China's Control of Media Deepens, Extends Beyond Borders

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A Chinese netizen uses the instant messaging service Tencent QQ to chat online on a computer in Yichang city, central China's Hubei province, March 10, 2010.

As China falls still further in global press freedom rankings, some are looking to new media like Weibo and WeChat to break through the ruling Chinese Communist Party's stranglehold on news.

But others say that the system of censorship is so entrenched, and Chinese journalists and citizens so vulnerable to reprisals, that the impact of such media to report on matters of public interest is extremely limited.

According to Caijing magazine deputy editor Luo Changping, whose whistleblowing investigation of former state development minister Liu Tienan led to the latter's sacking last year, social media have displaced print and broadcast journalism to dominate the Chinese news industry.

"Weibo, China's version of Twitter, and micromessaging service WeChat have brought a degree of freedom of speech and freedom of association...becoming the main battleground of social discourse," Luo wrote in an article for the U.S.-based Nieman Journalism Lab publication, Nieman Reports.

Luo said that while the government still has a firm grip on the media via traditional law enforcement, and can compel and manipulate using economic incentives, Chinese people themselves are increasingly taking up the "pen" in the form of revealing and sometimes whistleblowing tweets about social and political developments.

But veteran Hangzhou-based journalist Zan Aizong said the power of Weibo and WeChat to break important news is still fairly limited.

"It's no good for major events, like [the investigation into former security chief] Zhou Yongkang, [the trial of disgraced former Chongqing party boss] Bo Xilai and [his former police chief] Wang Lijun, or the leadership transition within the party," Zan said.

"We still have to rely on Xinhua news agency's announcements, because netizens have no way to break news like that," he said.

Microbloggers are more likely to come into their own when posting about unfolding events on their own doorstep, like the thousands of popular protests or violent clashes over forced evictions that take place across the country each day.

The relatives and friends of dissidents who are suddenly "disappeared" by the authorities are able to raise awareness of their loved ones' fate, potentially diminishing the threat of death or torture in police custody.

And anyone challenging the state monopoly on news and opinion is potentially themselves at risk, Zan added.

Critical posts

China has detained a number of high-profile tweeters in recent months, after they sent out critical or overly revealing posts about government activities.

The Communist Party's powerful but secretive central propaganda department is worried about unapproved opinions and reports making their way onto China's tightly-censored Internet, via microbloggers with huge personal followings, known as "big V" tweeters.

According to global media freedom monitor Reporters Without Borders, China's press freedom ranking fell from 173 to 175 last year, as the party continues to ramp up online censorship and keep in jail the largest number of journalists and netizens in the world, including Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.

Former Beijing University journalism professor Jiao Guobiao said that even if there is tacit support among high-ranking officials for more press freedom, gradual change under a one-party system is almost impossible to achieve.

"Those in charge of news organizations have relatively little room for maneuver in the current environment," Jiao said.

"It will be very hard to make any changes to controls over the media, because there are no systemic protections for media workers, nor is there a systematized set of punishments [for wrongdoing]," said Jiao, who was himself let go from his professorial post after calling publicly for greater media freedom as an antidote to corruption.

And according to Hu Ping, editor of the U.S.-based online magazine Beijing Spring, a continuing behind-the-scenes power struggle at the heart of the party leadership means Beijing will do everything it can to stifle public debate as President Xi continues to build his power base.

"The internal power struggle at the top of the party is very fierce now, so they have even begun to increase their harrassment of foreign media organizations," Hu said.

China is also successfully exporting censorship over the border to Hong Kong, which has traditionally enjoyed a high level of press freedom, analysts said.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong, which dropped three places in the index to 61 out of 180 last year, has seen increasing concern among its journalists that self-censorship so as not to anger Beijing is becoming the norm in the territory.

Bruce Lui, lecturer at the journalism department of Hong Kong's Baptist University, said the recent sacking of the editor-in-chief of the relatively moderate Ming Pao had sent shockwaves through the territory.

"There is no precedent for this position to remain unfilled," said Lui, referring to the removal of Kevin Lau as editor-in-chief last month.

Malaysian editor Chong Tien-siong, who was tipped as Lau's replacement, will fill a newly created role under an acting editor-in-chief instead, in an apparent bid to mollify public anger at the move.

"Beijing doesn't actually need to cover anything up," Lui said.

He said staff at the cutting-edge political section of the highly respected Economic Journal had also been fired, and the tone of the paper had turned from fiercely critical of Hong Kong chief executive C.Y. Leung to broadly supportive of him.

"In the past few years, events like this have come thick and fast," Lui said, referring to the axing of a series of outspoken chat-show hosts from Hong Kong's airwaves.

"We are extremely worried that media organizations will no longer be able to operate purely on the basis of news values, and that they will have to take into account pressure from the mainland government in everything they do," he said.

Hu Ping agreed. "If moderate publications like the Ming Pao have been infiltrated by the Chinese government, then that's it for the rest of them," he said.

"They would also go as far as to invest large sums of money to ensure that media outside China's borders speak well of its leaders," Hu said.

Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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