Alarming Political Implications of China’s Intensified Censorship

Source: The Epoch Times – By He Qinglian

Recent measures to restrict press freedom in China have been called "steel wire around the neck". (AFP/Getty Images))

Recently a friend working in Chinese media told me that the Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily, popular newspapers known for relatively liberal and bold reporting, will be directly censored by the Guangdong Province Party Committee’s Propaganda Department, and will not be able to publish anything without the department’s approval.

Such “honors” bestowed on the two newspapers represent a tightness of control not seen since before China’s economic reforms in the late 1970’s. I was hoping, when I heard the news, that this would only be a temporary measure. However, more news on China’s intensified censorship ensued.

One news report by Asia Weekly on Jan. 9 said that the Central Propaganda Department had assigned staff to monitor all major central government newspapers, including some influential local media like the Southern Daily Group. The Department also announced the plan to select two reviewers within every media to be in charge of censorship.

With such measures, the censorship system is evolving from post-publication investigation to pre-publication censoring. The “reviewer team” serves as “a steel wire around the neck of Chinese media,” said the report. The authorities also require media to adopt extreme caution in reporting current political and social issues, and reporting on all sensitive social news topics are to be banned from major websites before the convening of the 18th Plenary Session in 2012. Authorities also warned that those who dared to violate the policies would be severely punished.

A Jan. 12 Radio Free Asia report detailed some of the banned contents.

A Twitter posting by user “tienan89,” who works in the media in China, sent an even clearer message. It said, “A journalist friend told me something really frustrating after a conference. The conference announced guidelines issued by the Central Propaganda Department Leader Conference. The guidelines forbade media to report negative news outside of the media’s local circulation region, warning the media against the corrosion of western beliefs from freedom of the press: it stipulates that the central media should also abide by the local propaganda department; it bans reports on breaking incidents with a death toll higher than 10. I don’t know how we can make a living anymore.”

Though this cannot be officially verified, as no recording or note taking is allowed during such meetings, I believe it is true. In my opinion, the new ban has at least three political implications.

First, it blocks the way to publicize corruption through cross region reporting (yidi jiandu baodao). Since the mid 1990’s, Chinese media employees have groped their way around attempting to bypass the censorship system and expose corruption. This is due to the Chinese media’s unique characteristic of administrative hierarchy. In China, a media outlet’s status is not dictated entirely by public trust, but rather by its ranking in the administrative hierarchy.

People’s Daily is a minister-level organization, and going down the hierarchy are bureau-level, section-level media, and so on. Depending on a media’s ranking in the hierarchy, its journalists are restricted by different reporting rules. Since Chinese media are generally shackled by local officials, some media workers provide leads of local events to their colleagues in other regions who are not directly supervised by the government of the source region. Now that the authorities ordered that even central media need to abide by local officials, such cross region reporting will no longer serve its purposes.

Second, by blocking public supervision channels, the central government is encouraging local governments to “maintain stability” at will. As long as a local government ensures political stability in a province (or city), Beijing will tolerate whatever lawless conduct of local officials transpires. Beijing must have found it extremely inconvenient when it was forced to punish local officials whose scandals were disclosed, especially when they hit the international media. Without the media meddling, Beijing can play deaf, even when local officials commit heinous crimes, and the central government can continue to maintain the false impression of a clean and clear government.

The death of the village chief Qian Yunhui (in Yueqing City, Zejiang Province) is one good example, even though the Yueqing City government and police were suspects in Qian’s death. The public security office and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate did not take any action, and insisted on not intervening with local officials’ measures to maintain stability.

Third, central media will degenerate to become the mouthpiece of local governments, which signifies a major change in media policy. Since the communist regime took power, local reporters of the party mouthpieces People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency are required to monitor local governments and report any scandal to higher authorities through internal communication: although these reporters usually maintain a friendly relation with local officials, this job function has never been taken away. It is not clear whether the Central Propaganda Department’s new restrictions will be applied to Xinhua News Agency and People Daily. However, restricting CCTV and other central media is equivalent to removing the supervising role of the central media.

The Chinese regime has been extremely paranoid about its own stability. What it fails to see is that the wire around the media’s neck will just open the door for local governments to ferociously prey on the people—it is actually creating an upheaval, through the connivance of the central government itself. This will prove to be a heavy blow to the regime’s already fragile reign.

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