Media Systems in Transition: Poland, Russia, China

Colin Sparks. Chinese Journal of Communication. Volume 1, Issue 1. 2008.

This article discusses the transformation of the media system in three countries moving away from the classical “communist” model: Poland, Russia and China. Despite very significant differences, all three of these societies displayed similar starting points in terms of economics, politics and media. The dominant political science tradition has discussed post‐communism as part of a more general theory of “transitology”, seeing the processes involved in these cases as examples of a world‐wide transition from dictatorial regimes towards western‐style democracy. An alternative is to see the shift away from communism as an example of “elite continuity”, in which the former bureaucratic ruling class attempts to restructure itself as the owners of private capital. The article tests the two theoretical views in these three cases. It is demonstrated that transitology gives very little insight into the prevailing situations, and that the theory of elite continuity accounts much better for major features of the media systems.


After a decade and half of transformation, the former communist states of central and Eastern Europe and the USSR present a very varied picture. If we widen our lens and consider the contemporary situation in other states with a similar historical legacy, most notably China, then the diversity is even greater. There are no agreed criteria whereby we can measure change with any degree of scientific precision, but a survey of a range of different approaches to the European cases found that there were surprising uniformities across them (Berg‐Schlosser, 2004). According to this study, it is possible to group the various countries into four categories which run through A (Full Democracy: examples include Poland), B (Almost Liberal Democracy: examples include Bulgaria), C (Electoral Democracy: examples include Russia) to D (Not Democratic: examples include Belarus). If we are to include non‐European examples, China, North Korea, and Cuba and so on, then we would perhaps need another category—E (Exceptionally Not Democratic).

These differences, which are clear and obvious to any observer, are so substantial as to demand explanation, particularly since the starting points, although of course nationally‐inflected, displayed such strong similarities. Why should it be that a group of countries which 20 years ago shared a similar if not identical political system, a similar if not identical economic system, and a similar if not identical media system, today demonstrate such a wide range of political, economic and media forms? Quirks of accident and individual influence aside, the problems involved are clearly ones that demand a systematic answer.

This article begins by considering the dominant tradition of thinking about the ending of dictatorial regimes, which finds its most elaborate theoretical exposition in political science but which influences many studies that focus more narrowly on the mass media. It then offers an alternative, the theory of elite continuity, developed in the study of changes to the media in the western fringes of the former Soviet empire. It attempts to test the explanatory power of these two theories by considering three cases: Poland, Russia and China. The changes in the media systems in these three cases are reviewed and compared with the claims of the two theories. Finally, the article considers the implications of the findings for more general theoretical considerations about social change.


In political science, there is a well‐established paradigm for studying the shift from dictatorial to democratic regimes. It is usually known, accurately if inelegantly, as “transitology”, and it has been developed to explain a wide spectrum of changes from the end of European fascism in the 1970s, through Latin America and Southern Africa to the contemporary problems of post‐communism. The most famous, if not the most original, theorist of this school is Samuel Huntington (1991). The aim of transitology is to explain explicitly political change from dictatorial to democratic regimes and for them; “What we refer to as the ‘transition’ is the interval between one political regime and another” (O’Donnnell & Schmitter, 1986, p. 2). The consensus amongst authors working in this tradition, however much they disagree about other things, is to follow Schumpeter and to stress a “minimalist” conception of democracy (O’Donnell, 2000, pp. 6-11). As one author put it: “a transition to democracy is complete when: (1) there is a real possibility of partisan alternation in office, (2) reversible policy changes can result from alternation in office, and (3) effective civilian control has been established over the military” (Przeworski, 1992, p. 105). In theory at least, issues of social structure are an obstacle to a proper understanding of political transition: as one writer proudly proclaimed, transitology “deliberately excludes from [the] basic denotation of democratic government, as a tactic of inquiry, any references to social structures and socioeconomic relations, believing that their inclusion is likely to obscure rather than facilitate the scientific comparative probing of political regimes” (Shain, 1995, p. 47). Even more critical writers, who do acknowledge that democratisation has the potential of profound social implications, distinguish these issues from the consideration of democratization per se (O’Donnell & Schmitter, 1986).

