China | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press



Freedom of the Press 2005

2005 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)


Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)


Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)


In China, news media are tightly controlled by the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, especially concerning topic areas deemed by the party to be politically sensitive. Under the leadership of Politburo member Li Changchun, the Propaganda Department disseminates directives to media nationwide concerning mandatory use of state propaganda and indicating topics to be barred from reports. Communist Party control over the news media is supported by an elaborate web of legal restrictions. Administrative regulations, such as the 1990 Rule on Strengthening Management over Publications Concerning Important Party and National Leaders, make it illegal to report on any aspect of the lives of top leaders without permission from the Propaganda Department and other central government ministries. Statutes in the criminal code, such as the Protection of National Secrets Law, can make reporting on governmental affairs an offense punishable by prison sentences. Regulations and laws are vaguely worded and interpreted according to the wishes of the central party leadership. Although not usually enforceable, the constitution affords little protection for the news media. Article 35 guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, and publication. However, other articles subordinate these rights to the national interest, which is defined by party-appointed courts.

Media reforms have allowed the commercialization of media operations without privatization of media ownership. All Chinese media are owned by the state, but the majority no longer receive state subsidies and now rely on income from advertisement sales. A few scholars argue that commercialization of media operations has acted as a freedom-inducing pressure by shifting the media's loyalty from the party to consumers. Indeed, a small number of media outlets have championed popular causes and printed embarrassing exposures of official malfeasance. Nevertheless, media personnel who do so are too often fired or arrested. In June, General Manager Yu Huafeng and Vice President Li Mingying of the Southern Metropolitan Post were sentenced to eight- and six-year prison sentences, respectively, in what was seen as an attempt to silence the popular tabloid-style newspaper after its aggressive reporting on the SARS epidemic in 2003 and the murder of Sun Zhigang in a Guangzhou prison. In extreme cases of repression, media organizations are shut down, as was the fate of the 21st Century World Herald in 2003.

To avoid the risk of running afoul of the Propaganda Department, journalists often engage in self-censorship, a practice reinforced by frequent ideological indoctrination campaigns and by a salary scheme that pays journalists after their reports are published or broadcast. When a journalist writes a report considered too controversial, payment is withheld, and in some cases the journalist must pay for the cost of newsgathering out of pocket. A small number of elite media combat such deterrents to aggressive reporting (which sells well to consumers bored by the usual fare of platitudes) by paying journalists for reports that are subject to censorship.

News media freedom in China, such as it is, declined in 2004. A March 22 report by the Beijing Broadcast Newspaper quoted the manager of the national television station CCTV, Yang Weiguang, as saying that ratings for the nation's most watched investigative television news program, Jiaodian Fangtan, have declined precipitously owing to the program's inability to air critical news reports. Nearly all news of the 2004 Taiwan presidential election was subject to severe censorship; a peaceful demonstration of 2.5 million people in Taiwan against the threat of Chinese invasion received no mention in the Chinese media. On various occasions, foreign journalists were detained or beaten for coverage of stories, such as the violent reaction of Beijing soccer fans to China's defeat to Japan in the Asia Cup final. New York Times researcher Zhao Yan was imprisoned after being accused of leaking state secrets. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, China has imprisoned 42 journalists, the highest number by any country in the world. A recent report by the China Internet Information Center estimates the number of Internet users at 94 million, large in absolute terms but calculated to be less than 8 percent of the country's population. Foreign and domestic Web sites are routinely blocked. Thousands of Internet bars were closed and numerous blogs shut down for sexually explicit or political content.