China Media Bulletin, No. 118, December 2016 | Freedom House

China Media Bulletin, No. 118, December 2016

A monthly update of press freedom news and analysis related to China

rebel pepper cartoon china environmental protest
Photo of the Month: 

Days of low visibility: This political cartoon by Rebel Pepper, an artist who left China for Japan two years ago, depicts a man with an anti-pollution face mask covering his eyes rather than his mouth and nose. The image alludes to official censorship and monitoring of the purchase of such masks in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, following anti-pollution protests in early December. Rebel Pepper explains, “I feel that while the government has forbidden people from defending their right to breathe, they have used a blindfold to cover the people’s eyes so they will not see the pollution problem.” 
Credit: China Digital Times.

FEATURE: Beijing’s top censorship priorities in 2016

by Sarah Cook

A version of this article was published in Foreign Policy on December 16, 2016.

China sprawling and sophisticated system of censorship is well-known. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the system is static, suppressing news on a standard list of politically sensitive topics. Freedom House analysis of leaked party directives to media outlets shows that from one year to the next, there are notable shifts in the types of stories that Chinese government censors are most interested in squelching or amplifying. In 2016, for example, protecting official reputations and influencing coverage of foreign affairs outranked economics compared to 2015.

On an almost daily basis, China’s ruling Communist Party and its state apparatus relay detailed instructions to news outlets, websites, and social media administrators throughout the country on whether and how to cover breaking news stories and related commentary.

A sampling of these are leaked each year and published by the California-based website China Digital Times. The collection is not exhaustive, but given the opacity of Chinese government decision-making, the orders offer unique insights into party leaders’ priorities and their favored methods of “guiding public opinion” in a changing technological landscape.

For the past three years, Freedom House has analyzed hundreds of these leaked directives, including all of those from 2016 that were available in CDT’s collection as of December 1. A total of 86 were found in 2016 to have ordered “negative” actions, such as deleting an article, declining to send reporters to cover a news event, or closing the relevant comment sections on websites. Another eight directives ordered strictly “positive” actions to promote the party line, such as covering specific topics or using only copy from the official Xinhua news agency on a given story. It is difficult to verify the orders’ authenticity beyond the efforts of the CDT staff, but the leaked documents often match visible shifts in coverage and are generally treated as credible by observers of Chinese media.

The most commonly targeted categories of emerging news in 2016 were as follows:

  1. Party and official reputation: A total of 19 directives restricted circulation of content or news that would undermine the public image of individual officials or the party’s activities, including four directives designed to curb disrespectful or humorous references to Chinese president Xi Jinping. An additional four directives ordered “positive” actions related to Xi’s image, including one from July instructing all websites to promote an article describing how Xi’s speech on the party’s 95th anniversary evoked a “strong response.”
  2. Health and safety: A total of 18 directives restricted coverage of man-made accidents, environmental pollution, or food and drug safety. Even investigations by favored commercial news outlets were not spared. “Do not reprint or hype The Paper’s article ‘Hundreds of Millions of Yuan in Unrefrigerated Vaccines Flow into 18 Provinces: Possibly Affect Human Life,’” reads one order from March. Other directives barred coverage on the anniversary of fatal chemical explosions in Tianjin and stymied reporting on a medical advertising scandal that was widely blamed for the death of a young cancer patient.
  3. Foreign affairs: In a year that included elections in the United States and Taiwan, nuclear provocations by North Korea, and rising tensions in the South China Sea, 15 directives sought to curtail Chinese audiences’ access to news about events occurring outside of mainland China. Elections and referendums—which might draw attention to the Communist Party’s lack of democratic credentials—emerged as particularly touchy topics. Nine directives restricted coverage of developments such as the U.S. presidential debates, the election of opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen as president of Taiwan, and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
  4. Official wrongdoing: A total of 13 directives restricted coverage of official wrongdoing, including news of Chinese elites’ overseas assets as revealed in the Panama Papers, incidents of embezzlement, and high-level corruption cases like the sentencing of former security czar Zhou Yongkang in June. Five directives restricted coverage of police misconduct, including one wrongful execution and one suspicious death in custody.
  5. Media and censorship: Eleven directives restricted circulation of content from less tightly controlled media sources (like the commercial outlet Caixin or a popular Korean drama) or to reporting on information controls themselves, such as the prosecution of a journalist or the dissolution of journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, run by party members who tackled sensitive political debates.
  6. Civil society: Six directives restricted coverage of civil society, including an ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers that was part of a broader assault on China’s “rights defense” movement during the year.

