Has China Relaxed Media Control since the Beijing Olympics?

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Has China Relaxed Media Control since the Beijing Olympics?

Synopsis of a Recent CHRD-Assisted Report on Evolving Trends in Public Discourse, Released Last Week (in Chinese Only)

The Olympic Games did not prove to be a catalyst for increased media freedom domestically as some had hoped. However, as this new report finds, reporters and netizens in the past year were nonetheless able to carve out space for discussion of topics usually considered taboo through the rapid dissemination of information on the Internet or through the independent-minded press. The report indicates that tight media controls are not necessarily working to limit public discourse as effectively as the government may have intended.

(Chinese Human Rights Defenders, October 19, 2009) – At his welcome speech during last week’s World Media Summit in Beijing, President Hu Jintao told the crowd of international news providers that the role of the media is to “conform to the trends of the times, go forward together, and strive to contribute to building a harmonious world”. Conspicuously lacking from his speech, however, was any mention of freedom of the press. To the Chinese government, the media remains a political tool for creating a society in which only a single, official version of reality is allowed, or, to use the Chinese government’s own euphemism, “a harmonious world”. Concepts such as truthfulness and media freedom are only valuable so far as they serve the party-state’s overriding political purposes.

This week, CHRD published a report on the Chinese government’s continued efforts to exert control over the media in the past year (后奥运期中国大陆舆论管制状况及其走向的观察报告). This report was researched and written by a media professional with inside access to government directives and policies. Through examining major news events and the ways in which they were handled by the government, the report gives invaluable insights into the government’s evolving attitude towards the press and the tactics officials utilized to control the domestic media (and limit their international counterparts) in the months following the Olympic Games. This report is only available in Chinese.

Domestic Media

At home, the Chinese government continued to maintain a tight rein over the media through the use of a core set of continually-refined censorship mechanisms, such as ordering the media not to report on particular incidents, restricting their news sources to those sanctioned by officials (such as the Xinhua News Agency), and requesting that publications focus on the positive aspects of certain news items. While these tried-and-true methods allowed the government to sail comfortably through the closely-watched “sensitive dates” of 2008 and 2009, they proved to be much less reliable when it came to an increasing number of “unexpected incidents” (突发事件)—small, local events which exploded into heated national debates online because the injustices exemplified by these incidents struck a particular chord among citizens across the nation.

Because of the unpredictable nature of online discourse, government censors were often unable to determine which stories needed to be nipped in the bud. And, once reports of a certain event had been widely circulated by netizens, it became impossible to block discussion entirely. The government’s response was often further delayed as officials deliberated the proper course of action. It was this precious lag— between the first appearance of information online and the government’s response— that netizens and print media were able to exploit to openly debate and discuss topics which are usually deemed too “sensitive”. In the past year, these topics ranged from rape by officials to death in police custody.

Netizens and print media in China have also learned to exploit discrepancies in the ways which officials at different levels of government, or officials from different geographic areas, seek to control reporting on “unexpected incidents”. In August 2008, after the Propaganda Department ordered the media not to report on the case of Yang Jia (杨佳), a Shanghai resident executed for murdering six Shanghai policemen, allegedly as revenge for torture he had suffered, provincial governments outside of Shanghai were slow in implementing the order, possibly due to intra-governmental rivalries. This allowed netizens and the print media to continue their reporting on the trial as it was taking place, which culminated in such popular criticism of the Shanghai government’s handling of the case that officials were forced to let some members of the media attend Yang’s appeal hearing in October 2008.

Government officials continued to use their full repertoire of methods to control use of the internet in the past year, including blocking websites that were based abroad and closing down those based at home. In addition, after micro-blogging services showed themselves to be effective tools for mobilizing citizens during the Iranian presidential election in June 2009, the government began paying much closer attention to their use, and closed down several popular domestic micro-blogging services (such as Fanfou and Digu) in the wake of the July 2009 riots in Xinjiang. The Chinese government has also, as in previous years, initiated several “strike-hard” campaigns targeting the internet, which included targeting “vulgar content” and requiring QQ, a popular chat room service, to register the real names and personal details of individuals who organized chat groups.

Individuals who posted information online exposing human rights abuses or criticizing local governments continued to risk detention and imprisonment. In the past year, local governments seem to have widened such efforts, retaliating against first-time “offenders” who were previously unknown internet users, sometimes going so far as traveling across provincial borders to take them into custody.

International Media

In the past year, the Chinese government has escalated its charm offensive towards the foreign press. The World Media Summit itself is part of the Chinese government’s “Da Wai Xuan”, or “Grand External Propaganda Plan” (宏大的對外宣傳格局) to enhance China’s image abroad, a policy which began with the loosening of the restrictions towards foreign journalists back on January 1, 2007.[1] It appears that the Chinese government is hoping that its international image is going to improve with loosened control of foreign reporting. However, while this policy is embraced by the central government, local government officials continue to frequently restrict reporters’ access to people and places under their jurisdiction. On a number of occasions, foreign and Hong Kong journalists have been barred from reporting or physically harmed for reporting, such as when Hong Kong reporters were held in their hotel during the trial of Sichuan activist Tan Zuoren (谭作), or when Japanese reporters were beaten for reporting on rehearsals of the parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC.

The Chinese government’s plan to improve its international standing also includes strengthening its official media, and to that end officials expanded and reformed China Daily (中国日报), Global Times (环球时报), CCTV, and Xinhua News Agency over the past year. In particular, their multilingual reporting has been increased in order to export stories about world events “with Chinese characteristics” to influence global opinion. At the same time, some commercial media outlets are reforming their editorial direction to conform more closely to the official line, in order to share a piece of the 450 billion RMB allocated for the “Da Wai Xuan”. The flip side of this nurturing of those media organs cozy with the central leadership is a renewed crackdown on those that have been more critical of the government, such as the papers of the Southern Press Enterprise (南方报业).


1. The government must put into practice its constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression, of publication and of the media. The National People’s Congress should draft a “Media Law” which codifies the principle of media freedom as well as the measures to be taken against its infringement.

2. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) should immediately end the subjugation of media freedom to the Party’s interests and political priorities. The Propaganda Department and other Party authorities must immediately cease all interference in the media. Government-run media, including CCTV, China Daily and the Xinhua News Agency must be reformed so that instead of being the mouthpieces of the Party, they are committed to and prioritize truthfulness and freedom of expression.

3. Similarly, government departments such as the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) and the State Council Information Office should cease their control of the media and the dissemination of public information.

4. The Chinese government should abolish its control over its newspapers. The CCP and GAPP should cease Xinhua’s monopoly on the release of news and abolish the practice of requiring the media to take their lead from Xinhua News Agency or other sources. The GAPP should abolish its strict control over and quotas on book numbers for newspapers, books and other publications.

5. The Chinese government should immediately cease unwarranted monitoring of the internet and stop its activities to control and suppress freedom of expression on the internet. For details, please see the recommendations section of CHRD’s report, “Tug of War over China’s Cyberspace”.

For more information:

Media Contacts:

Renee Xia, International Director (English and Mandarin): +852 8191 6937

Jiang Yingying, Researcher (English and Mandarin): +852 8170 0237

[1] State Council, Regulations on Reporting Activities in China by Foreign Journalists during the Beijing Olympic Games and Preparatory Period <北 京奥运会及其筹备期间境外记者采访规定>, effective between January 1, 2007 and October 17, 2008.

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