In practice, the model of democratic society is taken from the “originator” countries of North West Europe and North America and it is against the prevailing conditions there that the process of change in other countries is judged. Such judgment inevitably involves at least some consideration of factors other than the process of elections. The first non‐minimal factor that is invariably assumed is that there is an organic connection between democratization and the free market (Linz & Stepan, 1996). Secondly, there is sometimes a consideration of media performance as a factor in the exercise of democracy, albeit a rather cursory one. There are one or two honourable exceptions (O’Neil, 1998; Pei, 1994) but “Students of democratization often assert that a free press is one of the key ‘pillars of democracy’, but this idea is rarely developed any further” (O’Neil, 1996, p. 3).

Implicitly, at least, the model of political change advanced by transitology is that there are observable twin process of democratic political change and the burgeoning of market economies. Together, these factors are working to change previously undemocratic societies in the direction of the political and economic conditions prevailing in the USA. They are therefore best considered as teleological theories which claim to identify two linked processes which are working towards a pre‐determined end.

This approach also strongly influences much of the writing about media in former communist countries. While there are some very important exceptions (Downing, 1996; Koltsova, 2006; Reading, 2003; Splichal 1994; Zhao, 1998) the mainstream clearly argues that the key criterion to observe are the extent to which the media in post‐communist countries have evolved towards a state similar to that prevailing in North America or Western Europe (for example, Gross, 2002; Jakubowicz, 2003a; Mickiewicz, 1999). In other words, the really‐existing media of different countries are measured against what has come to be known as the “liberal model” (Hallin & Mancini, 2004).

The problem for this approach is that a gathering body of evidence suggests that the reality of social and political change is much more complicated, and indeed contradictory, than is allowed for by the theoretical framework. As one commentator noted, thinking about these problems should “start by assuming that what is often thought of as an uneasy, precarious, middle‐ground between full‐fledged democracy and outright dictatorship is actually the most common political condition today of countries in the developing world and the post‐communist world” (Carothers, 2002, pp. 17-18). As a consequence, there has been a proliferation of what has been called “adjectival democracy”. The end state has been redefined as a “liberal democracy”, which is differentiated from a variety of other states, variously classified by different authors as “electoral democracy”, “feckless pluralism”, “dominant power politics”, “sultanism”, and so on. The seemingly endless proliferation of different intermediate stages between democracy and dictatorship not only reduce the elegance of the paradigm but also bring into question its explanatory power.

The Theory of Elite Continuity

As an alternative explanation of the dynamics of post‐communist media systems we may consider the theory of elite continuity. When studying the complex and protracted evolution of the media in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the first years after the fall of communism, it quickly becomes apparent that the course of events did not follow the programmes outlined either by the former dissidents who were now in power nor by the legion of consultants from western Europe and the USA who were offering them advice as to how to restructure broadcasting and the press. The very worthy aim shared by almost everyone involved in the early years of transition might be summarised not too inaccurately as an attempt to create newspapers like the New York Times and broadcasters like the BBC (Sparks, 2001). In fact, what emerged were newspapers that were highly partisan in their orientation and broadcasters that remained closely aligned with the state rather than the public (Sparks, 1998).

In an attempt to offer a theoretical explanation offered for these realities, seven major components were identified:

1. The events in central and eastern Europe were genuine revolutions. In most cases these revolutions were negotiated between a section of the dissident opposition and the reform wing of the Communist Party, but even in those cases they represented a clean break in the organisation of political life. The monopoly of political power held by the Communist Party was broken both formally and substantially; new political parties were formed and contested for power.
2. There was considerable continuity in both institutions and personnel between the old regime and the new. Institutions like the civil service, the army and the broadcasters remained substantially intact, both in their social position and in terms of their internal structure. In broadcasting, for example, the old state broadcasters were nowhere broken up or privatised. They remained central to the media systems, and they retained a very high proportion of their existing personnel.
3. The shift towards a market economy was a highly political process, with the award of favourable opportunities being very closely connected to political power. The licensing of the new commercial broadcasters was a case in point, where political connections were essential to the winning of franchises.
4. The media institutions that emerged from the process of transition were everywhere strongly influenced by the political elite. This was particularly obvious in the case of the broadcasters, where regulatory bodies were recomposed to follow the shifting results of elections. The media had changed from being a locus of power to one of the stakes of power.
5. The revolutions were, following this logic, certainly political revolutions, in that they transformed very rapidly the ways in which the countries in question were governed, but they were not social revolutions in that they did not pose any fundamental challenge to the social order in industry or the state machine.
6. The main dynamic of the revolutions was that it permitted the old elite (roughly, the nomenklatura) to transform itself from one that rested upon the collective ownership of state property, which it guaranteed through its political monopoly, to one that rests on private property, acquired formally or informally through the exercise of political power, but sustained economically in the manner familiar from western capitalist societies.
7. The degree of democratization, if any, is secondary in this model. While the shift to individualised private capital certainly implies a pluralisation of power in the society, it does not automatically follow that this will be articulated through a democratic framework. In the cases studied during the 1990s, there was indeed a considerable degree of democratization, notably in establishing rights to free expression and political association, but theoretically this remained a contingent feature of the new order, not its essence.

