China’s Media Censorship Is A Return To Maoism: Report
By Flynn MurphyJanuary 28, 2014
Hopes for freer debate have been quashed under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, according to an in-depth report by the International Federation of Journalists Asia Pacific.
China’s journalists, who had been cautiously optimistic about more free debate in the country with the 2012 change of leadership, are now resigned to the fact that the business of media control, censorship and intimidation of journalists is as intense as ever. That’s the depressing picture of the Chinese media landscape that emerges from a scathing new report by the IFJ Asia Pacific.
“Televised confessions and interrogations, censorship, physical assaults, sackings, demotions and suspensions were used to intimidate independent reporters and commentators [throughout the period],” reads the report, titled “Back To A Maoist Future: Press Freedom in China 2013”. The IFJ as has collated the incidents on an interactive map.
China continues to block access to The Global Mail and other sites which revealed last week the systemic use of offshore tax havens among the country’s wealthy elite.
State control of online media is growing increasingly sophisticated in China. Journalists have been cautioned off of the popular Chinese social-media app Weixin, which allows the peer-to-peer sharing of sound, images, video, and also shows the proximity of users to other users. One journalist was reportedly told that using the app was a “conflict of interest” for employees of a media company.
Weixin (WeChat in English) is one of China’s most popular apps, with more than 300 million users. It was developed by Tencent, whose company CEO was identified as using offshore banking, in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists database.
IFJ report author Serenade Woo told The Global Mail that journalists and activists in China have long suspected the government uses the Weixin app to monitor their private conversations.
The IFJ report details a government campaign called ‘Clear Website Action’, which has stepped up cooperation between police and party leaders leading to the detention of thousands, and the removal of thousands of websites. The IFJ claims this has specifically targeted prominent citizen journalists and bloggers critical of the government.
Low-tech means remain indispensable censorship tools. Two million party employees with professional development opportunities and career pathways now actively monitor and censor the web. And, as part of a system of self-censorship, internet companies earn cash rewards for proactively removing user-generated deemed to make Zhongnanhai uncomfortable.
Televised “confessions” have been increasingly aired on China Central Television, featuring high-profile journalists, scholars, activists and commentators who have not been tried or convicted. The footage has included the interrogation of suspects, in what the IFJ calls “a regression to the Mao era”.
Notably, a government directive released in May bans mention of Mao’s bloody legacy in the Chinese media. “Historical mistakes of the communist party” are one of seven topics now officially banned — along with “press freedom”, “judicial independence”, “civil society”, “rights of citizens”, “universal values”, and “capitalism”.
In invoking Mao, the IFJ appears to be referencing the Hundred Flowers period of 1956 where the leadership encouraged vocal criticism of itself, before cracking down on many who jumped at the chance. Though today’s struggle lacks the ideological ferocity (and vast loss of life of the broader Mao period) the parallels are real.
Fighting corruption has been central policy of China’s new leadership, but those who speak out against such corruption are routinely prosecuted. The IFJ report highlights, among scores of cases, that of blogger Zhou Lubao, detained by police in August on charges of extortion after alleging the corruption of Lanzhou City mayor Yuan Zhangting and other officials. His stories were picked up by local media outlets and even state-owned news organisation Xinhua.
As The Global Mail reported previously, changes to rules around criminal defamation — whereby users can face up to three years in prison for content judged defamatory if it is viewed by more than 5,000 people or reposted more than 500 times — have further undermined freedom of the press by acting as a disincentive to disseminate criticism of the powerful.
In scores of cases journalists, citizen journalists and bloggers have been detained without charge for sustained periods after reporting on Chinese corruption at local levels.
Foreign journalists fare far better in China than their Chinese colleagues, but the leadership has been increasingly bold in restricting their visas, and has appeared to target outfits that broke significant negative stories such as The New York Times and Bloomberg. Foreign journalists also talk about the ‘circle of fire’ created around their reporting, whereby they are shielded but local contacts, fixers, and colleagues on whom they rely bear the brunt of the government’s ire.