In China, State Control of The Media Moves Towards Thought Control

Existing surveillance and censorship networks already detect potential 'thought crimes' before they become public opinion.

Chinese police order foreign journalists to leave the street opposite the Beijing No. 3 Intermediate People's Court where the trial of veteran former journalist Gao Yu on charges of leaking state secrets is taking place in Beijing, Nov. 21, 2014.

As the ruling Chinese Communist Party achieves almost total control of all forms of news and information seen by its citizens, concerns are growing that the government will soon extend its reach to people's private thoughts and actions, and possibly across the internal immigration border into Hong Kong.

While military and intelligence-related topics have long been highly restricted, and anti-corruption and pro-democracy voices are largely silenced in China, the administration of President Xi Jinping has been broadening the reach of government censorship to include proactive attempts to control what people think and do most of the time.

A journalist from the northwestern region of Gansu surnamed Wu told RFA on Thursday, which is World Press Freedom Day, that the traditional media has effectively been totally neutralized since Xi came to power.

"There is no media law, and so the media have no freedom of speech," Wu said. "Instead, the media has been enslaved, ravaged and trampled underfoot."

"Journalists can be arrested at any time, or lose their freedom at any time," he said.

He said the controls seem to grow ever-tighter, year after year.

"There is no doubt about it that things have gotten worse," Wu said. "There used to be a bit of leeway, but no the authorities give none at all."

A Shandong journalist surnamed Zhang said many of his colleagues had long since given up any idea of carrying out their profession in any meaningful way, and have resigned themselves to being tools of the system.

"When such a phenomenon becomes universal, there is no such thing as news values anymore," Zhang said. "A lot of journalists are just seeing their job as a meal ticket now and nothing more."

Liu Kaiming, who directs the Institute of Contemporary Observation in the southern city of Shenzhen, said that traditional media controls have also expanded to include minutely managed control over what social media users can see and say online.

"Everyone knows that it's much, much tighter than before," Liu said. "It's incredibly common to get your social media posts deleted nowadays, or for your account to be shut down, that's so common."

Micro-targeting online activities

The government's technological dominance within China's borders suggests that it can exert control over social media even more closely than it once did traditional media, through "micro-targeting" of people's online activities, according to Hong Kong-based scholars.

King-wa Fu, associate professor at Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Centre (JMSC), said the government had only begun to aim for total control of the internet after President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

"The watershed years were 2012, 2013, 2014, just after Xi Jinping took power," Fu said. "It was Xi who set up the Central Cybersecurity and Informatization Group, which he led himself, and from that point onward there was a huge sea change in policy."

"Before then, they would only start restricting [the internet] after something happened, but at that time they set up an entire infrastructure [for controlling it]," he said.

"And it's not just monitoring and control; the government uses it to initiate propaganda and to boost Xi Jinping's personal image and its own policies," he said, adding that the government is now using new channels and websites to put out its message in disguised form.

"They have set up various new media organizations, because people have lost trust in the traditional media ... These appear on the face of it to be non-mainstream, but in fact they are also being controlled [by the government]."

He said media controls are no longer limited to a list of topics deemed "sensitive" by the government, but are morphing into a nationwide monitoring and censorship system targeting individual thoughts and actions.

"It's not just sensitive areas anymore; it extends into every area," Fu said.

He said the recent introduction of a "social credit" scoring system using an individual's data to grant or deny certain privileges, such as buying a plane ticket, was a perfect example.

"There is data from everything in there, to the extent that the social credit system will mean less freedom in people's lives: to buy tickets; take a course of study; leave the country; it will all become more difficult," he said.

‘Digital dictatorship’

Hong Kong University research Leung Kai Chi said that mainland China is now in the grip of a "digital dictatorship."

"People need to realize that they leave a huge digital footprint just living their daily lives, and that these data can be used by a third party to figure out what they are doing," Leung said.

"You will realize that there is someone you have never met before who knows you better than you know yourself," he said. "Information is power, and it can be very bad when such information gets used by powerful people."

Official media reported in March that China is on track to complete a nationwide facial recognition and surveillance network, achieving near-total surveillance of urban residents, including in their homes via smart TVs and smartphones, by 2020.

The nationwide "Sharp Eyes" platform will be able to link up public surveillance cameras and those installed in smart devices in the home, to a nationwide network for viewing in real time by anyone who is given access.

Hong Kong-based online news editor Chung Pui-kuen said Beijing also has the technological know-how to bring that entire suite of surveillance and proactive thought control across the international immigration border to Hong Kong.

"A year ago I might have said that was far-fetched, but now ... they are already planning to pass Article 23 laws [banning subversion and sedition], so speech crimes will become part of our legal system," Chung said. "We won't enjoy the same freedom of the press after Article 23 that we have now."

"Technologically speaking, they totally have this capability," he said. "The question is whether or not they deploy it in Hong Kong, and looking at where we are today, I can't be sure that they won't."

The city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, requires the city to legislate against "treason, sedition and subversion" and crimes relating to national security, but also protects the right of Hong Kong citizens to freedom of speech.

But last month, a pro-Beijing political activist reported prominent law professor and rights activist Benny Tai to police for "sedition" over speculative comments he made relating to possible independence for the city, as Beijing stepped up its campaign to ban any talk of autonomy for the city.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lam Kwok-lap for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.