This theoretical model, which lays its primary stress upon the social continuity in societies in transition, rather than assuming that the process was essentially one of democratization, provided a good fit to the events in the first decade after the fall of communism in the westernmost European communist states. The weakest parts of the model were, first, that there was then little sociological evidence as to the personnel shifts in the elite; and second, that the examples studied did not provide any evidence to test the hypothesis that democratic rule was a contingent factor rather than an integral part of the process. In all four cases considered, the outcomes were sufficiently close to at least the Western European model of democracy as to permit the countries to successfully apply for membership in the EC. In addition, it was not clear whether the model was specific to its particular time‐frame and geographical focus, or whether it could be extended to explain more generally the features of transition.

Poland, Russia, China

We may contrast briefly the two different explanations of change along two dimensions. Transitology is primarily a political theory, but there is a twin process of marketization and democratization whose outcomes will include independent media. Elite continuity is primarily a sociological theory in which there is a process of marketization, but democratization and independent media are contingent and dependent. We may test the power of these theories by examining the evidence from various post‐communist states.

Comparative studies of the media in different countries face at least three major problems: establishing the validity of the chosen examples; limiting the scope of the comparison to allow due weight to distinctive national features; and the choice of valid indicators upon which to make the comparison. We will consider these one by one.

The countries selected for this comparison are Poland, Russia and China. The first case is relatively unexceptional: it is the largest of the eight former communist countries that have entered the EC. It is rated one of the highest in the classification of democratic completion discussed above and thus seems to be a case of more or less successful transition. Russia, again, can be easily justified. It was the core of the old USSR and is the largest and most powerful of the successor states. It is rated in a lower category of democratic completion than Poland. It is fairly easy to see how a fruitful comparison might be made between these two examples.

It is the choice of the third country, China, which is probably the most contentious; this is a society in which there has been no political transition. The Chinese Communist Party still holds a monopoly of political power and vigorously represses any movement that even appears to threaten it. China is, however, a society that has advanced a long way down the road to marketization, particularly, as we shall see, in the case of the mass media. In addition, there is strong evidence of a similar dynamic at work in this case, but it is one that produces a quite different outcome.

Although the countries had a common starting point in that they shared the main features of a “communist” system of economic, social and political organisation, there were, of course, very important differences. Although the ruling elites in all three countries claimed allegiance to Marx and Lenin, they differed significantly in their interpretations of what that allegiance signified: the differences were so substantial that the Chinese used to accuse the Russians of “the all‐round restoration of capitalism” and relations were so strained that on several occasions their respective military exchanged small‐arms fire across their common central Asian border. In both Russia and China, the regimes could make some nationalist claims to legitimacy, whereas in Poland the Communist Party was widely perceived as having been put in power by Russian tanks. Following directly from that, Poland saw by far the largest and most enduring opposition to communist rule, culminating in the mass movement led by Solidarnosc in 1980-81. On another dimension, Poland was, as a consequence of Nazi crimes, most horribly the Holocaust, an ethnically homogenous society. China has important national minorities, some of whom have aspirations that are politically sensitive. Today’s Russia was then embedded in the multi‐national USSR, as its dominant nationality. Pressures to autonomy and independence were a central feature of the demise of the old system and remain major problems up to the present. Again, although none of these countries was rich and urbanised in the way that the advanced societies of the West are, China was then a significantly more rural and, as a consequence, poorer country than Poland or Russia. Given these obvious differences, we would not expect to find a uniform process of change in all three countries, whatever theoretical model we chose, and any analysis must be sensitive to the fact that the observable differences need to be accounted for.

While giving due weight to these factors, we believe that it is still legitimate to make a comparison between the three cases since the similarities of starting point are so strong, particularly with regard to media systems. There are several dimensions upon which we might make comparisons, but the most obvious one is the extent to which the media carry out the sort of “public sphere” role that is essential to any theory of democratic polity. Following the hopes of the dissidents, we might ask to what extent press and broadcast media are able to report and comment freely upon the doings of the political and economic elites in the manner which, at their best, the BBC and the New York Times are able to do.

