Media Lag: The TV Revolution in Asia

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

I’ve traveled to Asia many times over the past decade, and if everything works flawlessly, the trip takes roughly 24 hours door-to-door from my home in Madison to a hotel room on the other side of the world. Then it usually takes another 72 hours before my body begins to adjust to the rhythms of Asia. In the semi-hallucinogenic haze of jet lag, one becomes acutely aware that America and Iraq figure little in the daily calculations of citizens in this part of the world. President Bush’s crusade against terrorism pales by comparison to more pressing concerns regarding democracy in East Asia, as citizens in both Hong Kong and Taiwan struggle for political autonomy and rights of free expression. Compared to Bush’s war on terrorism, these battles are just as epic in proportion and may in the long run be equally significant in their implications for the rest of the world.

Little of this registers in American media, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers poured into the streets of this city on four occasions over the past sixteen months demanding democratic reforms that had been promised them during the 1997 handover. Indeed, the largest demonstration drew more than half a million people, most of them educated middle class citizens who are usually touted as the very backbone of this city’s economic success. Recent elections likewise drew a record turnout, despite electoral ground rules that were heavily skewed to benefit Beijing loyalists. Resisting intense pressure from the mainland leadership, almost two-thirds of all votes were cast for democracy candidates, including a Yippiesque pundit known as “Long Hair” who, clad in a Che Guevara tee-shirt, refused to shake hands with the territory’s Chief Executive, choosing instead to recite a protest poem at their first official meeting.

Political passions in Taiwan likewise roil along at a fever pitch as the island emerges from a tumultuous presidential campaign last spring and heads into crucial legislative elections before the end of the year. Political sparring most centrally revolves around the island’s continuing assertion of independence in the face of more than a decade of pressure from Beijing to “reintegrate” with the motherland. As citizens of the Chinese world’s first and only democratic society, most Taiwanese seem willing to risk full-scale attack from the PRC rather than surrender hard-won rights of free expression. In fact, opinion polls show that support for independence has grown significantly over the past five years despite the volatile state of cross-straits relations.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, PRC politics are undergoing significant transformation due to recent maneuvering within the Communist Party prompting the unexpected departure of Jiang Zeming. This has consolidated the influence of a reform faction that is pushing for more institutional transparency and social welfare spending in a society predominantly characterized by crony capitalism and government corruption. Depending on whom one listens to, China is either teetering on the brink of economic greatness or economic ruin. It is at once the most powerful economy in Asia and perhaps the most fragile, with some experts estimating that more than a hundred million of its citizens have taken to the road in search of work, while hundreds of thousands of others have stayed at home to organize demonstrations for economic equity and social justice. Sit-ins, marches, and militant clashes with authorities are now regular (though underreported) occurrences, as government officials scramble to respond to the rising tide of protests.

Such a world is a long way from the “end of history” that Francis Fukuyama and others anticipated only a decade ago. At the time, it was suggested that the most momentous decisions in the post-Cold War world would revolve around a set of rather mundane choices: Coke or Pepsi? Sony or Panasonic? MTV or ESPN? Media metaphors flowed easily then. Satellite TV and the dawning of the Worldwide Web seemed to augur a collapsing of boundaries and the ultimate triumph of consumer capitalism, leading to an era of global peace and prosperity. Implicit in such speculation were presumptions of the development paradigm that had been so thoroughly discredited by scholarly criticism and practical application only four decades ago. Yet in spite of substantial evidence to the contrary, US leaders during the 1980s and1990s contended that that trade liberalization, new technologies, and Western expertise would unleash the productive power of lesser-developed nations. They likewise resurrected the “end of ideology” as the “end of history,” which played as a companion theme to the “weightless economy” and the “global communication grid.”