The remaining directives sought to control reporting on the economy, seemingly benign government policies, and events in Hong Kong.

Last January, Freedom House conducted a similar analysis of 75 censorship and propaganda directives published during 2015. A comparison of the most censored topics from that period and from 2016 suggests a number of possible changes in Communist Party priorities:

Rank Topic Direction of ranking change
1 Party and official reputation ↑ (4 spots)
2 Health and safety ↓ (1 spot)
3 Foreign affairs ↑ (5 spots)
4 Official wrongdoing ↓ (1 spot)
5 Media and censorship No change
6 Civil society No change
7 Economics ↓ (6 spots)

The changes in 2016 appear to reflect increased political attention to certain official narratives, such as Xi’s drive to increase “positive energy” in the media sphere, as well as concerns over Xi’s personal reputation as he consolidates significant power in his own hands. Meanwhile, other factors that drove censorship in 2015 may have receded. Notably, there was no repetition of the previous year’s dramatic stock-market crashes and a number of journalists who aggressively covered financial news have left the profession. Thus, censors’ need to impose extraordinary restrictions on reporting of the economy appears to have eased.

As for the methods employed by censors to reduce public attention on targeted stories, a particularly popular tactic in 2016—evident in 22 of the directives—was instructing editors and web portals to downplay a story that might otherwise garner significant public attention, or whose popularity may have already exceeded party leaders’ tolerance levels.

The actions ordered included generic “don’t hype” instructions, bans on special features or homepage spotlights, and highly specific directions on the ranking of top stories. One leaked order from May 2016 declared that a certain story “must be kept no higher than seventh” on lists of top news items. Compared with other censorship methods, like deleting users’ social media posts, this kind of behind-the-scenes manipulation is less visible and therefore less costly to the party in terms of generating netizen resentment, apparently adding to its attractiveness.

Looking ahead to 2017, Chinese citizens’ need for timely, accurate information about the very topics targeted for censorship in these directives—excessive police force, foreign affairs, and the actions of their own leaders—is only set to grow. The country’s journalists, netizens, technologists, and the international community will have to find new, creative ways to produce and disseminate news in a political environment that is increasingly hostile to such efforts.

Sarah Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and directs its monthly China Media Bulletin.

PRINT / NEW MEDIA: Independent journalism in China struggles to survive

A multiyear decline in conditions for investigative journalism and liberal commentary in China accelerated during 2016, contributing to a privileged market position for more tightly controlled and state-affiliated outlets.

First, a number of publications and an online forum that had survived previous rounds of repression were shuttered or severely penalized. Yanhuang Chunqiu, a journal founded in 1991 and run by party cadres, was known as an unusually moderate voice within the party, but it was dissolved in July. The Beijing Times, once admired for its hard-hitting investigative reporting, will reportedly be shut down and integrated into the tamer Beijing Morning Post. In October, Consensus Net (, one of China’s few neutral platforms for public debate among intellectuals, journalists, and officials, was suddenly closed. Ten days later, Chinese media regulators issued a directive that significantly narrowed the distribution channels for the website of respected business publication Caixin by barring others from reposting its content for two months.

Second, commercial web portals—like Tencent, Sina, and Netease—were put under increased pressure to refrain from producing their own news content, even via aggregations, a change that particularly affects the hundreds of millions of Chinese internet users who turn to these sites as a first stop for information. In a series of announcements over the summer, the Cyberspace Administration of China declared that the portals had “seriously violated laws and regulations” and would be fined for producing their own news content, that their editors would henceforth be personally responsible for slip-ups, and that gathering news from social media without approval was no longer allowed.

