China Media Bulletin Issue No. 117: November 2016
In this issue: The global reach of China’s censors, netizen reactions to U.S. presidential debates, and stifled news of Wukan crackdown.
Silencing support for silenced lawyer
This photo of Chinese lawyer Xia Lin was posted on the Sina Weibo microblogging platform on September 22, the day a court sentenced him to 12 years in prison on fraud charges that many observers view as politically motivated. The image was accompanied by a message describing some of the free expression cases Xia had handled, including those of prominent artist Ai Weiwei and well-known attorney Pu Zhiqiang. It concluded, “Today, he has been sentenced to 12 years! And who will cry injustice for him?” The original poster—a Shanghai user named Hu Nanjie—had just 800 followers, but the post garnered 2,618 shares in about eight hours before being deleted by censors. Credit: Weiboscope.
- Feature: Willing Proxies Give China’s Censors a Global Reach
- Restrictions, mockery, and netizen reactions accompany U.S. presidential debates
- Authorities stifle news of Wukan crackdown
- Censorship updates: Key websites shut or suspended, coverage of deaths and penalties muted
- Hong Kong: Prodemocracy politicians, artists face reprisals at home and abroad
- Beyond China: Hacking trends, U.S. internet outage, foreign media pressure, Hollywood gains
- What to Watch For
by Sarah Cook
This article was also published in the Diplomat on November 2, 2016.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has further extended its control over media and information beyond China’s borders for at least decade now. But occasionally there is a spike in international censorship and propaganda activity that offers fresh insight into how the long-term process is unfolding. One such uptick occurred over the past three months. A review of over two dozen incidents and news reports on this theme emerging since September indicates that private citizens and nongovernmental institutions are playing a growing role in advancing Beijing’s agenda, through either active promotion or passive concessions.
A first critical group of nonstate actors involved in amplifying the CCP message are nationalist Chinese internet users whose comments, indirectly shaped by state media narratives, may result in economic reprisals against Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and foreign celebrities and brands that are perceived to have supported causes despised by the CCP. In late October, Taiwanese actress Irene Chen was removed from a Chinese film in mid-production after netizens dug up Facebook remarks from 2014 in which she backed Taiwan’s Sunflower protest movement against growing Chinese media influence on the island. The internet users said they would refuse to watch a film whose star they accused of backing Taiwanese independence. British cosmetics brand Lush came under similar fire earlier in the month, after it was reported to have supported a group campaigning to end human rights abuses in Tibet. Reflecting some Chinese netizens’ sentiments, one user wrote, “Tibetan separatism supporter, please get out of the Chinese market.”
A second influential group comprises wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs with close ties to party leaders who are increasingly investing in media and filmmaking industries outside mainland China. Two of the most prominent businessmen, Wang Jianlin and Jack Ma, recently announced new financing, production, and dissemination deals with Sony Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners, respectively. It remains to be seen whether they will use their newfound economic leverage to implement content changes favorable to the CCP, but past experiences involving Beijing-friendly media owners suggest that such adjustments are only a matter of time.
Lastly, members of overseas Chinese communities themselves have taken part in blatant displays of pro-CCP sentiment. These include an initiative in Australia to hold concerts glorifying Mao, a gala in California to celebrate Mao’s Long March, and an anti–Dalai Lama protest in Milan. Australian lawmaker Sam Dastyari resigned from the Senate leadership in September over a scandal dubbed “cash for comment,” in which he was accused of publicly backing Beijing’s position on the South China Sea in exchange for political donations from Chinese-Australian businessmen with close CCP ties.
Proxies for the Chinese government are not restricted to ethnic Chinese, however. Foreign governments, politicians, international organizations, and academic institutions have also toed the CCP line for various reasons. During the last two months, under apparent pressure from Beijing, the Thai government barred entry to Hong Kong democracy activist and Beijing critic Joshua Wong, Indian authorities detained dozens of pro-Tibetan protesters surrounding a visit to Goa by Chinese president Xi Jinping, New Zealand’s deputy prime minister canceled meetings with veteran Hong Kong democrats Martin Lee and Anson Chan, and the UN-affiliated aviation agency refused to accredit Taiwanese journalists to cover its annual assembly.
