China Media Bulletin: Issue No. 41 | Freedom House

China Media Bulletin: Issue No. 41

A weekly update of press freedom and censorship news related to the People's Republic of China

Issue No. 41: December 1, 2011

* TV drama ad ban deals new blow to popular stations
* Internet experts detect new tactics to thwart censorship circumvention tools
* Censorship lifted for World Cup golf tournament
* Hong Kong stalls on mainland editor’s visa
* U.S. hearing cites trade impact of Chinese censorship

Printable version



TV drama ad ban deals new blow to popular stations

Starting in January 2012, all advertisements will be banned during dramas on China's television stations, though they will be permitted before and after each show. The announcement, made by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) on November 28, is the latest in a series of harsh measures designed to implement the "cultural reforms" called for during a closed-door Chinese Communist Party (CCP) summit in October. According to SARFT's notice, the restriction will serve the purpose of "actively developing cultural work in the public welfare," implying that the advertisements were polluting Chinese television and harming its value to the public. One newspaper estimated that the ban would cost the TV sector a loss of 20 billion yuan ($3 billion). Several media analysts predicted that in response there could be an influx of product placement in entertainment programming and a shift by advertisers to other media, including the internet and mobile devices. The SARFT announcement notably came just weeks after an annual advertising auction in which scores of companies pledged to pay billions of dollars for ad time on the main state network, China Central Television (CCTV), in 2012 (see CMB No. 40). An earlier SARFT decree in late October had sharply limited the hours of entertainment programming allowed on the air. Combined with the newest restriction, the rule seems likely to harm China's provincial satellite stations, whose popular "reality" and drama shows have attracted large audiences and competed well with CCTV's more staid programming. Some critics noted that advertisements were not similarly banned during newscasts, suggesting that the regulations were designed to favor propagandistic content and choke off freewheeling, audience-driven shows.

* Xinhua 11/28/2011: China to ban commercials during TV dramas
* South China Morning Post 11/29/2011: Drama turned into a crisis as Sarft bans ads
* China News 11/29/2011 (in Chinese): SARFT bans ads in TV dramas; Experts: Ads ban might increase embedded marketing in TV dramas
* Wall Street Journal 11/29/2011: China bans ads in TV dramas
* China Media Project 11/29/2011: Who's paying for the public welfare on TV


New leader named for main state TV network

On November 24, national broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) named Hu Zhanfan, chief editor of the Chinese Communist Party-run newspaper Guangming Daily, as its new leader. Hu had served as vice chairman of the state-run All-China Journalists' Association and vice president of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television. Taiwan's Want Daily reported speculation that Hu was brought in to make CCTV's news coverage more conservative, noting that Guangming Daily, under his leadership, had published several articles that were critical of political reforms. Outgoing CCTV president Jiao Li, who had been appointed in 2009 after serving in the publicity department of the Communist Party Central Committee, oversaw the first stages of the state television network's massive expansion plan, setting up regional headquarters in foreign locales including Washington, Rio de Janeiro, and Nairobi.

* Agence France-Presse 11/24/2011: Government-run China Central Television gets new boss
* Xinhua 11/24/2011 (in Chinese): Guangming Daily chief editor Hu Zhanfan appointed CCTV leader
* Want Daily 11/25/2011: Appointment of new CCTV head hints at clampdown
* New York Times 11/25/2011: New leader for China's largest TV network


Police question Ai Weiwei's wife, assistant

On November 29, Lu Qing, wife of prominent Chinese blogger and artist Ai Weiwei, was taken to a Beijing police station and questioned for three hours before being released. Lu had been planning to travel to Taiwan and visit an exhibition of Ai's work, but the authorities reportedly told her not to leave Beijing. Ai, who had been detained for months in early 2011, is currently fighting a $2.4 million tax evasion case, and his associates are facing a new wave of scrutiny (see CMB No. 40). On November 17, his assistant Zhao Zhao was also interrogated in Beijing over a series of nude photographs he took for the artist. The studio shots, dubbed "one tiger, eight breasts," show Ai seated nude with four naked women. The police told Zhao that the images had been deemed "pornographic," though they had been circulated on the internet for more than a year. In response to the probe, Ai's supporters have created an online campaign titled "Ai Wei Fans' Nudity," in which they post nude photos of themselves. On November 20, Ai posted on his Twitter microblog account the names and telephone numbers of four individuals who have called him a tool of foreign powers. Among them were the chief editor and another editor at the Chinese Communist Party's Global Times. The paper's November 22 editorial angrily revealed that the two had since suffered from many prank calls. It urged the government to "crack down on these illegal acts while safeguarding freedom of speech."