Third, limits on the political and commercial space for independent journalism, along with several high-profile prison sentences for professional journalists in recent years, have affected the personal career decisions of individual reporters. Many of the country’s top investigative journalists—such as Wang Keqin and Luo Changping—whose past muckraking has made national and international headlines have left the profession in favor of safer, although often still socially meaningful, occupations.

The result of these changes, writes Ying Chan, founding director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, is that “investigative journalism in China … is struggling to survive today.”

Having marginalized independent content, the Communist Party is attempting to fill the vacuum by promoting digital outlets like The Paper as appealing news sources. Launched in Shanghai in 2015, The Paper is supervised by censors and funded by the state, but it is given leeway to make its product attractive to readers. According to former journalist Fang Kecheng, it features “the face of commercial media, and the heart of Party media.”

In 2016, the publication’s owners rolled out an English-language affiliate called Sixth Tone. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian of Foreign Policy described it as “Vox … acquired by the Chinese Communist Party.” It has a smooth web interface with snappy headlines, and stories that try to reveal something of the everyday life of Chinese people, but many of its articles ultimately avoid key contextual information that would reflect negatively on China’s political system. Separately, given these political and market dynamics, the independent English-language website The Nanfang announced its closure in December after nearly seven years in operation, citing a lack of profitability. The result is one more state-controlled voice, and one less independent voice, in the English-language Chinese news sector.

Although media scholars like Zhan Jiang say there is little left of professional watchdog journalism in China, some Chinese reporters are still serving their society by upholding the standards of their profession. A speech by President Xi Jinping in February urging greater media loyalty was met with a flurry of pushback. Among other actions, former Xinhua journalist Zhou Fang released an open letter that called for an investigation of officials involved in censorship, Caixin published a censorship exposé, and three quasi-official writers resigned in protest. Meanwhile, The Paper has run into its own challenges, with its founding chief executive and a group of senior reporters departing during the year to launch a new online news video company in which they are permitted to own shares.

News organizations based outside of China are also working to fill some of the voids left by the decline of investigative reporting in the country. Over the past year, foreign news companies, cross-border networks like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and overseas outlets with grassroots contacts like Radio Free Asia and New Tang Dynasty Television have uncovered cases of financial mismanagement, repression in ethnic minority areas, and a range of human rights abuses.

However, there is no substitute for dedicated Chinese reporters who can expose corruption in university admissions processes, take deep dives into the troubled vaccine industry, or document abuses in the labor camp system, as some journalists had done in previous years.

PRINT / NEW MEDIA: Minorities outnumber activists, journalists in expression-related incarcerations

To gain a better understanding of the Chinese government’s efforts to control public debate and information flows, Freedom House collected data on Chinese citizens who were sentenced to prison in 2016 for exercising their right to free expression. Drawing on media reports, alerts from human rights groups, a sample of court verdicts, and the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s Political Prisoner Database, Freedom House researchers identified 111 individuals imprisoned between January and December 2016 for peacefully expressing their views or sharing information with fellow citizens. This total is not comprehensive, particularly given the difficulties of obtaining information about events in ethnic minority regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. Nor does it include the large number of individuals in pretrial detention, or those still serving prison terms from previous years.

Nevertheless, even from this limited sample, a number of notable dynamics are evident:

  • Religious and ethnic minorities targeted: Of the 111 people imprisoned in 2016 for exercising their right to free expression, 80 were members of an ethnic minority or actively involved in a religious community. Falun Gong practitioners made up a particularly large contingent, with 68 cases identified. This partly reflects the Communist Party’s fierce persecution of the group as well as Freedom House’s access to a collection of court verdicts from a Chinese government database that involved Falun Gong cases. The other individuals in this subset of 80 cases were seven Tibetans, three Uighurs, and unusually, two Chinese Buddhists, including one monk.
  • Grassroots activists top professional journalists: Among the 31 individuals who were not members of an ethnic minority or religious group, only three were professional journalists, with just one still employed at a media outlet when detained. The others included 17 grassroots activists, five bloggers, four petitioners, one lawyer, and one publisher. Five of the imprisoned activists were detained in 2014 for expressing their solidarity with prodemocracy protesters in Hong Kong, and were sentenced in April 2016. In another case, three activists were sentenced for organizing an “advocacy tour” intended to encourage civic activism and promote democracy and the rule of law.
  • Sentences averaged 3.4 years: The sentences imposed for expression-related crimes during 2016 ranged from 6 months to 19 years. Five people were sentenced to more than 10 years in prison. Zhang Haitao, who was given the longest sentence in the cases reviewed, was punished for his 200 microblog posts and content he provided to overseas media outlets, including comments criticizing Chinese government policies in Xinjiang.
  • Expression in a variety of media penalized: Of the 111 cases examined, 45 involved online expression, 36 focused on homemade materials, 28 stemmed from public speech, and 2 related to print media. The large number of citizens sentenced to jail because of their internet activity—including via social media applications like Sina Weibo or Tencent’s WeChat or QQ—reflects the tight controls imposed on Chinese cyberspace. The 64 cases centered on homemade materials and public speech show that many citizens turn to offline methods to communicate politically sensitive ideas. These included handing out leaflets, raising banners, or simply calling publicly for greater freedom. Falun Gong practitioners accounted for 36 cases that involved producing and disseminating leaflets and VCDs with information about the practice and the abuses its adherents have suffered. The Tibetans and Uighurs in the sample, by contrast, were punished for walking in public while holding up banned images of the Dalai Lama and accessing information about Islam on their smartphones, respectively.
  • Geographic distribution: The five provinces with the largest number of cases are Guangdong (15), Shandong (13), Hubei (9), Fujian (7), and Hunan (7). In Guangdong, 8 out of the 15 individuals incarcerated were activists. By contrast, citizens sentenced to prison in Shandong, Hubei, Fujian, and Hunan were mostly religious believers.

Taken together, the above findings reflect a shift from the past two years, when a relatively large contingent of professional journalists were detained or sentenced to prison, and a return to the trends in previous years, in which ethnic minorities, religious believers, and online activists bore the brunt of prosecutions for free expression. The data also highlight the need for greater international monitoring of prosecutions for informal, offline expression, in addition to the more high-profile cases linked to internet activity and journalism.

NEW MEDIA: Censors tighten grip on WeChat, video streaming, and foreign tech firms

China’s already robust internet controls expanded in reach and sophistication in 2016, affecting new parts of the technology sector.

  • WeChat censorship: When the Chinese authorities tightened censorship and increased reprisals on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo in 2013, many users shifted to Tencent’s WeChat, an instant messaging tool. WeChat was perceived as both more private and more free in terms of the content users could share. Since then, the gap between the applications has shrunk, and reports of censorship on WeChat increased further in 2016. A set of rules promulgated by the application’s administrators in April included, among standard prohibitions on spam and fraud, a series of more politically charged injunctions against “spreading rumors” or “obviously biased headlines.” On November 30, University of Toronto researchers published a report revealing that users are no longer informed when their messages are blocked, a change from previous years. In addition, the study found that WeChat censorship is often dynamic and responsive to the context in which words appear, and that mainland Chinese users who leave the country and use WeChat on international phone numbers are subject to the same censorship as in China, so long as they initially registered with a Chinese phone number.
  • Online streaming restrictions: Online video streaming was once a largely unregulated media sector in China, but state restrictions have gradually caught up with the market, particularly over the last year. In January and February, a number of popular video series—such as Go Princess Go, which features time travel and gender swapping, as well as the gay-themed drama Addicted—were removed from the internet. In March, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), China’s main media regulator, said that online television programs would be subject to the same strict content standards as traditional television. In July, SAPPRFT increased restrictions on foreign content that were first rolled out in 2014, sharply limiting the amount of foreign-inspired programming. Regulators also tightened the rules on personal live video streaming, punishing web celebrity Papi Jiang for foul language in May. In November, the Cyberspace Administration of China formalized a regulation requiring firms that provide personal live-stream services to log user data for 60 days and cooperate in national security investigations. A week after the rules came into effect, state media reported that thousands of accounts had been shuttered for violent or vulgar content.
  • Cybersecurity law’s effects on foreign firms: On November 7, the Chinese government adopted a new law that Human Rights Watch called “regressive” and “abusive” due to provisions that will entrench censorship and surveillance online generally, with particularly serious implications for foreign internet firms that seek to operate in China. Critics’ concerns center on requirements that companies store personal user information in-country, fully enforce real-name registration, submit to government audits, and provide “technical support” to help with official investigations. Some of these actions may have already been tacitly expected, but the new law elevates and strictly enforces them. The mandate for government security inspections and a provision empowering authorities to review data before transfer out of the country have raised concerns about the disclosure of corporate secrets and hindrances to daily business activity. The law, which will come into effect in June 2017, follows a series of other restrictions on foreign applications and websites during 2016, including the sudden shutdown of Chinese users’ access to Apple’s iTunes and iBooks stores in April.