Contemporary discussions of comparative media systems are heavily indebted to Hallin and Mancini’s work, which was developed in order to consider the media systems of Western Europe and North America. With some reservation, this provides a useful starting point for considering how to operationalise our own geographically and historically distinct concerns. They identify four key dimensions of media systems along which they may be compared:

(l) The development of media markets, with particular emphasis on the strong or weak development of a mass circulation press; (2) political parallelism, that is the degree and nature of the links between the media and political parties or, more broadly, the extent to which the media system reflects the major political divisions in society; (3) the development of journalistic professionalism; and (4) the degree and nature of state intervention in the media system’ (Hallin & Mancini, 2004, p. 21).

Of these, three seem particularly useful. The issue of the development of a mass circulation press seems problematic even in their own account, and does not provide much insight for our purposes: press circulation has been subject to such rapid changes, in different directions, in all three of our cases, that it is difficult to see how it might be taken as a distinctive feature. Political parallelism, on the other hand, is a way of thinking about the extent and manner of the links between media and political forces that are central to our concerns. Journalistic professionalism, in the sense of journalists being able to act “autonomously”, free from direct intervention from outside the newsroom is again a valuable consideration in our three cases. The utility of considering state intervention is, we think, self‐evident.

In using all three of these categories, we are not attempting to apply them in exactly the same way, or with exactly the same content, as do Hallin and Mancini. On the contrary, we think there are significant ways in which their categories are, no doubt unconsciously, dependent upon a transitological conception of the media, but it makes sense, in the interests of developing a common body of knowledge, to follow them as far as is practicable in the very different environment that we wish to consider.


The official media in Poland were, for most of the communist period, very tightly controlled, but usually, there were also some independent media and independent discussion tolerated. Since the 1950s, the Catholic Church was able to publish its own newspapers, and according to Jakubowicz the opposition was able to have a public presence from the mid‐1970s (Jakubowicz, 1991). With the birth of Solidarnosc, party control over the official press and broadcasting was seriously challenged, and very radical ideas were put forward for democratising the media (Goban‐Klas, 1994; Jakubowicz, 1995). Martial law ended the open movement but, according to one estimate, 2,077 underground periodicals were produced during that period (Jakubowicz, 1991). As a consequence, the reformists inside the party were able to enter Round Table discussions with the less extreme opposition and reach an agreement on the transition that included allowing the opposition access to the mass media (Goban‐Klas, 1990).

The media system that emerged out of transition was marked by the survival in legal form of some of the former oppositional papers, notably Gazeta Wyborcza, and the controlled privatization of the existing press (Jakubowicz, 1995). The press which emerged was overwhelmingly “political” in orientation, despite being dependent upon the market for their survival; many new titles did not survive (Goban‐Klas, 1996). The result was that the press: “helps air diverse views and opinions, but usually of party elites, rather than their rank‐and‐file members or of groups in society in general” (Jakubowicz, 2003b, p. 237). Broadcasting, too, has been strongly marked by political control, particularly of the main regulatory body, the KRRiT. One recent detailed study found that “The composition of the KRRit has been systematically politicized, not only in the sense of who appoints its members but, more importantly, in the fact that the members have been more or less clearly affiliated to political parties” (Krajewski, 2005, p. 1144). This politicization has proved not to be a passing phase associated with the immediate post‐communist period: the 2005 incoming Law and Justice (PiS) led government has changed broadcasting law and imposed its own appointees to leading bodies (PISS, May 19, 2006).

In terms of three categories of comparison, the Polish media is characterised by a high degree of political parallelism, journalistic autonomy is low, and state (more properly, government) intervention is very high. The evidence from what is one of the more successfully democratized post‐communist countries does not show the evolution of an independent media. The media in Poland is certainly highly marketised and plural, and in that it marks a decisive break from the official media of the communist era, but it remains subordinated to elite groups rather than developing a public service orientation.


While there was certainly discontent and dissidence in the USSR, this was not on the scale of Poland and the initiative for social change appears to have emerged from inside the party (Ryabov, 2004; White, Gill, & Slyder, 1993). This led to a sharp division between the reformers (around Yeltsin) and the conservatives (around Ligachev), with Gorbachev attempting to balance in between (Gibbs, 1999). The media were able to take advantage of this opening to act more independently, and many observers see this as the “golden age” of the media, who could pursue self‐determined journalistic objectives while still enjoying the economic security provided by subsidies (Hagstrom 2000; Ryabov 2004).

