China Media Bulletin: Issue No. 108
In this issue: Censorship’s economic impact, WeChat posts leading coverage of Tianjin disaster, and prosecution of Umbrella Movement leaders sparks concern.
China’s Most Censored Image
Chinese netizens have long lampooned President Xi Jinping’s resemblance to Winnie the Pooh (see CMB No. 89), and this image alludes to his inspection of troops from a car during a massive September 3 military parade. It was the most-censored image on Sina Weibo over the past month, according to Hong Kong University’s Weiboscope, which tracks real-time microblog deletions.
Photo Credit: Weiboscope
Issue No. 108: September 2015
HEADLINES SEPTEMBER 2015
- Feature: On U.S. Visit, Xi Jinping Should Answer for Censorship’s Economic Damage
- Investigative reporting, WeChat posts lead coverage of Tianjin disaster
- Military parade inspires awe, patriotism, and censorship
- Google attempting to launch censored app store for China
- Hong Kong: Editor’s attackers convicted, Umbrella Movement leaders prosecuted
- Beyond China: Bon Jovi, GitHub attack, and Uighur journalist’s brothers
- What to Watch For
FEATURE: On U.S. Visit, Xi Jinping Should Answer for Censorship’s Economic Damage
By Sarah Cook
Senior Research Analyst for East Asia and China Media Bulletin director
When Chinese president Xi Jinping makes his first state visit to the United States, set to begin September 22, the White House will need to address the problems that the Communist Party’s mounting information controls pose for both countries’ economies.
The Party’s sprawling efforts to defend its political monopoly through censorship have for years been costing the U.S. economy billions of dollars, while at the same time hampering U.S.-China relations. The Chinese authorities have restricted access to U.S. social media and cloud services, blocked U.S. news websites, and limited Chinese fans’ ability to view U.S. entertainment products. However, the intersection between Beijing’s politically motivated censorship and the two countries’ economies has become even starker over the past month, following the Chinese stock market’s latest plunge.
On August 24, the Shanghai Composite Index dropped 8.5 percent, its sharpest decline since 2007. Coming after two months of alarming slides, the new drop spurred a global stock sell-off, adding to market volatility in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
The initial response by Chinese state media was silence. The front page of the Party–run People’s Daily, the state broadcaster’s flagship evening news program, and the official Xinhua news agency’s homepage all omitted mention of the market turmoil for at least one day. Meanwhile, major Chinese search engines censored a growing number of results for the term “stock market disaster.” Screenshots of Baidu search results at 7:15 a.m. on August 25 show over 5 million results. Results for the same query just three hours later displayed only 2.9 million.
Despite robust government controls, many Chinese heard about the market crash and searched elsewhere for details. Millions obtained it from reports by international news outlets and analysis by fellow netizens that was circulated on social media. Consequently, the state media blackout simply added to public distrust in the government and low confidence among Chinese consumers and investors, at a time when Beijing is trying to encourage domestic consumption and reduce dependence on exports.
Moreover, this combination of official censorship and unofficial information-sharing increases the risk and potency of rumors that could worsen a financial crisis by, for example, causing runs on banks or panicked selling of more stocks.
When state media finally broke their silence after a few days, the coverage followed a core theme of deflecting blame from the government and senior party officials. Commentators Heather Timmons and Zheping Huang have identified five state media “scapegoats,” including the U.S. Federal Reserve.
More disturbingly, the authorities cast blame on journalist Wang Xiaolu of Caijing, a respected financial magazine, arresting him and parading him on state television. On August 31, a downcast Wang appeared on China Central Television to confess that information he provided in a July 20 article was “based on hearsay” and had “caused panic and disorder at [the] stock market.” But fellow Chinese journalists and media watchers noted that the acts to which Wang “confessed” were common journalistic practices around the world. Moreover, analysis of the Shanghai Composite Index found that the market actually improved for three days after Wang’s article.
It appears that the true goal behind Wang’s detention is to intimidate journalists into following the official line and avoiding strong investigative reporting on the economy, particularly after many displayed ingenuity and defiance while covering the aftermath of the recent Tianjin chemical explosions. According to at least one stock-market investor and reader of financial publications, a chilling effect was already tangible in the first week of September.
The sudden pressure on economic reporting represents a shift in official attitude because financial publications have long been given more leeway than other news outlets to engage in aggressive, independent journalism.
