle its way through a congestive discursive terrain. On the one hand, acknowledging the importance of relationality and societal betterment, systems journalism rejected the image of individuals in isolation, the purported flaw of Western communication. At the same time, by leaning on the CCP’s agenda to phase out the planned economy and push for marketization, it refused to succumb to top-down propaganda imperatives. Most remarkably, while systems journalism steered away from the “Maoist” view that valorized the press for providing a voice on behalf of the people and for fostering the socialist revolution, it also distanced itself from the “capitalist” view that evaluated news media in the market of attention where all players act out of competing interests. Finally, it had foreclosed on issues of social actors’ positionality in meaning-making.

In the ensuing decades, explicit references to systems cybernetics took a backseat, but its legacies have prevailed in powerful forms.104 It is beyond this article’s scope to delineate these manifold developments, but I offer a few observations as provocation. First, the ways in which China’s media reforms transpired in the 1990s bore much resemblance to the ideas inspired by systems cybernetics. China’s fast swelling media sector underwent state-regulated marketization involving system-level measures, such as administrative consolidation of party organs and radical commercial experiments at the margins. These “structurally focused” moves are often sidelined by discussions concentrating on overt censorship “aimed at politically dissenting publications.”105 One also ponders the similarity between the liberating vision of the socialist press comprised of numerous outlets as self-organizing cybernetic systems and the so-called “one head, many mouths” landscape in reality, where market-induced media decentralization was wielded for state propaganda purposes.106 As economic disparity increased, media marketization led to the demise of outlets for underprivileged groups.107 But another contributor may be the orientation of press reforms toward information delivery for an economic (sub)system, unconcerned with audience subjectivities and identities.

Systems journalism has sedimented in the now exceedingly resourceful discipline and popular major of Jcomm, and the language of systems cybernetics continues to percolate in its authoritative texts. China’s latest national textbook Introduction to journalism continues to define news as “information about recent actual occurrences (shishi),” in which information does not go by its colloquial usage, but specifically means “the thing that reduces the recipient’s uncertainty,” “as per its narrow definition by Shannon.”108 The reference to “objective reality,” which disappeared with the prevailing systems journalism, remains absent from the current definition. In a methodical content analysis of Chinese textbooks, one Taiwanese researcher was deeply confused by the ubiquity of “information” in Chinese Jcomm textbooks, compared to its scarcity in Taiwanese counterparts.109 He also noted that the phrase “social control” (shehui kongzhi) appeared hundreds of times and suspected it to reflect Chinese authoritarianism,110 without realizing Jcomm’s invocation of its cybernetic meaning—purposeful influence toward a predetermined goal through information processing.111 However, the “goal” here, or journalism’s principled priority of “systematic benefit,” is hard to pin down. In textbooks, official documents, and authoritative commentaries, it shifts between economic prosperity, social stability, and international rivalry. Whereas this flexibility may echo the notion of adaptable, learning systems, the assumed “oneness” is a far cry from Marxian dialectics’ attention to contradiction and historicity.112 It is especially so when the system’s shifting goals are invariably seen as hindered by internal/domestic protests and grievances, which journalism is tasked to assuage through dispelling people’s “uncertainty.”

Finally, the understanding of truth inherent in this conception of newsmaking is about neither correspondence nor coherence.113 First, it is not about sorting out facts in pursuit of accounts that comprehensively correspond to (an outside) reality. While the informational ideal of Western journalism aspires to display disciplined impartiality,114 news in China can be justifiably partial as long as the selection of “actual occurrences” for dissemination contributes to the vitality of the larger system. This understanding of truth is also not about coherence. The imperative for coherence in Chinese press history manifested most vividly in the notion of “substantial truth,” which had a high tolerance for fabricating details as long as the produced account better reflects “the inherent logic of reality” according to official ideology. But when viewed as system-enhancing cybernetic information, news is not ideological, at least not in the sense that ideology means “seeking to efface contradiction and produce an ostensibly coherent, readable account of the world.”115 In the end, such newsmaking is not interested in the real. It is highly malleable, essentially indifferent to the actual content, and has no place for normative value judgments hinged on something external to the system.

We may see such a conception of truth as performance—as in “performative ontology,” which Andrew Pickering uses to name the ontology staged by British cybernetics.116 Casting aside the need to comprehend and articulate the working principles of the cybernetic project and its surroundings alike—in our case journalism and the world it operates in—actions can still be consequential, as the world changes through continuing interlinked performances. Importantly, the resulting performative relationship is not symmetric, as envisioned by cybernetics-inspired theorists such as Haraway,117 but “imperative,”118 because norms and commitments of journalism are, foremost, furnished by the overriding priorities of the regime suprasystem. While such an ontological vision has manifested in many material and ideational forms, Chinese news media may be a site to explore how it plays out in the practice of the (re)production of reality and, in turn, of the public culture that this reality animates.


At various stages, this paper benefited from the insights of Lily Chumley, Timothy Cheek, Finn Brunton, Sigrid Schmalzer, Joseph Man Chan, Julie Yujie Chen, Fred Turner, He Bian, Yige Dong, and Elizabeth Lenaghan. I am also grateful to audiences at the conferences “Post(?)socialist Horizons” and “Exclusions in the History and Historiography of Communication Studies,” and the SHOT/HSS panel “Systems Thinking in Cold War East Asia and Beyond,” especially Alexei Yurchak, Masha Salazkina, David Park, Jefferson Pooley, Peter Simonson, and Egle Rindzeviciute for their comments. This research was supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation, and the American Association of University Women.


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