As the political crisis deepened after 1990, journalists began to take over their papers and the failed coup of 1991, which inaugurated the “Second Russian Revolution” and led to the end of the USSR, confirmed that process. The newly‐liberated press, however, faced serious difficulties. Politically, it owed its position to the Yeltsin victory and thus found itself taking a partisan stance in his support. Economically, costs rose sharply while circulation dropped away very quickly and advertising revenues did not provide adequate compensation. The press faced the real prospect of bankruptcy and one after another the independent newspapers were bought up by the new oligarchs, who used the papers to promote their own interests (Belin, 2002a; Fadin, 2002; Zassoursky, 1999). In broadcasting, the main state stations fell into the hands of different sections of the political elite and when private broadcasting began it was dependent upon the same group of oligarchs as controlled the press. NTV, owned by the oligarch Gusinsky, did engage in some independent reporting, notably of the first Chechen War, but in the longer term the convergence of interests between the oligarchs and the Kremlin meant that the 1996 presidential election saw an orchestrated campaign overwhelmingly in favour of Yeltsin.

In the first five years after communism, Russian media changed markedly, but the new‐found diversity did not necessarily reflect a greater degree of public service: “what differentiates this situation from the previous Soviet regime is that various power groups compete in their struggle for resources, thus providing some pluralism of interpretations that sometimes grows into fierce ‘information wars’” (Koltsova, 2001, pp. 322-333). To some observers, this seemed a retreat from the last years of communism, since the media’s democratizing role had narrowed to that of supporting Yeltsin and the interests of their owners (Ryabov, 2004).

The period after Yelsin’s re‐election in 1996 saw a resurrection of the power of the state, certainly with respect to the oligarchs whose fortunes had been established through favourable deals with the weakened state of the previous period. As the state moved to regain its dominant position, it also attempted to re‐assert its own heavily nationalist definition of the public interest against the private interests of big business. Yeltsin and his chosen successor Putin launched a campaign aimed at bringing the media, and in particular television, back under their own close control (Belin, 2002b; Lipman & McFaul, 2005). The owners of the main national media are very closely allied with the Kremlin. One consequence is that there has been relatively little critical reporting of the Second Chechen War, despite its protracted horrors.

The Russian case thus represents, in much more exaggerated form, the same basic tendencies that are present in Poland. The media are now much more plural in ownership and no longer depend on subsidy from the state. They are, however, very clearly in the hands of different sections of the elite, who use their control of media outlets to bargain with each other over the disposal of material assets and political power. They demonstrate a very high degree of political parallelism, low journalistic autonomy, and strong state intervention. Very far from representing the interests of the public, they are entirely beholden to the state and its wealthy allies, and they are used as political instruments to sustain the power of that bloc.


The obvious distinctive feature of China is that the Communist Party, with around 70 million members, is in rude health and continues to enjoy a monopoly of power. At the same time, there has been a very rapid and highly successful move in the direction of the market economy, with notable progress in the case of the media, both press and television. The Party, through the Central Propaganda Department, and its local branches at all levels, continues to control the content of the mass media in considerable detail (Brady, 2006). At the same time, as all serious observers would agree, the overwhelming majority of the Chinese media have become increasingly market oriented, indeed market dependent (see, for example, Lee, Zhou, & Huang, 2006; Polumbaum, 1994; Wu, 2000; Zhao, 1998).

The route to this state of affairs dates from the initial opening of the economy to elements of the markets in 1978. The social changes that this development entailed generated a lively intellectual ferment, particularly amongst journalists, and the reformists in the party encouraged more critical and investigative reporting (Pei, 1994; Polumbaum, 1990). This period is another one of those “golden ages” in which journalists enjoyed increasing political freedom while retaining economic security, and in which semi‐independent newspapers like the World Economic Herald were founded (Hsiao & Yang, 1990). This ferment culminated in the Tiananmen Square events of 1989. The student‐originated demonstrations quickly pulled in other sections of society, including many journalists whose slogans included specific demands for press freedom (Gittings, 2006; Goldman, 1994). China’s 1989 democratic movement however, unlike Poland’s, was crushed: the hardliners won the internal party struggle and used force to clear the square. The dissident journalists were fired and the semi‐independent papers were closed down (Goldman, 1994).