* CNN News 11/30/2011: Ai Weiwei: Wife held by Chinese police
* McClatchy Newspapers 11/22/2011: Pranking the Global Times: Ai Weiwei and a lesson in propaganda
* South China Morning Post 11/19/2011: Ai Weiwei photographs in 'pornography' probe
* Washington Post 11/22/2011: Ai Weiwei rallies his followers in protests


Christian film distributor detained, journalists assaulted

In recent weeks, several new incidents of arbitrary detention or assault against journalists in China have been reported. According to the Texas-based religious rights group China Aid, Jiang Yaxi, chief representative of the Beijing-based film production company Shamo Zhihua, was detained by police in the capital on November 11. Her company was accused of illegally producing and selling copies of the documentary Beyond by Yuan Zhiming, a filmmaker who had fled China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement was quashed. The film, which focuses on overseas Chinese Christians, carries an ISBN number issued by the government, and Jiang insisted that her company had acted within the law, but in August the authorities reportedly confiscated all copies of Beyond as well as related sales records. The company suffered total losses of more than $6,300, including a fine. Separately, also in November, a Henan-based reporter was assaulted and threatened by a staff member at the State Bureau for Letters and Calls after he inquired about bureau expenditures that are supposed to be accessible to the public, and two Guangdong-based television journalists were assaulted by a group of some six people as they attempted to investigate a commercial dispute in Shenzhen. The perpetrator in the first incident was reportedly suspended, while those in the second case were detained and fined by police.

* China Aid 11/24/2011: Police criminally detain Beijing distributor of newest documentary by Christian filmmaker Yuan Zhiming
* IFEX 11/29/2011: Three journalists assaulted


As microblog users surpass 300 million, officials reiterate need for restrictions

China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has reported that the country has 485 million internet users, including more than 300 million registered microbloggers. The statistics were released on November 21 during the 11th China Internet Media Forum in Wuhan, Hubei Province, which was attended by 300 officials and new media experts. The deputy head of the State Council Information Office, Qian Xiaoqian, said at the conference that China is facing mounting challenges in regulating its microblog sphere. The government has increasingly portrayed microblogs as potentially harmful to society in the absence of sufficiently strict content controls, although microblogging platforms already engage in substantial censorship (see CMB Nos. 38, 39). The Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times recently reported that on November 11, a netizen surnamed Yan was detained by Beijing police for five days for "suspicion of threatening another's personal safety." Yan reportedly harassed and publicized his revenge plans against a college professor who had posted a microblog message opposing Yan's opinions. Meanwhile, a number of popular bloggers in China, including journalist Yu Shenghai, have experienced deletions of their articles online. Prominent Beijing-based news commentator Yu Jianrong and scholar Han Zhiguo have also reported receiving notices from the webmaster of their microblog platform.

* Reuters 11/21/2011: China records 300 million registered microblog users
* Xinhua 11/21/2011: China's microblog user population tops 300 million
* Global Times 11/26/2011: Police detain microblog delinquent
* Yu Shenghai's microblog 11/23/2011 (in Chinese): Please return microblog space for speaking the truth


Internet experts detect new tactics to thwart censorship circumvention tools

The Asia edition of Forbes magazine reports that according to internet security experts, China's extensive internet censorship system, known as the Great Firewall, is apparently testing a new system to detect and disrupt censorship circumvention tools like virtual private networks (VPNs). According to information technology security officer Leif Nixon of the Swedish National Supercomputer Centre, the new system appears capable of identifying users' attempts to reach an outside server through a secure connection, quickly scanning the destination computer, and disrupting the connection before it is fully established. The tactic is more sophisticated than previous government efforts to block circumvention tools. Many Chinese netizens rely on VPNs and similar tools to circumvent the Great Firewall, but only a fraction have reported experiencing the new disruptions, suggesting that the system is still in an experimental stage and has not been fully deployed.

