Issue 2, June 2008
|Media in the PRC|
As the Council on Foreign Relations has reported, the Chinese Constitution provides freedom of speech and the press to all citizens, but effectively negates this with a very important qualifier: “Chinese citizens must defend the security, honor, and interests of the motherland.” Many experts have written about how the CCP censors the media (TV, radio, print, and Internet) and restricts the free speech of individuals through one primary mechanism referred to as the “State Secret.” Under Chinese laws and norms, almost anything can be defined as a “State Secret,” and thus becomes subject to the protocols of the security apparatus, or the Central Propaganda Department of the CCP (known in English to be the Central Publicity Department). Human Rights in China, a research and advocacy organization, describes the “State Secret” system as serving two functions: as a “shield classifying a broad range of information and keeping it from public view,” and as a “sword used as a means to crack down on individuals who are critical of the government.” Many studies and reviews of Central Propaganda Department (CPD) procedures exist and are worth reading. For the purposes of this briefing, we will broadly outline what is “off-limits,” how the censorship occurs, and what the effect has been.
From a review of Human Rights in China’s Report State Secrets: China’s Legal Labyrinth, and a multitude of articles about China’s censorship efforts, three types of subjects generally emerge as targets for treatment by the CPD. First, specific subjects are prohibited for discussion, such as criticism of government policies or leaders, democracy, political reform, protests, human rights, Tiananmen Square, corruption, and Falun Gong. There are also “forbidden subjects of inquiry,” including “data and statistics about natural disasters, epidemics, and other negative social phenomena that, once released, are not beneficial to the mind or human society.” There are some sensitive subjects that may be covered (or that the Party wants covered for Propaganda purposes), but only as they exist within the Party line, and their treatment in the media is subject to review. Those subjects include, but aren’t limited to, Taiwan, Tibet, Japan, or the United States; the CPD works with the State Council Information Office on these subjects to ensure strict enforcement.
When we step back to consider it, this level of censorship is an astounding accomplishment in a country of China's size in the information age. It is possible, however, because nearly all media is state-owned, and those that do compete in the commercial marketplace are heavily state-influenced. For the print, radio, and news outlets, a memo arrives regularly from the CPD with a list of prohibited topics and stories. Thousands of workers employed by the CCP are responsible for reviewing all media for violations and reporting the perpetrators, and monitoring e-mails and cell phones. The penalties for noncompliance are harsh and range from fines, to suspension of licensing, to imprisonment and the closing of the outlet by CCP officials. Fear of the repercussions creates an environment of self-censorship practiced by many Chinese journalists, as few are willing to risk their careers, livelihoods, and even lives by disobeying the CPD guidelines.
Though most believe the figure to be grossly underestimated, China reports officially that there are 210 million Internet users in China. Internet censorship generally is a tricky and challenging prospect. The same guidelines apply to Internet, print, TV and radio censorship, however, and traditional print, TV, and radio outlets that also maintain websites are held accountable in the same manner. Individuals who maintain websites and informal blogs are an entirely different problem. Chinese President Hu Jintao said as the Internet age expanded, “Whether we can cope with the Internet is a matter that affects the development of socialist culture, the security of information, and the stability of the state.” It seems that up to this point, the CCP has generally managed to cope.
James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly and the staff of Wired Magazine have both written extensively on what has become known as the “Great Firewall” or the “Golden Shield,” an astoundingly complex and effective technological marvel that attempts to extend censorship to online discussions. With much of the censorship technology provided by Cisco Systems and other American companies, and supplemented by somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 human internet monitors (or “nannies”) employed by the CCP, there is much that can be done to limit access to information falling under CPD restrictions. Some of these techniques for monitoring information include blocking sites, altering content, blocking keywords used in searches, installing taps in personal computers that will report violations back to a central mainframe computer, and regularly sweeping activity with mirroring devices that generate a report that is transmitted to monitors. As was extensively reported in the Western mainstream media, even search engines such as Google and Yahoo agreed, at one point, to tweak their algorithms to accommodate Chinese censors.
As James Fallows reports, what makes this process so successful is its unpredictable nature. In Arab countries with extensive Internet monitoring, if you type in a word that is forbidden, you will receive a message telling you that you are seeking information unsuitable to the Islamic society and you have been blocked. In China, the tactics are always changing: sometimes your search will go through, sometimes your computer will time-out after a few minutes of reading, sometimes it will crash, sometimes you will be mysteriously redirected. Sometimes, the whole process just suddenly becomes prohibitively slow and you really don’t know if it is your computer, or the monitoring hands at work. Fallows makes the apt conclusion that one of the primary strengths of this elaborate system is that what it can’t technologically block, it can make such a hassle to access that it is no longer worth the effort for the user.
Additionally, as with the traditional media, people tend to self-censor what they publish and attempt to read on the Internet. The stiff fines and threat of detainment work to deter noncompliance. Sometimes it is as easy as having the CCP police symbol pop up regularly on the screen. Of course, tech-savvy people can and do get around the censors. Proxy servers and elaborate mechanisms for linking to Western news sources aid and abet the determined user. By and large, however, the censors are remarkably effective. As James Mann has astutely observed, “the Internet has carried China from an old era of clueless authoritarianism to new era of aware authoritarianism.”