HONG KONG: Interference from Beijing brings media chill

Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong increased throughout the year, leading to an unprecedented chilling effect on the media landscape, the publishing industry, and freedom of expression in general.

One catalyst of heightened self-censorship was the detention of five independent booksellers by Chinese authorities, including one who was abducted directly from Hong Kong, a blatant violation of the “one country, two systems” principle governing relations between Hong Kong and mainland China. In the aftermath of the abductions, the space for publishing, printing, or selling books that are critical of China’s leaders or government shrank significantly. Such books were removed from airports, a key retail location favored by travelers from China, and tighter customs controls reduced the number of Chinese coming to Hong Kong to buy books.

Fierce censorship in China of the award-winning dystopian film Ten Years apparently also fed self-censorship in the territory, with many Hong Kong cinemas later refusing to screen a locally produced film about the prodemocracy Umbrella Movement. In the news media sector, fears that the sale of the English-language South China Morning Post to Chinese internet tycoon Jack Ma in late 2015 would result in coverage more favorable to Beijing were partially realized. Notably, an apparently coerced interview with a detained human rights legal assistant yielded comparisons to Chinese state media, and the shuttering of the Chinese-language version of the paper’s website,, and its social media accounts resulted in speculation that Chinese officials were interested in eliminating that content in particular.

Concerns about Beijing’s growing efforts to curb freedoms in Hong Kong were amplified by developments in the political sphere, as the central government openly intervened to ensure that two newly elected localist legislators would not take their seats after altering their oaths of office as a form of protest. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress issued an uninvited interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law on November 7 to effectively block Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching from assuming their positions in the Legislative Council, or LegCo. (Hong Kong’s High Court later issued its own decision barring them from office on November 15.) Hong Kong officials then initiated new legal action—relying on Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law and likely at the prompting of Beijing’s Liaison Office—seeking to challenge the oaths given by four well-known prodemocracy lawmakers. In the latter cases, unlike the first two, LegCo president Andrew Leung had either accepted the oaths or allowed the lawmakers to retake them, and they have formally taken their seats. The apparent effort to purge the legislature of established prodemocracy figures—in addition to the two pro-independence newcomers—is unprecedented and a threat to Hong Kong’s remaining political autonomy. If it succeeds, it could have long-term implications for politics and stability in the territory, especially if the democratic camp loses its ability to veto certain legislation as a result.

Despite the negative trajectory, some developments left room for optimism. Widely disliked Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying announced on December 9 that he will not be standing for reelection next year, raising the possibility that a more conciliatory figure may step forward. Hong Kong’s Ombudsman ruled that journalists for digital-only media should have as much access as their print colleagues to government press resources and venues, according to Hong Kong Free Press on December 6. To break through the chill on the book publishing market, Mei Fong, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, chose to self-publish a new book on China’s one-child policy. And U.S. lawmakers have proposed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which could generate its own deterrent effect by identifying and punishing Chinese officials “who are responsible for suppressing basic freedoms in Hong Kong.”