The deaths, arrests and beatings did succeed in silencing the internal opposition, but they did not end the process of marketization. Instead, there was a pause up to 1992 and then the process was renewed at an even faster pace. As the economy has grown, the Chinese media have expanded to cater to a vast range of different tastes in much the same way as any other media driven by advertising and circulation revenues. Alongside domestic and imported entertainment shows, there is a well‐documented tradition of investigative reporting that survived the crackdown in 1989. This reporting is not merely tolerated by the Party, albeit within carefully defined limits, but actively encouraged by it: “In contrast to Western media portrayals of maverick Chinese journalists challenging the Party line from below and from the outside by discussing hot social issues and official corruption, the most significant step towards the rise of watchdog journalism was initiated at the top of the Party’s propaganda hierarchy” (Zhao, 2004, p. 55).

The question of professional orientation amongst Chinese journalists is a hotly contested topic. At one pole there are those who see Chinese journalists as influenced by western journalistic examples while attempting to find ways to reach an accommodation between their professional desires and the concrete reality of their situation. Younger journalists in particular “interact with the commandist institution and ‘negotiate’ the boundary of the official ideology by broadening the sources of symbolic resources and by diversifying social practices within the official ideology” (Pan, 2000, p. 75). On the other hand, there are researchers who argue that the Party has managed to reach an accommodation with journalists so that as they “became economically privileged in the 1990s, they became increasingly apolitical and contented with the status quo” (Lee, He, & Huang, 2006, p. 60). In between a position that recognises that while journalists in the 1990s and 2000s were among the beneficiaries of increasing wealth, and that this had led many of them to confront, there remain many who are prepared to risk punishment in order to carry out investigative reporting (Zhao, 2004). This is particularly likely if the reports go beyond criticising individual abuses and expose the weaknesses of the system (Zhao, 2005). What none of these authors claim, however, is that Chinese journalists are able to exercise professional autonomy: the arguments are over the degree to which journalists are both willing and able to negotiate fleeting spaces for autonomous action that correspond to a professional orientation.

The Chinese case, while displaying clear differences, thus has much more in common with the Polish and Russian cases than might strike the casual observer. Again, we find a pattern of political parallelism, although in this case there is only one pole of legal political life upon which all media are dependent. We find an absence of journalistic autonomy and strong state intervention in the media.

These three examples clearly bear some resemblance to Hallin and Mancini’s “polarised political model” or what Splichal, extending earlier work by Mancini, had a decade before identified as the “Italian” model of media (Splichal, 1994). Despite the different trajectories, and most notably the fact that the Communist Party remains in power in China, there are some surprising parallels between the developments of the media in the three countries.

Explaining the Changes

The evidence confirms the increasing difficulties that are encountered in using the model of transitology to account for current development. In particular, the claim that there are two closely related developments—democratization and marketization—cannot be sustained. In all three cases there has been a strong marketization, and this may in fact have gone further in China than in the other two cases, and in Russia there has been something of a retreat towards state media. On the other hand, this has not correlated with any clear pattern of democratization. Even in the best case, Poland, the media remain intensely politicized and partisan, and there is little pretence at public service. In Russia, the media is dependent either upon the political elite or upon its closest business associates and they use this control for their own factional purposes. In China, the party retains ideological control of the media and continues to use it for its own dictatorial ends. It is thus difficult to sustain any of the three main claims of transitology:

1. There is no clear and unequivocal evidence of “progress towards democracy”. If anything, the Chinese case demonstrates how enduring dictatorial regimes can be even in the face of rapid social change, and the Russian case suggests that there are circumstances in which the increased democratic role of the media can be halted or even reversed.
2. There is no clear and unequivocal evidence of “progress towards market reform”. There has certainly been a great deal of movement in this direction in China, but in both other cases large sections of the mass media do not follow market logic in any serious sense. Again, the Russian case suggests that this process is a reversible one.
3. There is no evidence whatsoever of any correlation between marketization and democratization, at least with regard to the mass media. The Chinese case demonstrates that one can have rapid marketization, including the floating of important parts of the media system on the stock market, without having any relaxation of authoritarian control. The evidence, indeed, is that in the last couple of years, alongside a continuation of marketization, there has been an increase in political control.