In the end, the effectiveness of censorship is really buttressed by the lack of options people have to do anything with the information which evades the Firewall. Other restrictions on freedom of association are so pervasive that organizing web users into a group of protestors for a demonstration remains difficult, unless they seek to organize for a purpose the government endorses. In 2005, in the wake of extreme anti-Japanese nationalism awakened by a variety of factors (see Japan section), an online petition was circulated in China and later reached the international community protesting the granting of a seat to Japan on the United Nations Security Council. Of the 46 million signatures obtained in a matter of days, the majority were from Chinese web users. So clearly the potential power is something the CCP is aware of, which explains the extensive battery of controls it has set up for cyberspace. Most people, however, don’t believe that the CCP will be able to keep up with the combination of improving technology and human determination. A more likely scenario is that the CCP will increasingly be forced to conduct damage control; when a story containing “state secrets” circulates, the Propaganda Department will acknowledge the story by releasing their own version of it for publication.
This scenario held true during the SARS epidemic in 2002. The outbreak occurred in November and December of 2002 and was classified as top-secret. Emails and text blasts began to circulate by February, forcing the government to issue its own report. Yet the CCP continued to withhold information and force traditional media to do the same. It was not until April, after the World Health Organization had issued its report in March, that the government revealed the extent of the outbreak. The stories released by the CPD did eventually reveal the numbers of patients, but blame was assigned to a handful of local officials in the provinces who were publicly shamed, tried, and subsequently penalized. The CPD handled the deadly snowstorms of 2007 similarly, and was heavily scrutinized in the international press for doing so.
Reforms in 2008
In 2007, the Committee to Protect Journalists named China the Number One jailer of journalists in the world for the ninth consecutive year (followed distantly by Cuba and Eritrea). Also in 2007, Reporters Without Borders reported that 180 foreign reporters had been arrested, attacked, or threatened, and that 32 journalists had been arrested along with 50+ cyber-dissidents, earning China a ranking of 163 out of 168 on a worldwide index of press freedom.
2008 has brought two watershed events in the arena of press freedoms. First, the massive earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 (and still counting) was reported by the CPD-authorized media in a surprisingly quick and transparent way, marking a departure from earlier natural disasters and earning the Chinese press acclaim worldwide for their honesty in reporting the scale of the tragedy. However, censors were not idle As the immediate shock of the event wore off and people began to place blame for the horrific scale of the devastation, the CPD cracked down on questions and commentary about building standards of schools and buildings that were demolished. Although the Western media reported on the corruption and lack of effective regulation that produced the shoddy buildings, the CPD placed restrictions on discussion of CCP liability or criticism of policies surrounding construction standards or emergency response efforts.
Second, in response to international criticism in advance of the Olympics, and in an effort to make good on promises made to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when Beijing won the Games, a new press law has been put into effect. This temporary law exempts the estimated 30,000 foreign journalists expected to descend on Beijing from the requirement to obtain official permission for interviews and travel outside the capital in their coverage of the Olympics from January 7, 2007 through October 17, 2008. This loosening of controls applies only to foreign journalists, not to their Chinese assistants, nor to the Chinese press. There have already been reports of threats and reprisals against Chinese reporters who remain under heavy surveillance and are often the subject of government harassment.
Unintended Consequences of Media Censorship: Nationalism
China expert Susan Shirk and others have noted that the CPD’s tight control over media expression has created a particular dangerous side effect. Because the only stories that get through often have the intent of stoking Chinese nationalism, the nationalistic furor of the population has been indulged. Like in any other media market, scandals and outrages sell, so even outside the state-owned media, the population is fed a constant diet of anti-American, anti-Japanese, and anti-Taiwanese stories. In the absence of any moderating voices, this nationalism can quickly grow to outrage. The Chinese people report back nationalistic attitudes in government polling, and the cycle repeats. Xenophobic and pro-China media tends to have a large impact on the way people think, and to date, most agree that this nationalism has served the state’s interests. Shirk calls this phenomena the “echo chamber of nationalism.”
As CCP officials attempt to assure the international community that their intentions in the world are peaceful and productive, this nationalism can often hamstring the CCP's efforts. The Chinese people demand hard-line statements, and have been known to protest any position taken by the CCP that is perceived as weak or deferential to certain outside powers. This can naturally limit the range of options available to policymakers to deal with events in the international realm. The irony is not lost on many policy experts, and is a potentially dangerous one, particularly when nuclear powers are concerned. So, there are those who believe that the CCP has fallen victim to its own propaganda in a dangerous feedback loop between the CPD, the press, and the people. Recent anti-American and anti-French protests following the tortured journey of the Olympic Torch demonstrate that nationalism continues to be a huge factor. Without widespread access to alternative views, a few vocal nationalists can impact the public through media and, to some degree, foreign policy as well.
One final potentially damaging side effect of censorship in China mentioned by many experts is that, in its efforts to limit information, the CPD may well limit Chinese progress. Knowledge and information are valuable commodities in today’s economy, and many believe a society that does not value the efficient transfer of such commodities among its own citizens and with the outside world may be inviting obsolescence.