A series of other actions that were criticized by free expression and democracy activists entailed less clear influence from Beijing but nonetheless served to promote its narratives. These included a decision by Bloomberg News to remove the online version of its award-winning 2012 investigation into the assets of Xi’s relatives, the 152-year-old Indian newspaper Daily Pioneer’s introduction of a customized four-page weekly supplement from the Chinese state media outlet Yunnan Daily, and Vancouver’s mayor donning a red scarf and flying the Chinese flag at city hall in a display with obvious pro-CCP overtones.
Democratic societies, with their emphasis on an open exchange of information and opinions, are vulnerable to intrusive, state-sponsored propaganda efforts that present themselves as just another, equally valid perspective. Similarly, attempts at transnational censorship exploit democracies’ culture of civility, in which speech deemed “offensive” to a given group or community is avoided whenever possible. But a firm and thoughtful adherence to the principles of transparency, freedom of expression, and freedom of association is often enough to resist Beijing’s attempts to impose its will overseas.
Indeed, in another notable set of incidents over the past two months, international actors have successfully rebuffed pressure to self-censor, opposed censorious decisions, or tackled news topics that are sensitive to Beijing. Slovakia’s president and 50 Czech parliamentarians met with the Dalai Lama, and the Milan government granted the Tibetan spiritual leader honorary citizenship despite protests from Chinese authorities. India’s federal government confirmed the Dalai Lama’s right to travel freely within the country, including to a region that China claims is disputed territory. And in September, a popular Australian news site ran a three-article investigative series about the torture, brainwashing, and apparent killing for organs of Falun Gong prisoners of conscience in China. Meanwhile, media outlets, human rights groups, and some politicians around the world condemned the cowardly treatment of Hong Kong democrats by officials in Thailand and New Zealand.
Some policymakers have taken steps to respond more systematically to Beijing’s growing influence. In September, 16 members of the U.S. Congress urged the Government Accountability Office to consider expanding reviews of foreign investments given “concerns about propaganda and control of the media.” In Australia, following the Dastyari scandal and media investigations showing that Chinese businesses are the largest source of foreign money in the country’s politics, some lawmakers have called for a ban on foreign political donations, which are currently legal.
These policy suggestions highlight the fact that Beijing’s influence on the global information landscape often depends on raw economic pressure and incentives. Individuals and institutions in democratic countries can respond effectively by shining a light on the operation of such leverage, pre-emptively setting rules to protect free expression, and speaking out in defense of their own societies’ fundamental values. The CCP will no doubt continue its transnational censorship and propaganda efforts, but at the very least, those living in democracies can refuse to do the party’s work for it.
Sarah Cook is a Senior Research Analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin.
BROADCAST / NEW MEDIA: Restrictions, mockery, and netizen reactions accompany U.S. presidential debates
The Chinese government appears to have adopted a two-track strategy toward coverage of the U.S. presidential election, and particularly the debates, reflecting its uncertainty about the process’s popular appeal in China. On the one hand, Chinese state media have highlighted the more scandalous elements of this election season to disparage the American democratic system and promote the Communist Party’s model of authoritarianism. On the other hand, the authorities have limited live streaming of the presidential debates, apparently fearing unfettered discussion of them online.
The day after the second debate on October 9, Xinhua, the official news agency, ran an editorial titled “The American Election Has Plunged to New Depths,” calling American politics a “farce” and the debates a “freak show.” Global Times, the nationalistic tabloid owned by the party mouthpiece People’s Daily, ran a series of articles describing America’s democracy as “decaying” and the debates as “trite” and “spectator sport.” China Central Television’s Weibo feed portrayed the debates as a boxing match. These criticisms are largely in line with the Communist Party’s long-standing propaganda narratives, notesDavid Bandurski of the China Media Project, although the 2016 election has provided fresh fodder for such arguments.
Nevertheless, streaming of the presidential debates was tightly managed. Caixin and NetEase, two popular news sites in China, initially set up live streams of the first debate, but regulators pulled the plug soon after it began. The web portal Sina was allowed to feature all three debates (1, 2, 3), and some U.S.-based news sites were surprisingly accessible. The first debate, shown via Sina’s Weibo microblogging platform, attracted 45,000 “likes” and 15,000 comments. But even this limited openness soon dissipated. The second debate was placed in a less prominent location and only received 667 comments, while the third was buried on the portal.