Of course the worm turns and now, in the new millennium, cultural and economic difference again seem as intractable as jet lag, as global communication technologies seem to be engendering a disjunctive set of social relations that one might refer to as media lag. That is, rather than fostering spontaneous development, television exposure seems to be exacerbating tensions between global imagery and local experience. So for example, in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, it is commonly suggested by scholars, journalists, and government officials that the recent diffusion of television throughout the Middle East has fueled a wave of resentments regarding disparities within the region, as well as between lifestyles East and West. Yet it’s important to note that this phenomenon can also be found in societies to the north, south, and east of Baghdad.

Indeed, television spread throughout Asia at a remarkable pace during the 1990s, adding an estimated two billion new viewers to the global audience. In China alone TV access has risen from virtually zero to some 90% of the population over the past twenty years. A medium that was originally intended to foster economic development, unify the country, and strengthen the bridge between the party and the people, has become a source of significant anxiety among leaders in Beijing, engendering debates over “rising expectations” and subsequent social conflict. A similar trajectory of rapid adoption has taken place in India and the Middle East where policy makers also fret that the rapid diffusion of television exerts intense pressure to deliver the fruits of economic and social development. Just as jet lag challenges one’s physical and mental capacities, so too does rapid diffusion seem to challenge the institutional capacities of Asian societies. In this state of disjuncture, disparities of wealth seem to take on a vivid significance in the lives of viewers. Rather than fostering aspirations for modernization and “development” (a desire to “catch up”), television makes uneven development fantastically apparent to TV’s newest audiences. Put another way, if one looks carefully at a map of the world’s proven oil reserves, it is glaringly obvious that resources in the Middle East dwarf the combined reserves of the rest of the world. Likewise, if one examines the geographic distribution of the world’s manufacturing workforce as a function of labor cost, one quickly is alerted to the significance of places like Guangdong province in China or Andra Pradesh in India. Now compare these global maps of resource distribution to maps of resource consumption, energy use, and per capita income. The disparities are stunning but nevertheless commonly pass without critical comment in the mainstream media. Yet even though television rarely acknowledges these disparities at an explicit level, it prismatically refracts them through the disjunctive delivery of fantasy images of consumption to the shantytowns and cramped quarters of the world’s working poor. Moreover, television’s fixation on female consumerism offers up relentless images of feminine agency that are commonly embraced by young women who leave behind the drudgery of familial servitude for a chance to migrate to the workshops of transnational capital. Social tensions therefore multiply beyond class issues to controversies over gender relations and “family values,” as well. Media lag like jet lag is therefore commonly experienced as intensified sensitivity to difference and change, and regardless of how one responds, all are exposed to social disparities and tensions that seem enduring despite television’s promises to the contrary.

It’s noteworthy then that the “end of ideology” coincided with the rise of development communications during the 1950s and that the “end of history” augured a mistaken revival of faith in the development paradigm since the 1990s. Yet we have neither transcended ideology nor history. The former remains important for its ability to reveal that which is concealed by the everyday operations of power, while the dialectics of history remind us that dramatic disparities of wealth inevitably invite revolutionary responses. It is therefore worth paying attention to the operations of both ideology and history as we reflect upon the recent growth of television viewing around the world. For in one sense, media lag invites ideological awareness despite (or perhaps because of) television’s fixation on abundance and consumerism. In another sense, media lag is an historical phenomenon, for the transformations that accompany new media often take time to register in social relations. Consequently, our preoccupation with broadband Internet and other digital technologies may be obscuring the fact that for much of the world the television revolution is only beginning.

Links of Interest
BBC on Asia-Pacific News
Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”
Global Television

Please feel free to comment.


  • That the rapid spread of television access in Asia has caused media lag is both valid and important to consider. Given the current climate in Asia, as well as the Middle East, all causal factors should be brought into consideration. Is it simply a matter of time before development evens out and “catches up” to the images of television, or will the effects of media lag cause more pronounced social and political upheavals to occur before that can take place?

