Faced with burgeoning social unrest and journalists who are becoming much less compliant, the authorities, directed by President Hu Jintao, have been bringing the media to heel in the name of a “harmonious society”. The press is being forced into self-censorship, the Internet is filtered and foreign media very closely watched.
More journalists were handed down prison sentences in 2006. Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong reporter for a Singapore daily was sentenced to five years for “espionage”. Zhao Yan, a researcher for the New York Times, was sentenced to three years for alleged “fraud”. In both cases they were convicted after shoddy trials with no defence witnesses, under political pressure and with no right to an appeal hearing.
On the other hand, Gao Qinrong and Jiang Weiping, who were serving harsh prison sentences for investigating corruption, were released in 2006 before the end of their sentences. One journalist, Yu Dongyue, who was arrested during the Tiananmen Square massacres of 1989, was released in February but had been driven insane as a result of long periods in solitary confinement. At least 31 journalists were in jail as of 1st January 2007.
Hu Jintao’s voiced rage against “hostile forces", whom he accused of fomenting a "coloured revolution” backed by the United States and led by human rights activists and liberal journalists, when he spoke to an audience of ministers, ambassadors and party provincial officials in August 2006. As preparations got under way for the next Communist Party Congress in October 2007, public security arrested at least 12 journalists and placed scores more under surveillance. This crackdown has also extended to lawyers. In March they were banned by China’s Association of Lawyers from speaking to foreign journalists about “masses incidents”, concerning groups such as the unemployed and the peasants. In September, Chinese judges had the same ban on speaking to the press slapped on them.
The authorities, who were confronted by 87,000 public order incidents in 2006, compared to 10,000 in 1994, have tried to prevent the press from reflecting this widespread discontent. In December, the news agency Xinhua again turned on the “hostile forces” of human rights activists and foreign journalists who were attempting “to benefit from these masses incidents to spread disorder”. A few weeks earlier, a US photo-journalist was arrested and beaten up by police after he travelled to a village in the south of the country where peasants had rebelled against the local authorities.
A new illiberal law
In a bid to silence its detractors, the government has tabled a draft law on crisis management for the People’s Assembly which will impose fines of up to the equivalent of 10,000 euros on media who publish unauthorised reports on these subjects. The newspaper, Xin Kuaibao (New Express) condemned this new law in an editorial which pointed out that it did not take into account the fact “that there is no way to check whether information put out by the authorities is reliable and correct. The law will prevent it being known whether behind ‘natural disasters’ hide ‘catastrophes provoked by man’ (...) In this case, the law becomes the tool of corrupt officials to conceal their dishonesty”.
The Propaganda Department continues to attack each article deemed to be contrary to the new ideology of a “harmonious society” proclaimed by Hu Jintao. Media editors receive regularly a list of banned subjects. These might be demonstrations by peasants, the unemployed or Tibetans. Nothing escapes the censors, who cultivate a climate of fear within editorial offices. Censorship cases can be measured in their tens of thousands each year. For example, the press was prevented from talking about a new case of avian flu that was identified in the south of the country in April. In June, a demonstration by tricycle delivery workers in Xian, northern China passed off without any press coverage. In the run-up to a series of anniversaries, including the 30th since the death of Mao Zedong and the 40th since the Cultural Revolution, the General Administration of Press and Publication issued a warning in July: “News publication has an important role in ideological education and our country’s security depends on strict control of news production.” Censorship was also applied to TV programmes considered “too frivolous”, such as the Chinese version of Star Academy broadcast by Hunan TV.
The year 2006 was marked by an ideological crackdown on media judged to be too liberal. At the beginning of the year, the Propaganda Department dismissed prominent journalists Li Datong and Lu Yaogang from the weekly Bing Dian. This purge provoked a strong reaction within the profession and the communist party. To quell this defiance, the authorities banned any reference to it, put forums used by journalists under surveillance and sent police officers into editorial offices. “The new generation of journalists has studied according to Western standards and no longer believes in the Communist Party’s new ideology (...) but there is no press freedom and almost no sector of the state allows us to play a supervisory role,” said Li Datong.
The daily Xin Jing Bao and the weekly Nanfang Zhoumo, standard bearers of investigative journalism for several years, were again punished by the authorities for their articles which were viewed as too independent. Zhongguo Qingnian Bao, which is under the control of the Youth League, was brought to book: several editors were dismissed and censorship by the heads of departments was strengthened. In Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, press groups, particularly in the financial news area, regularly try to push at the limits of censorship, particularly by investigating abuse of power. Many journalists took refuge in the online press, but they have run into the same censorship difficulties.