Meanwhile, the authorities are moving to fill the gap in coverage. A leaked Communist Party directive from September 7 revealed plans to project a rosy view of China’s flagging economy. The instructions—issued by the party’s Central Propaganda Department and distributed by, among others, Xinhua’s editor in chief—outline a series of steps that should be taken to promote “the discourse on China’s bright economic future.” These include preparing detailed drafts for forthcoming articles that will serve as both “domestic- and foreign-facing propaganda.”
Such manipulation is not entirely new. A 2014 Freedom House analysis of over 300 censorship and propaganda directives found that the economy was the seventh most commonly targeted topic. But the scale and scope of the effort appears to be expanding as the economy slows down. This is a dangerous trend.
A free flow of information about the economy is important at any time—a fact that the Communist Party itself has implicitly acknowledged in the past by giving business newspapers a longer leash than most. But in times of uncertainty and crisis, transparency becomes even more critical.
If President Obama wants to do what is best for the U.S., Chinese, and global economies, he will press Xi to reverse course and give markets the information they need to function properly.
PHOTO: Journalist Wang Xiaolu was forced to confess on state television that his July 20 article disrupted the stock market, but the market actually improved for three days following its publication. Wang’s case is widely seen as an attempt to scapegoat and intimidate financial reporters. Photo Credit: Quartz
PRINT / NEW MEDIA: Investigative reporting, WeChat posts lead coverage of Tianjin disaster
On August 12 at around 11:30 p.m., a series of massive explosions struck a hazardous-materials warehouse near a residential complex in Tianjin’s Binhai port area. The industrial accident would ultimately claim over 150 lives, cause millions of dollars in damage, and leave tens of thousands of people temporarily homeless. But in contrast to another fatal accident earlier this year, the capsizing of a cruise ship on the Yangtze River in June, social media and commercial news outlets set the news agenda and provided important updates to millions of people despite official efforts to restrict alternative sources of information. Several observers compared the dynamics to those surrounding the Wenzhou bullet train crash of 2011 (see CMB No. 32).
Within minutes of the initial explosion, the first social-media posts—including photos and videos—had been published. Quick reporting and aggressive investigations by a wide range of online and traditional news outlets soon followed, in what many saw as a race against time before official censors inevitably intervened. Over the coming days, at times in defiance of government directives, online portals like NetEase and Tencent, business news websites like Jiemian, commercial media like Southern Weekly and Caixin, and even the more government-controlled Beijing News each contributed critical information from their own investigations regarding the cause of the blasts, the people and political connections behind the company responsible, and potential official culpability. Traditional media demonstrated boldness and sophistication both in gathering data, including from drones and satellite imagery, and in their dissemination, via repeated front-page coverage and posts on WeChat—a platform whose influence in this incident appeared to outweigh that of the Sina Weibo microblogging service.
Official efforts to manage information about the crisis often followed familiar patterns. On August 13, both national and local authorities issued censorship directives instructing media outlets to use only copy from the official Xinhua news agency and other “authoritative” sources, telling journalists not to post information to their personal social-media accounts, and ordering the removal of news and images of the explosions from prominent spots like top headlines and editors’ recommendations. Deletion of microblog posts jumped tenfold that day and remained above average during subsequent days, according to data gathered by the Hong Kong University–based Weiboscope, which tracks real-time censorship on Sina Weibo.
Meanwhile, state media attempted to trumpet a narrative of heroism by those conducting rescue efforts, or simply ignored the disaster. Tianjin TV aired soap operas and normal news programming on the day after the explosion, rather than providing full-time coverage. The main state broadcaster, China Central Television, cut short the live broadcast of a press conference when officials were embarrassingly ill-prepared to answer even basic questions from journalists.
Such actions appeared to increase public distrust and anger, and compelled many to seek out alternative sources of information. According to one set of preliminary statistics from WeChat cited by Han Xiao of Hong Kong University’s China Media Project, “there were 1,674 articles dealing with the Tianjin explosions on the public accounts of Chinese media organizations on August 13, of which 55 articles were read 100,000 times or more (including quite a few read more than 1 million times).”
The public nature of the tragedy, its scale, and its impact on middle-class families provided Chinese media with an opportunity to outpace censors and serve news consumers in a way that has become rare in recent years under ever-tightening official controls.