* Forbes 11/23/2011: Walled off


Online activists held for publicizing colleague's case

Li Wenge, an Anhui-based activist and online writer, was seized at his home by several police officers in Bengbu City on November 22 and given 10 days of administrative detention. The police also confiscated his computer and other property. Li's detention was reportedly tied to an interview he gave to Radio Free Asia several days earlier, during which he and Qin Yongmin, a founder of the banned China Democracy Party, discussed official harassment against Bengbu activist Wu Yuebao. As part of a broad government crackdown on bloggers and activists that followed online calls for a protest-driven Jasmine Revolution in early 2011, Wu had been detained in July on suspicion of "inciting subversion of state power." He was released on bail in late October, and Li and Qin subsequently alleged in an online appeal that he had been tortured while in detention. Qin, who was released in 2010 after serving a 12-year prison sentence for his prodemocracy activities, was arrested on November 16. Like Li, he had his computer confiscated and received 10 days of detention. Other activists in Bengbu City who voiced support for Wu have reportedly been subjected to surveillance and police harassment for months.

* Chinese Human Rights Defenders 11/22/2011: China Human Rights Briefing November 15–22, 2011
* Radio Free Asia (in Chinese) 11/22/2011: Li Wenge faces administrative detention
* Human Rights In China 11/29/2011: Democracy activist Qin Yongmin released from prison after 12-year sentence


Independent candidate describes subversion of campaign

In a November 22 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Qiao Mu, an associate professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, recounted his experience as an independent candidate for Beijing's local people's congresses, which hold limited power and are dominated by Communist Party delegates. Qiao said that after he announced his decision to run for a seat in the November 8 election, security officials infiltrated his campaign planning meeting, and his student volunteers received calls telling them to quit. The dean at his school advised him not to speak to foreign media. Qiao said he also faced a negative text-message campaign that called his candidacy a U.S.-backed conspiracy. During the last week before the election, Qiao reported, his phone calls were monitored and all four of his social media accounts were shut down. Despite being forced to run as a write-in candidate, he placed second in the election, with the winner narrowly avoiding a runoff against him. Other independent candidates have reported a similar array of insurmountable obstacles to their electoral ambitions in recent months, dashing initial hopes that their extensive use of microblogging sites would help them gain entry to China's closed political system (see CMB No. 33).

* Wall Street Journal 11/22/2011: A Beijinger's fight to run for office
* Washington Post 11/28/2011: Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, does not challenge Communist Party at the elections
* Economic Observer 11/28/2011: Beijing's independent candidates
* Caixin 11/24/2011: Local government manipulated elections, independent candidate says


Censorship lifted for World Cup golf tournament

The Chinese government granted uncensored internet access to more than 120,000 attendees and participants at the World Cup golf tournament on the southern Chinese island of Hainan during the November 23–27 event. The Hong Kong–based Chu brothers, who own the tournament venue, Mission Hills, reportedly used their close ties with Beijing to obtain permission for the lifting of internet restrictions. The open service, which was made available through a server based in Hong Kong, allowed journalists and fans from China to temporarily enjoy a privilege that is routinely denied to their 1.3 billion fellow citizens. The International Olympic Committee had requested similar open access during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, but the idea was ultimately rejected by the Chinese authorities. A small number of sites were temporarily made accessible to journalists covering the event, but the vast majority of the censorship apparatus remained intact throughout the games.

* Agence France-Presse 11/25/2011: China lifts Great Firewall for gold world cup
* Telegraph 11/24/2011: Golf's World Cup not up to scratch despite entering fantasy land of the 'Chinese Hawaii'

Police bureau begins crackdown on 'illegal information'

China's Ministry of Public Security has launched a nationwide crackdown on "online black markets." The campaign, scheduled to last from November 14 through February 2012, is targeting "illegal and harmful messages" on discussion forums, internet search engines, blogs, and instant-messaging services. In addition to shutting down illegal trading in items such as weapons and forged identity cards, the operation will seek to eliminate "illegal information that harms national stability." China's laws on "illegal online activities" are both vague and harsh, and the authorities frequently shut down politically sensitive websites in the course of ostensibly legitimate efforts to curtail crime or obscenity.