Selective access to the wider world has shaped Chinese perceptions of the U.S. presidential election. You Tianlong, a doctoral student who runs a Chinese-language podcast about the campaign, told the New York Times that “the biggest misunderstanding is that many Chinese take House of Cards too seriously.” “Another misunderstanding,” he adds, “is derived from the negative propaganda many Chinese have absorbed over the years, that is, that American politics is controlled by money or big capitalists and that politicians are just puppets controlled by capitalists.” Others, including those outside China, have offered a different perspective. The only Chinese-American at the second debate, a microbiologist who escaped religious persecution in China, said she was “excited to see the center of the democratic process” and thought there was “no question about which system is better.”
Earlier in the election cycle, many netizens in China appeared to think that Donald Trump was the more desirable candidate, despite his many negative comments about China. But a Pew Research Center poll released in early October indicated that Hillary Clinton was viewed more favorably (37 percent to Trump’s 22 percent). Others have made light of the fact that there is so much discussion about democracy in a system still ruled by the autocratic Communist Party; one user wrote that Chinese discussing the debates is like “a group of eunuchs talking about sex.”
In mid-September, nearly five years after the first democratic uprising in the southern Chinese village of Wukan, battalions of riot police were dispatched to the hamlet to suppress protests with tear gas and rubber bullets. The cause of the unrest was the same as in the previous conflict: the expropriation of collectively owned land by real estate developers in league with Communist Party officials. Adding to villagers’ resentment were government attempts to discredit the village’s democratically elected mayor, Lin Zulian, as corrupt. His coerced confession was aired on national television, and he was sentenced to more than three years in prison in June. Moreover, compared with 2011, official efforts to suppress news of the crackdown were more comprehensive and effective.
The authorities prevented local residents from establishing a safe location from which international correspondents could cover the conflict, as they did successfully in 2011. Foreign journalists were quickly identified and expelled, news of the protests and their suppression were not reported in Chinese media, anyone who dared to publicize the news was threatened, and official outlets promulgated their own—often deeply misleading—version of events. In a September 12 article in the official Nanfang Daily, Mayor Yang Xusong of Shanwei, the prefecture-level city that includes Wukan, summarized the official narrative, asserting that “as of now, all of the legitimate demands by Wukan villagers regarding land issues that can be resolved have already been resolved according to the law.”
In a tactic that the China Media Project’s David Bandurski called a “cynical and perverse ploy,” local officials issued targeted propaganda regarding the role of armed police forces. The day before the crackdown, authorities dispatched teams of cleanup officers and spin doctors to make a show of helping out the local populace. But upon closer examination, the Public Security Frontier Defense Corps, shown sweeping the streets, was the same unit deployed the next day to conduct nighttime raids on supposed village troublemakers, hauling suspects out of bed in their underwear and detaining them.
Adding a transnational dimension to official efforts to restrict the flow of information, police in Guangdong Province detained the father of U.S.-based Wukan activist Zhuang Liehong and had him urge his son “not to stir things up overseas.” Zhuang has been based in New York since 2014, and has staged frequent protests outside the United Nations.
Despite the robust censorship, some news and striking images of the crackdown reached international audiences. Video and photographs uploaded by villagers show protesters pockmarked by rubber bullets, splayed across hospital beds with bloody injuries, or in the case of an 80-year-old grandmother, beaten unconscious in the street and carried to the hospital by fellow protesters, according to the Hong Kong–based Apple Daily. Meanwhile, social media remained a vehicle for some netizens to share eyewitness accounts and vent anger and mistrust regarding the official version of events. “Heaven is watching everything we do,” one user wrote in response to a post about a spate of arrests. “What crime did my grandmother commit? Did you really have to arrest her at 4 a.m.?”
PRINT / NEW MEDIA: Censorship updates: Key websites shut or banned, coverage of deaths and penalties muted
- Prominent discussion platform shuttered: One of China’s few neutral platforms for public debate, Consensus Net (www.21ccom.net), was suddenly closed on October 1 for “transmitting incorrect thoughts.” The closure came with no warning and minimal explanation. Consensus Net had been a thriving site of discussion about China’s present and future, used by scholars, journalists, and officials and regularly consulted by outside observers interested in public debate within the country. Debate on the website was always carefully circumscribed, given that it was run by a Chinese company; the ultimate trigger for the closure remains unclear. The director of the company, Zhou Zhixing, wrote on the WeChat instant-messaging application that “the authorities want us to close… we’re helpless,” according to Radio France Internationale.