NEW MEDIA: Military parade inspires awe, patriotism, and censorship
On September 3, China held its largest military parade in years, celebrating the country’s victory in World War II and the expulsion of brutal Japanese invaders. Elderly veterans of the war participated alongside uniformed soldiers, military vehicles, and aircraft. The event was an impressive, highly choreographed celebration of modern China’s strength. But it was also rife with contradictions. As President Xi Jinping mentioned “peace” 17 times in his speech and announced plans to reduce the size of the People’s Liberation Army by 300,000 people, nuclear missiles and other state-of-the art weaponry were on display and thousands of Chinese traveled to Japan for the holiday. Many Chinese viewers reacted positively to the celebration, praising the parade itself or reflecting on how far China had come based on their personal family memories. But social media comments also included criticism of the parade’s huge cost amid a slowing economy, and censors displayed their nervousness by deleting even humorous posts and images.
Indeed, despite what seems to have been a sincere positive reaction to the pageantry, the Communist Party was not taking chances, intensifying censorship before and during the event. The parade was both the most widely discussed and most censored topic on the Sina Weibo microblogging platform that day, according to Free Weibo, which tracks deleted posts. Numerous sources reported increased obstruction of virtual private networks (VPNs) and other circumvention tools. Censorship and propaganda guidelines leaked by the California-based China Digital Times instructed websites to carefully review all online news and web comments from August 24 to September 5 to ensure that they did not attack the party or political system, and to actively promote “positive, sunny netizen commentary.” Propaganda on the parade was amplified for weeks before the event, as a deflating stock-market bubble and disastrous chemical explosions weakened the economic pillar of the party’s legitimacy, leaving nationalism as a critical source of popular support.
NEW MEDIA: Google attempting to launch censored app store for China
The Information, a U.S.-based technology news website, reported on September 4 that the internet giant Google was seeking approval to create a special version of the Google Play app store for China as early as this fall. The proposed online market would block mobile applications deemed objectionable by the Chinese government, much as Apple has done with its app store. The move would bolster Google’s position in China at a time when its Android mobile operating system is proliferating but does not generate much revenue for the company. Even with government approval, Google will likely continue to fight an uphill battle in China (see CMB No. 106). In August, the country’s internet censorship apparatus, commonly known as the Great Firewall, reportedly blocked the website of Google’s new parent company Alphabet Inc. within hours of it going live. In 2010, Google withdrew its search engine from China over security concerns and a reluctance to comply with official censorship demands.
HONG KONG: Editor’s attackers convicted, Umbrella Movement leaders prosecuted
In two cases with implications for press freedom and the rule of law in Hong Kong, the attackers of a prominent newspaper editor were convicted on August 20, and three student leaders of the 2014 prodemocracy Umbrella Movement were charged with unlawful assembly and related crimes on August 27.
The two men found guilty of attacking former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau in February 2014—Yip Kim-wah and Wong Chi-wah—were sentenced to 19 years in prison. They told the judge they had each been paid HK$100,000 (US$12,900), but refused to say who ordered the attack. Lau suffered severe wounds to his back and legs when the men struck him with a meat cleaver, and the incident sparked public protests calling for greater press freedom protections (see CMB No. 101).
The three student leaders charged the following week were Joshua Wong, cofounder of a youth protest group called Scholarism, who quickly became the face of the 2014 protests; Alex Chow, former leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students; and Nathan Law, the federation’s current leader. They are being prosecuted for their role in events that triggered that autumn’s huge rallies and sit-ins, particularly protesters’ initial decision to break into a fenced square outside the Hong Kong government headquarters. Despite the charges, Wong told reporters he did not regret the move to occupy the square. If convicted, he could face a maximum of five years in prison.
Wong, Law, and two opposition activists had separately been charged on July 14 with “obstructing police” during a June 2014 protest in which they burned copies of a white paper issued by China’s State Council. On August 28, the four appeared in court and requested a permanent stay of proceedings; if this were granted, they would not face trial. A hearing on the application was set for October.
In both cases against the activists, lawyers and supporters have noted that the charges were not filed until a full year after the incidents in question, raising suspicions that the timing was designed to deter a new round of protests on the anniversary of the 2014 events. Derek Lam, a member of Scholarism who was also involved in the previous year’s protests, questioned why police who were filmed beating an unarmed protester have yet to be charged, suggesting that prosecutors were using a double standard.