The privatisation of the media sector is continuing with press groups occasionally quoted on the stock exchanges in Beijing and Shanghai. The country’s 2,000 newspapers which this year published 100 million copies daily, 8,000 magazines and more than 700 TV stations, jostle for position in an expanding market. Even though the country has been a member of the World Trade Organisation since 2001, the government is more and more protectionist. In 2006, Xinhua laid down that it was the sole agency entitled to sell news, photographs and film to the Chinese media. The official agency thus is attempting to protect its economic and political monopoly, while hogging the dividends from financial news which was freely available before. Elsewhere, the government in April banned the development of new joint ventures in the press domain. Nationalism also reaches into the world of entertainment. In September the regulatory authority banned evening TV showings of non-Chinese cartoons.
Increase in assaults and defamation suits
Increasing physical attacks on journalists are no longer being committed only by members of the security forces. Delinquents or henchmen in the pay of businessmen are also involved. Reporters Without Borders has recorded around 40 such incidents. But, according to the official organisation, journalism has become the third most dangerous job after mining and the police. The most at risk are reporters on tabloid newspapers whose zeal for crime stories sometimes leads them into danger in pursuit of scoops. Two journalists, Wu Xianghu and Xiao Guopeng, were killed by police in 2006.
Defamation cases are also becoming ever more common, sometimes to silence the investigative press. In June, a Taiwanese supplier of Apple claimed the equivalent of three million euros damages from two journalists working for Diyi Caijin Ribao which had investigated working conditions in factories producing iPods. The complaint was later withdrawn in response to international pressure.
Radio remains very popular in the cities as well as the countryside. Hundreds of millions of Chinese own radios on which they can pick up international stations whose output is in sharp contrast to Chinese radio. Millions listen to the BBC and Radio Free Asia programmes in Chinese, but their broadcasts are jammed. Some of the equipment used to create this “great wall of sound” was purchased from French company Thalès. In 2006, Reporters Without Borders tested the jamming of Voice of Tibet and Radio Free Asia in Tibet. The authorities overlay programmes on short and medium wave with thudding sounds or educational programmes in Chinese.
The Television sector - particularly cable stations - is rapidly expanding. The country has more than 700 national and local stations and nearly 2,000 cable stations broadcasting 56,000 hours of programmes. But it is the state broadcaster, CCTV, with a presence in all areas, which dominates the market. Regional TV is very dynamic but under surveillance from Beijing and local government. In March, the presenter of a financial programme in Shanghai was taken off the air for being too outspoken. Phoenix TV of Hong Kong is accessible by satellite, possession of which is a privilege open only to foreigners and large numbers of officials. Tourist hotels show BBC and CNN, but censors still unplug them whenever a sensitive subject is broadcast. This happened during 2006 when an Amnesty International researcher was interviewed by CNN on the question of human rights in China.
Promise of freedom for the foreign press
Criticised for failing to keep promises made during the awarding of the 2008 Olympic Games, the Beijing government has announced changes to rules about foreign journalists. In 2006, there were at least 25 incidents of arrests, threats or assaults against members of the foreign press. A German reporter was arrested in July while he was doing a report on the controversial building of a dam in Yunnan province in southern China. In September, several foreign media crews were expelled from Fujian province, southern China where a devastating cyclone had just battered several cities. Elsewhere, many media websites, including that of the BBC World Service, are blocked in China.
Hong Kong continues to enjoy real press freedom but political and financial pressures from Beijing are constantly increasing. Those running the pirate station Citizen Radio were taken to court for broadcasting without a licence. A five-year prison sentence against Hong Kong-resident journalist Ching Cheong, has worsened apprehension felt by reporters covering China from the autonomous region.
Internet under control
China unquestionably continues to be the world’s most advanced country in Internet filtering. The authorities carefully monitor technological progress to ensure that no new window of free expression opens up, After initially targeting websites and chat forums, they nowadays concentrate on blogs and video exchange sites. China now has nearly 17 million bloggers. This is an enormous number, but very few of them dare to tackle sensitive issues, still less criticise government policy. Firstly, because China’s blog tools include filters that block “subversive” word strings. Secondly, because the companies operating these services, both Chinese and foreign, are pressured by the authorities to control content. They employ armies of moderators to clean up the content produced by the bloggers. Finally, in a country in which 52 people are currently in prison for expressing themselves too freely online, self-censorship is obviously in full force. Just five years ago, many people thought Chinese society and politics would be revolutionised by the Internet, a supposedly uncontrollable medium. Now, with China enjoying increasing geopolitical influence, people are wondering the opposite, whether perhaps China’s Internet model, based on censorship and surveillance, may one day be imposed on the rest of the world.