* Chinese Human Rights Defenders 11/22/2011: China Human Rights Briefing November 15–22, 2011
* Xinhua 11/14/2011 (in Chinese): China public security bureau to crack down on "internet black market"
* Penn-Olson 11/15/2011: Chinese police announces crackdown on "internet black markets"



Farmer interviewed in Tibet film goes missing

According to the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), Lhaten, a Tibetan farmer who appeared in Dhondup Wangchen's short film Leaving Fear Behind, reportedly went missing on November 1. In the film, Wangchen interviewed ordinary Tibetans across the region on their thoughts about the Dalai Lama, China, and the Olympic Games. Lhaten was one of the interviewees, commenting on the hard life in Lhasa and the false picture of Tibet that the Chinese government presented to tourists. On November 1, he reportedly received a call from a female teacher to pick up his son at school, and was instead abducted by policemen in civilian clothes. He has not been heard from since. Leaving Fear Behind was released in 2008 prior to the Beijing Olympics. Shortly after the recordings were smuggled out of Tibet, Wangchen was arrested in March 2008. He was detained for 21 months before being sentenced to six years in prison in Xining. His wife, Lhamo Tso, toured Britain for 16 days in November 2011, trying to drum up overseas support for Wangchen's release on medical parole.

* Phayul 11/24/2011: Wife brings hope to imprisoned Tibetan filmmaker
* UNPO 11/22/2011: Tibet: Farmer linked to controversial short film goes missing



Hong Kong stalls on mainland editor's visa

The Hong Kong–based newspaper Ming Pao reported on November 24 that the territory's Immigration Department has held up the work visa application of veteran Chinese editor and commentator Chang Ping for eight months. Chang had been an editor at Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily, both liberally oriented, state-owned newspapers in Guangdong. He was demoted after writing a commentary about 2008 protests in Tibet that questioned government policy in the region, and was eventually forced to quit his job at the Southern Media Group in January 2011. Chang was recently offered a position as editor of iSun Affairs, an independent online magazine based in Hong Kong. He applied for a work visa in March. Visa approval procedures for such applications typically take four weeks, but Chang's has been "under review" for eight months with no further explanation. This has raised concerns among observers that political pressure from Beijing is behind the delay. On November 18, the Chinese State Council Information Office blocked users' ability to download the e-magazine via iPad or Android. Editorial board members also found access to their mainland microblogging accounts blocked. Hong Kong maintains its own immigration system, but periodic denials of entry to democracy activists, Falun Gong practitioners, and others have occurred repeatedly in recent years, raising suspicions that the government is enforcing a Beijing-imposed political blacklist. Chang Ping was one of eight activists whose names China Media Bulletin editors checked in a July 2011 censorship test (see CMB No. 29).

* Ming Pao 11/21/2011 (in Chinese): Immigration Department held up dissident visa for eight months; China Sun TV hires dismissed Southern Metropolis VP
* China Media Project 11/25/2011: Hong Kong visa held up for veteran editor
* Deutsche Welle 11/19/2011 (in Chinese): iSun Affairs banned by China, chief blogs shut down
* YouTube 11/20/2011: iSun Affairs banned for telling the truth


Decision to axe public radio hosts stirs controversy

Two popular radio call-in show hosts at Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK)-Robert Chow Yung, host of Talkabout for 12 years, and Ng Chi-sum, host of Open Line, Open View for seven years-were told in late November that their contracts would not be renewed. The news came just three months after the controversial appointment of a new director of broadcasting at the public station, Ray Tang Yun-kwong (see CMB No. 33). RTHK's head of corporate communications, Kirindi Chan Man-kuen, said the decision was not politically driven and had nothing to do with Tang's appointment, explaining that the shows were simply being reformed. Ng expressed disappointment and confusion over the announcement, while media studies scholars noted the unusual nature of the dismissals. The chairman of the Hong Kong Legislative Council's information technology and broadcasting committee called for a hearing on December 12 so that Tang, the hosts, and other RTHK representatives could clarify the situation. While some observers acknowledged that a reform of the radio programs could be warranted, they also expressed fears that RTHK would lose its diversity of viewpoints and listeners without the two popular hosts. The Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) raised concerns that if the two hosts, who are outside contractors, were replaced with civil servants or progovernment staff, the latter could be more prone to self-censorship. The management and future of the government-owned RTHK has been the source of much controversy in recent years, as the government has rejected proposals to transform it into a fully independent public broadcaster.

