Behind the great firewall of China

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SONIKA GUPTA

It is evident that the media environment in China is getting more hostile to journalistic reporting and moving more in line with its government-approved commercial and propaganda role.

Prompted by scandals, the Chinese government recently issued a set of instructions to the news media highlighting unethical media practices of bribery, fake news, sensationalism and what the government calls “rumour mongering.” The international media highlighted these instructions as a further tightening of China’s authoritarian media control policy. Actually, none of these instructions is new. Many of these, like the June 18 circular issued by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), banning journalists from publishing “critical” news without getting it cleared first with their higher authorities, is merely a restatement of China’s long-standing media control policy. While the recent instructions are ostensibly in response to a string of scandals in the Chinese media, they are a part of President Xi Jinping’s broader media reform policy, outlined during the Third Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held last year.

Information controlThe focus of this effort is to achieve a “systematic release of news,” a euphemism for information control. The Third Plenum report identified the rapid development of microblogs or weibos and “WeChat” along with other forms of social media as a national security problem and recommended “public opinion channelling to ensure order in online communications” as the preferred strategy to tackle this challenge. This was followed by a series of measures that either strengthened existing guidelines or introduced new instructions for the news media. This includes the setting up of a central Internet security and informatisation leading group led by Mr. Xi, with Premier Li Keqiang and Liu Yunshan, Politburo Standing Committee members, as deputy heads. One of the stated tasks of the committee is to protect China from cyber warfare, with the government claiming that there were 9,00,000 cases of hacking attacks on Chinese servers last November. However, the committee also concerns itself with building a “more organised and honest online community” in accordance with state laws.

Since the “reform” of the media in the 1980s, the Chinese media control policy has unequivocally been one of the Party guiding the media. To be fair to the CCP, it has never even pretended to be so otherwise. “Guidance of public opinion” has been a stated policy that has accommodated the demands of a commercial media with political propaganda. Media reforms of the 1980s specifically restructured the financial structure of the media industry, but not the political role of the media. They cut state subsidies to media outlets and gradually weaned away state funding to create self-sustaining commercial entities. Through the 1990s and the last decade, rapid media commercialisation has led to an immense pluralisation of media content, prompting some analysts to suggest a causal link between political changes and the changing mediascape in China.

However, the hierarchical institutional relationship between the Party and media organisations has never been tampered with and has in fact seen a strengthening in the past two years, with greater government oversight of the media. At all media companies, including the press, radio, television and the Internet, editorial policy at all levels must conform with the directions issued by the General Propaganda Department. This applies, without exception, to all publicly available content on the Mainland. Relatively speaking, the Hong Kong Press, given its unique status within the Chinese “one-country-two-systems” arrangement, enjoys greater freedom. However, this is coming under severe stress given the resolve of the Xi Jinping government to systematise all news release.

Impact of social mediaMore significantly, the political relationship between the government and the media has been facing increasing stress with the advent of the Internet and, specifically, of the exploding social media in China. Pre-publication censorship, effected largely through editorial controls, has begun to fray in the face of an active social media sphere, that though subject to the same censorship as the news media is harder to control. The first impact of social media was to challenge the monopoly on news releases, as was witnessed during the Wenzhou train crash in 2011 where passengers and their loved ones began tweeting updates about the rescue and emergency services as the operation was on. Picking up on this, the train crash was widely covered in the state as well as commercial media. It is arguable that much of this information might not have made it into the public domain even five years ago. It is undeniable that social media has changed the rules in this regard. The most visible example of this is the successful flagging of natural disasters, mining accidents and environmental issues by Chinese netizens, forcing the authorities to respond. Much has been written about the “surround and watch campaigns” in which netizens have tweeted live accounts of protests or other events before the authorities began to clamp down. Some of the more successful of these relate to local level corruption scandals within the government or the Party. Official Internet statistics for 2011 noted that 48.7 per cent of Chinese netizens use microblogs and these have become a major source of news for netizens.

