One Disaster, Three Institutional Responses: Legitimation crisis and competing discourses in China

Stephanie Na Liu*, Tsan-Kuo Chang

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

3 Scopus citations


Public discourses over the same social crisis—the most deadly train crash in recent times in China, in July 2011—show three divergent but interactive packages across the government, the media, and online public opinion. The government dominated public discourse and framed the crash as an intra-institutional flaw. The media sought to legitimize the official rhetoric by focusing on victim compensation, official concern, and rescue. Online public opinion, however, contested both official rhetoric and media discourse, and highlighted the train crash as terrible malfeasances of the government. Constructed as a result of the state legitimation crisis, the three perspectives are entangled in a tense “dominator–mediator–challenger” relationship. However, the seemingly diversified opinions and conflicting ideas have been maintained within the sphere of legitimate controversy that does not necessarily undermine state legitimacy. The coercive state’s control and the mimetic organizational responses to crisis direct social actors to behave similarly and form institutional isomorphism. The dominance of political power over social power is thus manifest in the process of discursive competition and interaction. The discursive framework developed in this study illuminates similar crisis events in Asia and in Western democracies where social trust in government and in media is relatively low.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)392-414
Number of pages23
JournalJournalism Studies
Issue number3
StatePublished - 17 Feb 2018


  • Wenzhou train crash
  • discursive package
  • institutional theory
  • legitimation crisis
  • online public opinion
  • social transcript
  • symbolic contest

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