* Radio Television Hong Kong 11/24/2011: Legco to discuss RTHK departures
* Hong Kong Journalists' Association 11/29/2011 (in Chinese): HK expresses concern over personnel change at radio show
* Radio Free Asia 11/25/2011: Popular talk show hosts axed



After China bus deaths, gift of buses to Macedonia angers netizens

On November 25, the Chinese government donated 23 school buses to the small country of Macedonia, setting off a wave of criticism from Chinese netizens who contrasted the gift with the inadequate transportation resources allotted to Chinese schools. The problem had gained public attention in China on November 16, when 19 preschool children-crammed into a minivan carrying a total of 64 people-were killed in a road accident in a rural town in Gansu Province. By November 28, some 500,000 comments about the donation had been posted on the popular microblog platform Sina Weibo, with many users asking why Chinese schools have to contend with shoddy transport when the government is capable of giving out decent buses to foreigners. A netizen surnamed Gao said, "Our country has become the world champion in automobile production," yet even child car seats remain unregulated. A statement about the donation was reportedly taken down, somewhat belatedly, from the Chinese foreign ministry's website. The authorities have also allegedly asked Chinese media outlets to remove related news from the internet to prevent further public outrage.

* Voice of America 11/28/2011: Chinese netizens question donation of school buses to Macedonia
* Global Voices 11/28/2011: China, Macedonia: Chinese netizens outraged by school bus donation
* Associated Press 11/28/2011: Chinese netizens deride school bus donation to Macedonia after recent fatal crashes


US. hearing cites trade impact of Chinese censorship

The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) held a hearing on November 17 to discuss both the domestic persecution and the international trade effects stemming from China's internet censorship practices. The hearing, entitled "China's Censorship of the Internet and Social Media: The Human Toll and Trade Impact," coincides with U.S. government efforts to use World Trade Organization (WTO) mechanisms to obtain information about Chinese website blocking (see CMB No. 38). Witnesses argued that the use of trade tactics and arbitration mechanisms China had agreed to when joining the WTO to counter censorship could make Beijing become more compliant with international norms. Edward Black, head of the Washington-based Computer and Communications Industry Association, said China has violated WTO rules and imposed unfair internet restrictions on foreign enterprises, often under circumstances that suggest protectionist or political motives.

* CECC 11/17/2011: China's censorship of the internet and social media: The human toll and trade impact
* Penn-Olson 11/18/2011: US Congressional panel tackles China's Great Firewall, seeking a WTO intervention



Researchers conduct mapping of paid internet user comment patterns

A team of computer scientists at the University of Victoria in Canada recently conducted an investigation into China's paid internet commentators hired by companies to create favorable web opinion. Among other findings, they concluded that professional commentators tend to post new comments rather than taking the time to read and respond to those of other users. With 50 percent of those deemed to be "potential paid posters" posting comments at intervals of less than 2.5 minutes, many apparently cut and paste existing comments to increase their work volume. The team identified suspected paid posters using a variety of techniques, including detection of user identities that seem to post in one geographical location and then rapidly reappear in another, suggesting that they are distributed to paid posters by a centralized management team for a given project. Though the investigation focused on the commercial dimension of the phenomenon, its findings and methods could be applied to similar commentators hired by the government to counter online public criticism.

* Cheng Chen et al. 11/18/2001: Battling the Internet Water Army: Detection of hidden paid posters
* MIT Technology Review 11/22/2011: Undercover researchers expose Chinese Internet Water Army
* Freedom at Issue 10/11/2011: China's growing army of paid internet commentators