Warning to China's Media

Censors guard against references to power exercised apart from Party control.

2011.01.06
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China Media 305 A woman looks at newspapers and magazines on one of Beijing's many newsstands, Dec. 3, 2008.
AFP/Peter Parks

Chinese media have been warned against using the term "civil society," in a reflection of Beijing's concerns over the growing participation by ordinary Chinese in public affairs, especially via the Internet.

According to a report in the U.S.-based online magazine Canyu, the Southern Newspaper Group received the warning from the ruling Communist Party's powerful propaganda department.

Several other Chinese media have been warned against "hyping" the expression, it said.

Canyu's editor-in-chief, Chen Kuide, said the term had been instrumental in a number of peaceful overthrows of former communist countries in the past decade.

"This is a concept which has been in embedded in Europe for a very long time ...and it relates to a power that is independent of the government, and which can stand against it ... or balance [it]," Chen said.

"Beijing has been guarding against it ever since the 1990s."

'A sense of power'

Hu Ping, U.S.-based editor of the online magazine Beijing Spring, said that Chinese authorities view the concept of citizen participation in society as particularly sensitive.

"These words evoke a sense of power," Hu said. "I think [this directive] is aimed in particular at preventing the emergence of independent organizations like trade unions."

"Organizations like that could play a part in the collapse of one-party rule by the Communist Party, so they are forbidding people from using such words," Hu added.

Meanwhile, a survey in the former British colony of Hong Kong, which has been promised greater freedom of speech and association than most cities in mainland China, showed growing concern over self-censorship in the territory's traditionally vibrant media.

"Everyone has been concerned about media self-censorship for some time now," said survey co-author Su Yaoji, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"Especially about how the media can avoid pressure from commercial and political quarters."

Hong Kong Journalists' Association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting said she was greatly concerned by the issue.

"We first began to be aware of this problem in 1995," Mak said. "There has been no improvement since the 1997 handover [to Chinese rule], however."

Tightened controls

Mak said Hong Kong journalists' standard of living has fallen in recent years, with senior journalists constantly being laid off.

She said this led to a lack of professional memory on the part of younger journalists, because senior journalists were no longer around to pass it on.

Retired Communist Party officials and groups monitoring press freedoms worldwide have pointed to tightened controls over the Chinese media during 2010.

In October, 23 Party elders defied China’s censors by calling in an open letter for greater freedom of expression. The letter was deleted several hours after its posting on sina.com, one of China’s most influential websites.

In April, the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists called on China to end all actions limiting press freedoms in the country.

And in October, the Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders listed China as 171st, or eighth from the bottom, on its Press Freedom Index 2010.

Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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