Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


The Diffusion of the Concept of Public Figure in China: Exploring the Limits of Right to Reputation


Political Science Department


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Social and Behavioral Sciences


This paper considers the diffusion of the legal concept of public figure in Chinese right to reputation law. Public figure developed in the US context as an extension of New York Times v. Sullivan from public officials to public figures. In libel suits brought by public officials and public figures, the US Supreme Court casts the balance strongly in favor of freedom of expression by requiring that plaintiffs show that the media acted with actual malice. The Court has recognized the intrinsic value of freedom of expression as well as the fact that public figures have greater power and greater access to the media than private figures. As the idea of public figure diffused into China, several local courts adopted this concept in their rulings to define the limits of the right to reputation. Due to the power of public officials in China, the right to reputation can be used to silence critics. Questions of equality arise with respect to the actual power of the parties as well as whether public figures should be expected to be more tolerant of public criticism, even when it could harm reputation. This paper examines the diffusion of public figure as a response to the development of the right to reputation in the broad context of citizenship construction, a process that started in China in the late 1970s. By investigating the channels, levels, and agents of diffusion, the paper demonstrates that the concept of public figure has been accepted locally but not nationally for both institutional and ideational reasons. Institutionally judges find themselves in a vulnerable position as they apply the concept to cases involving public officials. Ideationally, the concept of public figure calls for sufficient justification that fits the current legal thinking of the recipient country. Right to reputation law in China has been exercised to stifle dissenting and critical voices, an example of the pathos of law. Chinese academics, lawyers and judges have explored using the concept of public figure to balance right to reputation. As we explore the diffusion of the concept of public figure, we consider how the development of this promising concept has been stunted by national-level institutions.

Conference Name

Law and Society Association Annual Conference

Conference Location


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