To note these realities is not to claim that in any case either the societies under review or their media system have reached any stable and enduring conclusion to the process of change. On the contrary, there is every sign that in all three cases there remain powerful, if contingent factors that could transform the situation. Particularly noteworthy in this respect is the evidence of mass discontent in China, particularly in the countryside and among laid‐off workers, who regularly and frequently break out into demonstrations and rioting. According to one report, “demonstrations of discontent are on the rise. In 2004, the Public Security Bureau reported that the number of ‘mass incidents’ had risen to 74,000. In 2005, the number jumped another 13%” (Kwong, 2006; Liu, 2005). Similar upheavals are naturally also possible in the other two cases, although the new regimes there have been remarkably fortunate in avoiding mass opposition from the victims of market reform (Crowley, 2001; Ost, 2001).

The elite continuity model works very much better to explain some but not all of the changes in these three cases. The notable failure is in the claim of the necessity of a political revolution to break the power of the Communist Party. The case of China conclusively demonstrates that it is possible to move from state‐based property to privately held property while the Communist Party continues to hold a monopoly of political power. The other (partial) failure lies in the claim that it would be the political elite who influenced the media in this process of change. While that hypothesis is clearly supported by the Chinese case, it is contradicted by the Russian case. While it is true that the economic and political elite are very closely linked in the Russian case, it is clear that in any power struggle between the two it is the political elite that is triumphant, but they are clearly distinct groups. We are therefore obliged to abandon the hypothesis that a political revolution is essential to the ending of communist regimes, and to modify the hypothesis of the influence of the purely political elite to allow for the influence of both political and economic elites. The latter can be understood as being characteristic of the initial phase of transition, when state property must be converted into private property. This can only be carried out with consent, either through positive legitimation or negative indifference of the state machine and thus of the political elite who control it. As the private ownership of what was previously state property becomes naturalised in the hands of the economic elite, so that group develops an increasing degree of independence from the political elite and their interests, as articulated through the mass media, can come to diverge and even clash.

The group of hypotheses that deal with continuity have, in general, been confirmed. There is clearly strong institutional continuity in the media systems in all three cases. The evidence now available also demonstrates not only was there considerable continuity amongst the media personnel in all three cases but at the same time there was a high degree of elite continuity throughout the societies, demonstrating a shift from political to economic power. Empirical studies in Europe have as their main finding a high degree of elite continuity (Higley, Kulberg, & Pakulski, 2002). In the case of Poland, a study based on data from 1999 found that “the present elite has its roots in the former system” (Wasilewski, 2000, p. 214). The degree of continuity is much more marked in the business than in the political elite, and the new elite were mostly drawn from the second rank of the old nomenklatura, but the degree of continuity is marked in all spheres. In the case of Russia, the degree of continuity was even higher than in Eastern Europe (Steen, 2003). By the mid‐1990s, “The distribution of power … appears to have been completed and with the “Second Russian Revolution” has come to an end. It was a revolution in which the younger generation of the nomenklatura ousted its older rivals. In effect, it was a bourgeois revolution, in that it led to a change in the socio‐political system in the direction of private property and political pluralism” (Kryshtanovskaya & White, 1998, p. 98). In China, too, the evidence is that Party officials have systematically used their power to enrich themselves, their friends and their families (Greenfield & Leong, 1997; Ho, Bowles, & Dong, 2003; Lau 1999). According to one survey, 30% of private entrepreneurs were party members (as opposed to around 5% of the population as a whole) and “roughly half the privatised firms may have ended up in the control of CCP members” (Pei, 2006, pp. 93-94). Liu reports that:

A research report entitled “The Present Economic Situation of All Classes of Society” was recently produced jointly by the Central Research Office, State Council Research Office and Chinese Social Sciences Academy. The version for internal circulation reveals that at present China have 5 million people with assets of 10 million Yuan or more. Of these, 20,000 people have assets of at least 100 million Yuan. Among those with assets of at least 10 million Yuan, the report’s survey found that more than 90% were from the elite clans of the Chinese Communist Party. Only 5.5% were rich by virtue of being related to persons or operating businesses outside of China and only 4.5% became rich from their own efforts. According to scholars who specialize in researching the highest levels of government, more than 200 “Princelings” currently hold positions in the upper levels of the government (Liu, 2003, p. 75).

Overall, in all three cases, there is strong evidence not only that the institutions of social power survived the different processes of change but that the personnel who inhabited them, notably the institutions of economic power, also remained remarkably similar.