Cross-regional reportingIt was argued that the game began to swing in favour of netizens as opposed to the government’s ability to control the spread of information. In fact, before the explosion of social media on the scene, Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times correspondent, had in 2005 predicted that the Chinese Communist Party was facing “death by a thousand blogs.” However, the evidence on the ground suggests the opposite. Since the Xi Jinping government took over, there is greater control over social and news media, facilitated by the media’s commercial interests that need a stable policy environment in which to operate. This is a dangerous liaison, offsetting the gains of technology for the users in this unfair fight. Over the past two years, given the phenomenal rise in the number of social media users and its impact on the news media, China’s media control policy is being reassembled to tackle the challenges being posed by new technology. Even before the leadership transition was effected, in 2009 — feeling the impact of Internet-facilitated information diffusion — the CCP announced a ban on inter-region reporting for the Chinese news media. This meant that provincial media outlets could not report on local government issues in other parts of the country except their own. This essentially was aimed at restricting the spread of politically undesirable content even if it did get published; a sort of post-hocdamage control censorship, if you will. Chinese local media operates in a space between commercial interests often owned by Party cadres and government officials who pressure the media to conform to positive coverage of the government. For example, the Southern Weekly or the Southern Weekend, a very popular Guangzhou-based paper pursuing investigative journalism, has built its reputation on following matters all over the country while not treading on local toes. The 2009 directive further narrowed the window for real news while conforming to the demands of local media and Party bosses to toe the Party’s line. While cross-regional reporting has continued despite the directive, the political costs of such action has gone up with fewer papers wanting to risk the ire of the authorities.

As reported by the Nieman Reports, the Propaganda Directives issued in 2011 included varied control on news media from presenting necessarily positive reports about the annual spring festival holiday, to not covering any news about the household registration or hukou system that dealt with the transferring of registrations or contracted land deals, to banning the use of the term “civil society.” These directives are, of course, periodically updated and usually address what the Party calls breaches in information security.

This reassembling of censorship continues, with a new directive in July banning Chinese journalists from writing for overseas media. This particular directive states that “journalists should not disclose information they obtain in the course of their work, either on the Internet or to overseas media.” This is in addition to the June 18 directive to not report “critical” news without prior authorisation.

Curbs on foreign mediaIn addition to the curbs on the domestic media, the foreign media in China has been operating under greater constraints in the past two years, with the Chinese government taking harsh punitive measures against news organisations and journalists for unfavourable coverage. Most recently, a New York Times correspondent was asked to leave China for an exposé on the wealth of the family of Wen Jiabao, the former Premier. Foreign news organisations have also protested against the harassment and the manhandling of journalists by Chinese police during the trial of Xu Zhiyong, the leader of the New Citizens’ Movement, that raises the issue of corruption in the Chinese state and party system.

It is evident that the media environment in China is getting more hostile to journalistic reporting and moving more in line with its government-approved commercial and propaganda role. In this, the Chinese government has been successful, as of now, in restricting the political impact of the media. Is it likely to be able to do so in the future as well? Given that the commercial interests of the media are tied in squarely with the political role of the media, there is little hope that the policy is likely to be challenged in a major way by the commercial media. However, there is a visible push back from the journalistic community through acts of defiance, like the Southern Weekend episode earlier this year in which the journalists of the paper publicly objected to the interference of the Provincial Propaganda Department in changing the paper’s high profile annual new year editorial to conform to the Party line. This resulted in an unprecedented strike by the journalists of the paper and there was an outpouring of public support for the paper’s stand. However, the costs of such rebellion in China are increasing manifold with the result that journalistic defiance is beginning to get restricted to a few prominent and internationally known media outlets. The majority of Chinese news media — which is what the average Chinese citizen has access to — is largely conformist and not ready to take on these costs and jeopardise its commercial success.

(Sonika Gupta is an associate professor and the coordinator of the IIT Madras China Studies Centre. E-mail: Sonika@iitm.ac.in)