Censors Ban Media Chat Group

Chinese authorities shut down a popular chat-based media exchange.

2010-09-15
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13 Metropolis Group-305.jpg A screenshot showing the mastheads of the 13 regional newspapers linked to the Southern Metropolis News.
Courtesy of the Southern Metropolis News

HONG KONG—Chinese officials have closed down an online discussion forum used by regional newspapers to exchange information and discuss articles for publication, media sources said Wednesday.

The group was set up by editors and journalists from 13 regional newspapers on the popular QQ chat service, which is widely used in China.

"According to my information, it's to do with an editorial that was carried by the 13 Metropolis group newspapers in March this year, around the time of the annual parliamentary sessions," a Guangdong-based source familiar with the situation said of the move.

"I heard that this editorial made someone angry in the top levels of leadership, and they ordered an investigation by the propaganda department, and a number of other departments as well, into how the editorial was syndicated," the source added.

Editors from 13 regional newspapers, including the cutting-edge Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis News, were handed official warnings in early March after they published a joint editorial calling for an end to the household registration, or hukou, system, which they said discriminates against rural residents who move to large cities to work.

While top Chinese leaders have pledged to abolish some restrictions on migrant workers in smaller towns and cities, they have so far stopped short of abolishing the hukou system, saying the authorities will take a "step-by-step" approach.

The investigation revealed that the editorial was shared via the QQ discussion group, which had been used regularly to share story ideas and information between papers, the Guangdong-based source said.

"The investigation recommended that this discussion group be shut down, and that all the newspapers require their journalists to withdraw from the group. I heard that a lot of journalists had already left the group, which has now been shut down."

Ban slammed

Xiao Jiansheng, editor at the Hunan Daily News, slammed the move, saying that he agreed with the editorial.

"It is in contempt of human rights," he said of the household registration system, which governs access to crucial social services like health care and education.

Currently, when migrants move from the countryside to China's cities to find work, they have no urban household registration, which means they are barred from access to health care, social assistance, and schooling for their children.

"How is this modernization? Such a system shouldn't exist in a modern society," Xiao said.

He said the government was wrong to close down the chat group.

"They shouldn't be taking this approach, suppressing and closing things down," he said. "They should be working to solve the problems that they can address. Using suppression isn't a very good approach."

Guangdong-based online commentator Ye Du agreed, adding, "If this [group] is closed, another can be started up."

Ye said China's media, which is closely controlled by the Communist Party's powerful central propaganda department, has long cultivated informal connections and a habit of mutual assistance in the face of censorship.

"There is a lot of mutual assistance that goes on tacitly in the Chinese media," Ye said. "If there's some news that a paper has been banned from covering in its own area, they will often get the story published in newspapers elsewhere in China."

"This sort of collaboration isn't going to come to an end just because a QQ group gets shut down."

Little impact expected

Hubei-based online writer Liu Yi said there would be little impact on media cooperation from the shutdown.

"There are a lot of channels through which the media can communicate with each other," Liu said. "If they don't use QQ to stay in touch, they'll use something else."

"The authorities' actions are really stupid, because they need to sort out the problem at its root. They need to start looking at the problems that the newspapers were talking about in the first place."

"Strictly speaking, according to law, citizens have a right to free association. There is nothing wrong with the Metropolis newspapers boosting communication with colleagues," he said.

Top law enforcement official Zhou Yongkang had called for the abolition of internal controls on migration between China's cities and countryside in the run-up to the annual meetings of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in March.

The political elite has also heard increasing calls for collective bargaining for China's workers amid an apparent shortage of factory workers, who are increasingly in dispute with companies over pay and benefits.

Analysts say that total abolition of the hukou system is likely to be a slow process, however.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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