BEYOND CHINA: Bon Jovi, GitHub attack, and Uighur journalist’s brothers
The Chinese Communist Party’s information controls and political sensitivities often have an impact far beyond China’s borders. The following are a few incidents reported over the past month that illustrate this phenomenon:
- Bon Jovi China tour abruptly canceled: On September 9, the Los Angeles Times reported that the first tour in China by popular U.S. singer Jon Bon Jovi was canceled just days before his band was scheduled to perform in Shanghai and Beijing. The tour organizer, AEG Live Asia, announced the cancelation on its Sina Weibo microblogging account, attributing it to “unforeseen reasons” and offering refunds to fans who had purchased tickets. Chinese netizens speculated that officials had gotten wind of a 2010 Bon Jovi concert in Taiwan, during which a video backdrop showed an image of Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Chinese authorities have previously barred performances by musicians who express support for the cause of freedom in Tibet, even when the gesture occurs outside China. Such restrictions harm performers in an era of shrinking album sales, and could induce self-censorship on issues that are politically sensitive to the Communist Party.
- GitHub hit with cyberattack after Chinese developers forced to delete code: On August 25, GitHub, a U.S.-based computer code repository, came under a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack that caused connectivity problems. The site quickly began efforts to mitigate the attack, and within four hours service was restored. GitHub was subjected to a massive DDOS attack in March that was subsequently traced to servers in China and attributed to a new government tool that researchers termed the “Great Cannon.” That assault was apparently intended to target sections of GitHub’s servers that hosted the New York Times Chinese-language version as well as content by the anticensorship group GreatFire.org, both of which are blocked in China. The source of the latest attack was not immediately identified. However, it occurred a few days after two Chinese developers of circumvention tools deleted the code for their programs—GoAgent and ShadowSocks—from GitHub, apparently under pressure from the authorities. The intimidation of software programmers is a relatively new phenomenon in China. Although the two developers removed their projects, other GitHub users cloned the deleted code to preserve the tools, which may have prompted the DDoS attack.
- Brothers of American Uighur journalist put on trial: On August 19 and 25, two brothers of Shohret Hoshur, a Uighur journalist for U.S. government–funded Radio Free Asia, were tried for allegedly “endangering state security” and “leaking state secrets,” though they are not reporters or activists themselves. As of mid-September, no verdicts had been announced. The prosecutions have been widely seen as a politically motivated attempt by the Chinese authorities to silence Shohret Hoshur’s reporting from the United States. He has played a key role in providing reliable coverage of breaking news events in Xinjiang, a region that has suffered from ethnic tensions, security crackdowns, and extreme censorship in recent years. One of his other brothers, Tudaxun Hoshur, was sentenced last year to five years in prison on similar charges. Members of the U.S. Congress have repeatedly raised the family’s case with the Chinese authorities.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
- Xi Jinping’s U.S. visit: Watch for whether President Obama makes any public comments about the increased censorship and repression of civil society that have occurred since Xi Jinping took power. In terms of media coverage in China, watch for selective transcripts and blacked-out live broadcasts of anything unexpected—including references by either president to China’s poor human rights record—and more restrictions on circumvention tools as netizens are enticed to access blocked U.S. media accounts of the visit.
- Tianjin explosion coverage: On the one hand, the media’s strong performance could give a morale boost to professional journalists at a difficult time. On the other hand, similar outbursts of social-media sharing and journalistic defiance after the 2011 Wenzhou train crash and the 2013 anticensorship protests at Southern Weekly have triggered tighter restrictions as the Communist Party attempts to regain control. Watch for new limitations on WeChat (including for public accounts managed by news outlets), punishment of journalists on trumped-up charges (as has already occurred with Wang Xiaolu’s case), and continued retroactive deletion of investigative reports about the explosion as censors catch up with the coverage.
- Google Play: Watch for whether Google indeed launches a China-specific version of its Google Play app store this fall. If so, questions worth exploring include: Which apps are unavailable to Chinese audiences? Are they similar to those removed by Apple, or is Google’s self-censorship more—or less—strict? What is the response from netizens, many of whom mourned the loss of Google’s search engine in 2010 and intensified blocking of Gmail in 2014?