  • Disjuncture and nostalgia

    I agree with Curtin’s assertion that media lag plays an important role in highlighting ideological struggles and historical disparities among nations and communities, which in turn calls attention precisely to the very continuation of ideology and history suggested, at different moments, to be at an end. Given the current fervor surrounding the supposed ‘end of the nation-state’, I wonder if we have once again gotten ahead of ourselves? Television is a strange, though not unique, harbinger of the various disjunctural scapes that Appadurai identifies, and is thus a site of continued contention and strange bedfellows. Take, for example, the Russian immigration to Israel in the 1990s. Politically strong, economically weak, and ideologically ambivalent about the merits of ‘Israeliness’ versus the ‘Russian’ culture they identified with, television became a battle ground over the boundaries of national belonging. Technoscapes allowed for the proliferation (via satellite) of mediascapes (primarily movies available on ORT, a Russian cable station targetting diasporic FSU communities) that, in turn, beamed conflicting ideoscapes into the homes of Russian immigrants (now members of a growing ethnoscape). Satellite television allowed the Russian community to hold onto their ‘Russianness’ through images and sounds that constantly reconstructed an imagined homeland, bereft of anti-Semitism and economic hardship, which sold nostalgia to a community that felt marginalized in Israel, while also using that opportunity to hawk Israeli products and political parties via ad time bought by Israeli merchants and politicians seeking to integrate this community into the larger economic and political fabric of the nation-state (even as Russian immigrants used TV to resist this integration). My point is twofold. First, in a (developed and developing) world of increasingly messy associations, where television contributes to growing awareness of differences and inequalities for some, as well as paves the way for new forms of belonging for others (and, I suspect, both, simultaneously, for most), context is key. Second, just as media lag contributes to the continued (though changing) roles of ideology and historical consciousness, rather than to their dissolution, so too does television play a role in the continued (yet continually redefined) conceptualization of the nation-state, whose resistive, malleable, and imagined attributes are simultaneously assured and called into question, and most definitely complicated by the medium.

  • Couch potatoes

    I think it’s interesting to think about the ways in which TV highlights social and economic difference and the effects of this highlighting on audiences. I feel there is a notion in the U.S. that TV creates false hopes for economic success, but mainly what folks argue is that what TV does is provide false comfort, an escape into a beautiful, wealthy world. So does the “intensified sensitivity” to difference wear off after some time? Does it have an impact on people’s real lives before it wears off? Has it really worn off in areas that have been media saturated for decades? Or is this simply an argument made to attempt to contain the awareness and the impact it might have?

  • Closing the gap

    I think it is possible that ‘media lag’ will dissipate over time, that (keeping with the jet lag metaphor) people will adjust and become acclimated to the new media environment. My hunch is that the social strife that comes from the sudden awareness of gross inequality comes from the initial shock of it. This could change in the future, b/c A) the shock will wear off, and B) the gaps will begin to close, not b/c of outmoded ideas of ‘development’, but b/c of more pressing political/economic matters, like outsourcing and terrorism.

    I don’t think disparities of wealth invite socio-economic change (either gradual or abrupt) as much as AWARENESS of such disparities. The extreme negative correlation between resources and consumption may be something that was only allowed to exist when citizens of the oil-rich and labor-rich countries weren’t aware of the disparity. Now that its plastered all over TV, work is being outsourced to China/India and we’re left with two options re: the Mid-East – be “held hostage” by oil-rich nations or develop an alternative to oil (I think both are simultaneously happening). China (or at least segments of their population) is catching up to us in consumption. While revolution is one possibility, outsourcing, alternative fuels (or at the very least increased efficiency) and a more culturally sensitive administration seem like a more realistic way of mitigating the pernicious effects of the sudden awareness of extreme global inequality.

  • China and the boom-bust cycle

    I couldn’t help thinking about Joe Studwell’s book THE CHINA DREAM in reading this…. China has been viewed as this investor’s paradise at various points in history, prompting massive speculation from overseas interests, only to be followed by massive economic losses for all involved. In thinking about China’s recent television saturation, I’m wondering how soon foreign media companies will be ponying up, in great number, for a share…. and if the results will be similar…..

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