- Commercial news outlet’s website blacklisted: On October 11, Chinese media regulators issued a directive that significantly narrowed the distribution channels for Caixin Online, the multimedia website of the respected business publication Caixin. The notice suspended for two months the publication’s inclusion on the “List of Work Units Approved for Online Republication,” meaning other websites cannot repost its content. The order’s immediate trigger appears to have been Caixin’s recent reporting on dissent among Chinese lawyers regarding new restrictions on the profession, although the notice published by China Digital Times referred to the outlet’s longer track record of violating “news and propaganda discipline.” The restrictions will likely have negative financial implications for Caixin as fewer readers are directed to the site. Separately, Hong Kong and mainland media reported that the Beijing Times (京华时报), once known for hard-hitting investigative reporting, will be shut down and integrated into the Beijing Morning Post (北京晨報), a spinoff of the municipal party mouthpiece Beijing Daily (北京日报). The move is the latest in a gradual process aimed at bringing the paper under the direct control of municipal party cadres.
- Censorship restricts news of fatal incidents, activist persecution: A series of directives to news outlets and examples of social media censorship since August illustrate how the Chinese government’s controls affect coverage of life-and-death issues and restrict discussion of punishments meted out to rights advocates. Demographer and prominent author Yi Fuxian reported having half a dozen social media accounts muzzled in August after a decade of documenting China’s family planning policies. A September 13 directive forbade reporting on a poverty-stricken woman from Gansu Province who killed her four children and poisoned herself. And in the days after improperly stored explosives detonated on October 24 and ripped through a village in Shaanxi Province, killing at least 14 people and hospitalizing over 100, no detailed stories on the tragedy were independently reported by Chinese media. Instead, outlets were only allowed to reprint copy from Xinhua, most of which was dedicated to the Communist Party’s relief efforts. Separately, discussion of two high-profile incidents involving prominent rights activists was restricted on social media. After Xia Lin, a lawyer who has represented multiple well-known dissidents, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on September 22, Sina Weibo posts about the case were deleted. Two weeks later, searches for the name of Hong Kong student leader Joshua Wong were blocked on Weibo after he was abruptly denied entry to Thailand.
Tensions are running high in Hong Kong after September 5 elections for the Legislative Council (LegCo), which featured a record turnout rate of 58 percent and landmark victories for pro-independence candidates. An October 12 swearing-in ceremony turned raucous when some outspoken new members, particularly those from the pro-independence group Youngspiration, used their oath to mock mainland China and oppose its authority over Hong Kong. One fudged her pronunciation of “People’s Republic of China” in a derogatory way, while another made reference to a “Hong Kong nation,” words that do not appear in the official text. In a move that generated its own controversy, Chief Executive Leung Chung-ying launched legal proceedings to determine whether the members in question could take their seats.
Meanwhile, a wide range of prodemocracy politicians, activists, and artists from Hong Kong have faced increased harassment at home and abroad, joining other perceived Communist Party “enemies”—like Tibetan and Falun Gong activists—who have long endured such treatment.
The two young legislators were the target of a fierce smear campaign by Chinese state media and pro-Beijing outlets in Hong Kong, and thousands of pro-China activists mobilized outside the LegCo building, calling the pro-independence politicians “running dogs.” A group of protesters surrounded a reporter with Hong Kong Free Press, temporarily seized his camera, and stole his memory card.
The animosity toward prodemocracy forces in Hong Kong leaked over into the arts. The director of the two-hour documentary film Yellowing, which depicts the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the encroaching mainland Chinese presence, reported being unable to secure screenings in major local cinemas. By mid-September, the music of outspoken pop singer Denise Ho had been removed from mainland Chinese music and video streaming websites, including the Chinese iTunes store.
In other cases, reprisals against prodemocracy activists reached beyond Hong Kong’s and China’s borders. On October 10, veteran LegCo member Leung Kwok-hung (often known as “Long Hair”) was barred entry to Macau and detained. Five days earlier, Joshua Wong, the face of the Umbrella Movement, was barred from entering Thailand at the apparent behest of Chinese authorities, and was issued strict instructions by Thai authorities about what he could and could not say when speaking to a university crowd via Skype. Even senior, mainstream Hong Kong democracy figures have been affected. In late October, the New Zealand deputy prime minister’s scheduled meeting with Anson Chan and Martin Lee was canceled at the last minute because it was determined to be “diplomatically sensitive,” almost certainly a reference to objections from China.
News of these and other efforts to infringe on free expression in Hong Kong have sharply reduced public confidence in the press, according to the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme. A survey of over 1,000 Hong Kong residents conducted in late September found a net satisfaction with news media of only 23 percent, the lowest since 1993; some 49 percent of respondents said they believed that the media practice self-censorship.
