“Supervision by public opinion”, sometimes also translated “watchdog journalism”, has featured strongly in discussions of the role of media and press freedom in China since the late 1980s. In some cases the term can be used, particularly by proponents of an independent and professional press, as a stand-in term for “press freedom”, which is itself used only very cautiously by Chinese media (usually only in pejorative references to “Western press freedom”). Seeing the term as a Chinese cognate of Western “watchdog journalism,” they envision news media operating as a fourth estate, casting light on social, political and economic problems in China.
But “supervision by public opinion” has also been used frequently by officials in China to talk about the role of news media – under state control – in uncovering issues of official corruption and abuse of power on a range of issues, particularly at lower levels of the bureaucracy. At the Thirteenth National Congress of the CPC in 1987, party leaders said in their official report that news and propaganda tools (宣传工具) [i.e., official news media] should “serve a watchdog role (发挥舆论监督作用), supporting the criticisms of the public and [targeting] errors and shortcomings [in government work], opposing bureaucratism, and struggling against various unhealthy tendencies (不正之风).”
In the official view, this “supervision by public opinion” must be subject to the overarching political demands of party leaders. Since 1989 the term has stood in tension with the cardinal control concept of “guidance of public opinion”.
On January 24, 1994, then President Jiang Zemin said in addressing a national forum on propaganda work that “supervision by public opinion should have an eye toward assisting with the forward work of the party and the government in resolving real issues, promoting unity among the people and safeguarding social stability.”