The Global Reach of China’s Censors
Since late 2010, Freedom House has been publishing the China Media Bulletin (CMB), a weekly digest of press freedom and censorship news related to the People’s Republic of China. The CMB has built up a substantial readership among scholars, journalists, diplomats, and government officials who specialize in China affairs. But the stories highlighted in the bulletin should be read by a wider audience, as its material is relevant to anyone who cares about freedom and the constantly evolving methods employed by freedom’s adversaries.
The reason is simple: China has emerged as the nerve center and leading exemplar of what might be called 21st-century authoritarianism. Unlike its 20th-century predecessors, the Chinese system is designed to permit a wide range of social and personal freedoms, and has a considerable tolerance for market economics, albeit with a substantial degree of state intrusion and a staggering amount of corruption. Such selective openness is coupled with the ruthless suppression of any and all perceived threats to the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power. To this end, the Chinese leadership has developed a pervasive, sophisticated, and highly adaptive mechanism for information control that is meant deny access to “subversive” views while amplifying the party’s message on current affairs. There are limits to the censors’ efficacy, and many Chinese internet users are quick to exploit any weaknesses. Nevertheless, in its technical intricacy, its success at placing censorship responsibility on journalists and the managers of both old and new media delivery systems, and its access to billions of dollars in resources to ensure the proper filtration of news reaching the general public, the Chinese information system represents authoritarian rule at its most modern, nuanced, and efficient.
China’s censorship and propaganda apparatus is not just an influential model for other authoritarian states. It is also increasingly designed to reach outside China’s borders and affect the discourse in democratic and developing countries around the world. Each issue of the CMB includes a section, Beyond China, that is devoted to the often underreported aspects of the Chinese government’s growing efforts to boost its own image and suppress critical reporting abroad.
The following are a few items drawn from the Beyond China sections of recent issues of the China Media Bulletin:
Mysterious Cambridge donation stirs debate, censorship [CMB No. 48]
Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported on February 19 that China’s internet censors had erased news of a £3.7 million (36 million yuan) donation to Cambridge University by a practically unknown Chinese organization called the Chong Hua Foundation, after faculty members raised concerns that the donor was linked to the Chinese government. The gift endowed a new chair of Chinese development studies at the university, and the first occupant of the post will be Professor Peter Nolan, who is known to have close ties to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and his family. Nolan reportedly helped to solicit the gift. Netizen discussion and articles related to the donation were reportedly erased over the course of one night on popular Chinese web portals. Yao Shujie, a Chinese scholar at Nottingham University, told the Telegraph that his blog posts on the controversy were repeatedly taken down, even though he had defended Cambridge’s decision to accept the donation. Cambridge insists that it has found no link between the Chinese government and the Chong Hua Foundation, which has no website or official listing in Britain or China.
Washington Post criticized over Xi Jinping ‘interview’ [CMB No. 49]
The Washington Post was criticized on February 24 by its ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, for granting Beijing too much control over a published “interview” with Chinese vice president Xi Jinping. On February 13, the day Xi arrived for an official visit to Washington, the Post printed a transcript that consisted only of Xi’s written remarks. The paper had submitted questions in writing, but the answers received in response were accompanied by new questions; Chinese officials had “modified, deleted, and added questions to” the original list. To avoid taking responsibility for questions it did not ask, the Post ran Xi’s answers without any questions; it later published a correction to explain the situation. “In publishing the transcript, which was more press release or propaganda than news, The Post set a bad precedent with the authoritarian government in Beijing,” Pexton said. Despite its dearth of newsworthy content, the transcript amounted to Xi’s only public statement during the tightly choreographed trip (see CMB No. 48). Pexton said the Post, like other foreign media outlets, had a complicated relationship with Chinese authorities. It has reported aggressively on rights abuses in the country, and struggled to secure visas for its correspondents. At the same time, he said, it receives advertising funds from Beijing by printing “China Watch,” a monthly supplement produced by state-run China Daily. The China Media Bulletin has noted similar paid inserts in papers such as the Boston Globe and Taiwan’s China Post (see CMB Nos. 19 and 40).
Chinese agents harass CNN crew in Nepal [CMB No. 49]
On February 22, the American news outlet CNN reported that its journalists were harassed, apparently by Chinese security agents, as they tried to record footage inside Nepal near the Chinese border for a piece on the treatment of Tibetan refugees in the country. The Nepalese border police had warned CNN staff that their cameras would be damaged by Chinese personnel, whom the Nepalese guards did not stop from crossing the border. “We were approached by several men in plain clothes, who put their hands over the camera,” wrote CNN reporter Sara Snider. “The men were speaking Chinese to one another and were clearly on the Nepalese side of the border.” The same men later followed the crew deep into a Nepalese village, as they tried to conduct interviews with local residents. China’s influence in Nepal has grown rapidly in recent years, along with its aid payments and infrastructural connections to the small country. And in a parallel development, since 2008, the Nepalese authorities have become harsher in their treatment of local Tibetans, who have sought refuge in the country for decades, with some reportedly facing arrests and beatings.
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Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.