One criticism that might legitimately be levelled at the continuity thesis should be noted here. While the thesis is correct in emphasising continuity both of institutions and of elites, it did not give due recognition to the degree to which there was also renewal. It is obvious from the figures above that the new elites, while heavily drawn from the old nomenklatura, also involve new forces who were previously outside of the circles of social power. Similarly, we can point to new institutions—Gazeta Wyborcza for example, or the metropolitan dailies in China—that have developed as a result of the process of transition. What remains unknown, at least for the time being, are the origins and trajectories of these newcomers. In some cases, they will certainly be relatives, friends and business associates of the old elite, but a complete picture would certainly reveal other interesting dynamics of the process of transition.

The hypothesis that democratization was only a contingent element in this process has, rather unfortunately, been confirmed. Even if we accept that Russia would meet the formal “minimalist” definitions of democracy beloved of transitologists, this is certainly not the case with China. The social nature of transition, the shift from state control of productive property to private control of productive property, and the consequent direct introduction of market relations into the internal working of the economy are clearly parts of a political process in which the state sets the rules for privatization (or neglects to notice wild privatization—a.k.a. theft). What is not the case, however, is that this requires the formal political processes that are entailed in democratic government: in fact they can be achieved by more or less informal bargaining process. In China, these have been conducted entirely under the auspices of the Communist Party, and in Russia they took place out of public view in the chaotic years around 1991. Poland, and by extension other Eastern European countries, emerges not as the normal pattern of post‐communism but as one particularly privileged variant of a process that can, and often does, take darker forms.


The attempt to test the relative explanatory power of transitology and the continuity thesis with regard to post communist societies demonstrates the superiority of the latter. It is possible to extend its range to cover both a broader group of countries and a longer time span than were considered in the original formulations, and it appears to be predominantly successful in explaining important features of transition. It offers a way of understanding change in general, and change in the media in particular, which allows for the range of observable outcomes and provides an explanation as to why they have such strongly marked common features. To the extent that it must be modified to account for the evidence, it is in a direction that strengthens its explanatory power: the fact that the existence of a revolutionary end to communist power and the consequent installation of democratic procedures are not a necessary element in the transitional process gives greater weight to the dimension of continuity. In contrast, the transitology model provides very little purchase on the cases under review and fails particularly miserably in its assertion that there is a necessary link between democratization and marketization.

The theory of elite continuity thus seems right for extension. So far it has only been applied to cases originating in communism, but these are far from being the only examples of transition that require analysis. Indeed, as we saw, transitology was born from the consideration of quite different cases (notably in Southern Europe and Latin America) and it is logical to examine whether elite continuity theory can successfully challenge transitology on its own ground, so to speak, or whether the processes are so distinct as to require different theoretical frameworks in order to explain them. At first glance, it is likely that in these cases the fact that there already was a separation of political and economic power before the fall of the dictatorships (i.e. they were, in the jargon of transitology, authoritarian rather than totalitarian regimes) means that evidence of elite continuity in the economic and social sphere would be more prominent than in the cases we have considered here.

Finally, the success of the theory of elite continuity raises a very general question of social theory. The majority of accounts, from Brzezinski on the right to Mandel on the left, have held that communism and capitalism are fundamentally antagonistic social systems with nothing significant in common. One might expect to find within a stable, democratic capitalist society, the USA for example, that there would be considerable elite continuity over time, since there is no question of systemic change. But if transition means the shift between different systems, then findings of elite continuity should be puzzling, as indeed many commentators have found it: “To the surprise of most observers, the collapse of communist rule involved no comprehensive turnover of elites. The founding of democratic regimes has instead been accompanied by a marked continuity in elite composition” (Higley, Kullberg, & Pakluski, 2002, p. 35).

If, as we have seen, the transition from one to another can be managed, not without great misery and too many deaths, but without fundamental social turmoil, then we have to ask whether the theorists who stressed the fundamental incompatibility between communism and capitalism were in fact correct. Obviously, the systems have differences, but if the main common feature of the transition is that the new elite is derived so substantially from the old elite, then to what extent can it be maintained that the systems are antagonistic? If the communist editor or producer can so easily become the capitalist editor or producer, if the same stations and the same papers can continue to thrive under both regimes, to what extent are we dealing with fundamentally different forms of society? If, as it transpires, we do not need to hypothesise a revolution for one system to be transformed into the other, perhaps it might be better to consider their similarities rather than their differences. Answering these questions is far beyond the scope of this article, but they go to the root of our understanding of the last century and the prospects for this century. Within our narrower field of concern with the media, they strongly suggest that a great deal of the debate over the relative merits of state and market in the provision of democratic information were, not so much mistaken, but certainly over‐inflated. The search for a media system that does not, in one way or another, answer to the elites in society demands a different starting point.