- Commercial hacking from China declines: According to cybersecurity experts, there has been a sharp dip in the amount of commercial hacking by Chinese state actors recently. Dmitri Alperovitch, cofounder of the network security firm Crowdstrike, called the drop of over 90 percent in the last year “the biggest success we've had in this arena in 30 years.” The decrease has been so sharp and unexpected that FireEye, another major cybersecurity provider, had to lay off 10 percent of its staff in August. There is some debate about the extent to which this was caused by the U.S. Justice Department’s tactic of publicly charging five Chinese military hackers in 2014 or a cybersecurity agreement signed by presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping in September 2015. James A. Lewis, who focuses on cybersecurity policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, argues that the shift was already in motion before the bilateral agreement. He told MIT Technology Review: “It’s not that China’s living up to the agreement because they’re living up to the agreement.… They’re living up to the agreement because they’re trying to modernize the [military] and reduce corruption.” Despite the decline in commercial espionage, experts say Chinese authorities have continued to engage in more politically motivated hacking.
- Chinese-built devices linked to U.S. internet outage: On October 16, an internet disruption across the East Coast of the United States prevented millions of users from accessing popular websites like Twitter, Netflix, and Amazon for several hours. The outage was caused by a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attack on Dyn, a company that hosts backbone internet infrastructure. Further investigation revealed that large numbers of Chinese-made camera devices connected to the internet were hijacked to carry out the cyberattack, though there was no indication that the manufacturers played any intentional role in the breach.
- Harassment of foreign journalists fuels self-censorship: On September 22, PEN America released a 35,000-word report on foreign media organizations in China, outlining the constraints they face, the harassment journalists encounter, and the retaliation that can follow reporting on topics the Chinese government considers forbidden. At some outlets, this pressure has led to an increase in internal vetting of stories that could be politically sensitive, with the result that “the story gets softened.” The report found that news organizations are more proactive in self-censoring their Chinese coverage than previously, in some cases pitching their Chinese editions as strictly focused on finance and business while eschewing potentially sensitive political content.
- Chinese access to foreign films expanding: China’s silent ban on American actor Brad Pitt, stemming from his 1997 appearance in Seven Years in Tibet, appears to have been lifted amid reports that he will travel to China in mid-November to promote the World War II thriller Allied. As Hollywood directors and producers seek to have their films shown in the world’s second-largest market, they are increasingly attuned to the Communist Party’s political preferences, including depictions of Tibet. This was reportedly the reason why the mystical character The Ancient One in Doctor Strange, the latest Marvel film, was played by a white British actress rather than a male Tibetan, as suggested in the original comics. C. Robert Cargill, a screenwriter for the film, said “if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people.” The good news for Marvel is that the film got a release date in China, joining 38 other films to be released during 2016, four more than the official quota allows. Chinese officials claimed, however, that the quota had not been surpassed, and that some foreign films were classified instead as “cultural exchange products.” Some observers expect even more foreign films to be allowed into China in 2018, after the rules are renegotiated in February next year. But this may not be good news for global audiences, who some observers fear will have their Hollywood fare increasingly prepared for the tastes of Chinese censors.
U.S. election coverage and censorship: With U.S. general elections set to occur on November 8, watch for state media coverage of the polls and the degree of censorship on Chinese netizen reactions. In particular, should Hillary Clinton emerge victorious, watch for any Chinese state media exploitation of Donald Trump’s uncorroborated assertions about election rigging to further discredit American democracy.
Communist Party plenum’s media implications: On October 27, the party concluded an annual four-day plenum. Media reports and official readouts highlight a focus on increasing intraparty discipline and affirming Xi as the “core” leader, a title his predecessor Hu Jintao did not obtain. Watch for any implications for media and free expression, including new reprisals against cadres who voice criticism of Xi or the CCP Central Committee, and new elements of a “personality cult” surrounding the “core” leader.
Holiday season prison sentences: As the holiday season approaches in the United States and other Western countries, several high-profile activists are awaiting trial—especially human rights lawyers. Watch for trials and prison sentences that conveniently coincide with the periods around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when many foreign journalists and politicians are busy with family celebrations. In past years, punishments for prominent activists like Liu Xiaobo, Pu Zhiqiang, and Guo Feixiong have been meted out on or around such dates of reduced international scrutiny.