BEYOND CHINA: ‘Cyber sovereignty,’ Confucius classrooms, some concessions

Last month’s China Media Bulletin highlighted the recent evolution of the Communist Party’s methods for influencing foreign media, the film industry, and international cultural events, often with the assistance of proxies. For this annual summary, three other trends related to the intersection between Chinese information controls and the international community deserve notice:

  • ‘Cyber sovereignty’ and the Russian connection: Continuing a trend from 2014, President Xi Jinping opened an international internet conference in the city of Wuzhen in November by laying out a vision of the internet that differs greatly from the current open and international model, instead emphasizing “cyber sovereignty” and governments’ right to regulate content within their borders. During 2016, the Chinese authorities increasingly cooperated with their Russian counterparts to promote this approach, including at the “Seventh International Safe Internet Forum” hosted in Moscow in April. As Russia’s government has sought to increase control over its swath of the internet, it has reportedly turned to Beijing for assistance. Russian officials met throughout the year with Chinese internet regulators and technologists, including former Cyberspace Administration of China head Lu Wei and Fang Binxing, the architect of China’s so-called Great Firewall filtering system. The Russian authorities subsequently introduced or adopted a number of legislative and technical measures with the apparent aim of building its own walled-in internet, known as the “Red Web.”
  • Confucius classrooms for a younger generation: The spread of Confucius Institutes—Chinese state-sponsored learning centers typically based in foreign universities—continued to spark controversy and resistance in some quarters because of concerns over their negative impact on academic freedom or discriminatory hiring practices. But hundreds of Confucius classrooms are also being established at elementary and high schools around the world. These programs reach a demographic that is far more susceptible to soft messaging and conditioning, and grade-school teachers and administrators are even less prepared than university officials to manage subtle indoctrination by a foreign power. In 2016, Confucius classrooms were opened in Pakistan, Cyprus, Portugal, Angola, Ghana, England, Scotland, India, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, and several U.S. states, including Arizona (in kindergarten) and Oregon. Scandals, including charges of fraud and embezzlement, have arisen due to a systemic lack of transparency. There have also been complaints by parents that the programs amount to “infiltration of the Chinese Communist Party into the … public school system.”
  • Limited concessions: China’s determination to control information and influence public opinion yielded to international norms and pressure in a number of cases. Commercial cyberattacks on U.S. companies, a major plank in China’s strategy for rapid technological industrialization, eased considerably during the year. A number of civil society advocates, including Chen Taihe, a law professor, and Zhang Kai, a well-known rights lawyer, were released after periods of detention following international appeals on their behalf. And a visa was granted to New York Times journalist Keith Bradsher, allowing him to assume the role of Shanghai bureau chief. These concessions were fairly limited compared with previous years, and important legislation—like the Cybersecurity Law and a law on foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—were passed with few changes despite significant international criticism. Nevertheless, in the cases where concessions were made, the combination of high-level and multilateral pressure from abroad seems to have made a difference, underscoring the importance of such efforts.


Increased censorship around 19th Party Congress: In late 2017, the Communist Party will hold its 19th Congress, during which most members of the Politburo Standing Committee are likely to be replaced and a possible successor to Xi may be named. As observers speculate on appointments, whether Xi will choose a successor, and which internal struggles are gaining momentum in the run-up to the summit, watch for censorship of these topics. During the congress itself, watch for sweeping and tight controls on a wide range of reporting and expression, as well as temporary or long-term detention of activists in Beijing.

Implementation of cybersecurity, NGO legislation: Two laws adopted in 2016— the Cybersecurity Law and the Foreign NGO Management Law—will go into effect in 2017 and are expected to negatively affect free expression and online privacy. As implementation unfolds, watch for specific examples of the laws’ provisions being used to suppress peaceful dissent, identify and punish internet users, or obstruct the activities of foreign tech companies and civil society groups.

Hong Kong trajectory under new executive: In March 2017, a new Hong Kong chief executive will be elected through a process that favors pro-Beijing interests. Under the current executive, Leung Chun-ying, media freedom in Hong Kong has notably declined, due to both Beijing’s influence and the local government’s own aversion to transparency and inclusive media engagement. In 2017, watch for restrictions on free expression and political participation that emerge during the election cycle, as well as for any changes to media policy under Leung’s successor.