Conflict & Justice

Concerns about China's media censorship abound as the Republic faces UN review


Protesters display a large banner during a rally to support press freedom in Hong Kong on March 2, 2014. The rally was staged following the attack of a former editor of local liberal newspaper which comes at a time of growing unease over freedom of the press in the southern Chinese city, with mounting concerns that Beijing is seeking to tighten control over the semi-autonomous region.



China’s new administration made its people hopeful when in 2013 it introduced the idea of reform by promoting the “Chinese Dream.”

But the Dream—a set of ideals often said to be achieving the “Two 100s”: China’s becoming a “moderately well off society” by 2021 (100 years after the founding of the Communist Party), and a fully developed nation by 2049 (on the centennial anniversary of the People's Republic of China)—has excluded an important goal that many have dreamed of: loosening censorship over Chinese media.

As the Republic prepares to go before the United Nations’ Human Rights Council for its Universal Periodic Review on Wednesday, March 19, rights groups wonder how authorities will defend the country’s “dubious claims to respect rights.”

In one example, Human Rights Watch has called for UN condemnation of the Chinese government following the death on Friday of Chinese human rights defender Cao Shunli, who was “arbitrarily” detained when trying to board a flight from Beijing to Geneva to participate in a human rights training session prior to the review. That was the last time the 52 year-old activist was seen publicly.

Cao Shunli, according to HRW, is said to have died after being denied medical attention in prison, but the spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement denying her mistreatment and saying Cao's "lawful rights and interests have been protected in accordance with the law."

The Universal Periodic Review—which “provides the opportunity for each [UN member] state to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to fulfill their human rights obligations”—calls for governments to address issues like these, and crackdowns on the press surely fall into those parameters.

China may be made to answer for its continued crackdown on human rights activists like Cao Shunli, the press, and the September passing of a new law stipulating that Internet users can be imprisoned for up to three years for starting “online rumors.”

The most recent Winter Harvard Nieman Report, released last month, focused specifically on the state of journalism and press freedom in China and included the testimonies of 10 experienced journalists working in the country—each addressing the problem of increased media censorship.

The report also highlights the worsening environment for foreign reporters in the country.

Paul Mooney, an American freelance journalist who reported from Beijing for 18 years, and also contributed to the Nieman Report, said he was denied a visa to work in China last November, due to his “unfavorable” coverage.

“The Ministry gave no reason for my rejection, but during a 90-minute interview at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco, I was questioned repeatedly about my views on human rights, the Dalai Lama and Tibet, and rights lawyers,” Mooney wrote. “The experience made me realize that the visa refusal was the result of my reporting on sensitive issues.”

Mooney was the second foreign journalist in two years to be refused a visa. In 2012, Al Jazeera reporter Melissa Chan was expelled from the country due to her coverage of human rights issues.

The government has also delayed visa applications from journalists with the New York Times and Bloomberg News for more than a year, due to their coverage of China’s wealthy, powerful elites.

“The Chinese government has clearly escalated its efforts to control the public discourse since the new leadership took power, and to a large extent those efforts have been successful,” said Josh Chin, the Beijing-based editor of the Wall Street Journal China Real Time Report, in an email interview.

Chin also said that comparing degrees of censorship between the Republic’s former leaders and new leader, Xi Jinping, is difficult “because the technology is constantly changing.”

Sites like Weibo, a Twitter-like social media tool, and WeChat, a micro-messaging app that allows friends to send voice messages, pictures and articles, dominate these new technology and media platforms in China—and they are spearheading sociopolitical changes seen for the first time in the country’s history.

In August 2013, under pressure from international press, the eastern-China court that ruled on the trial of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai provided a blow-by-blow update on its Weibo account. This was the very first time the government allowed such close reporting on a sensitive top leader’s trial.

“As the case of Bo Xilai, the gathering, dissemination, collation and analysis of news now takes place through processes completely different from those of traditional media, repeatedly breaching existing limitations on free speech in the process,” Luo Changping, a former deputy editor of Caijing Magazine in Beijing, wrote in the Nieman Report.

According to one Chinese editor who contributed to the report and asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, sometimes the Internet regulators deliberately loosen controls on Weibo, to allow people to vent their frustrations publicly.

But this window of opportunity is fleeting: “No matter what, the Central Propaganda Department is still strictly controlled by the conservatives.”

And last September, one month after Bo Xilai’s seemingly open trial, Beijing unveiled new policies to intensify its social media crackdown.

According to the new rule, people will be charged with defamation and faced with up to three years in jail if the “online rumors” they create are reposted more than 500 times, or visited more than 5,000 times by Internet users.

Within weeks, dozens of Chinese were detained or investigated under the new rule, including a 16 year-old middle school student who was taken into custody in Tianshui, Gansu province for saying on Weibo that the local police had failed to investigate a death properly.

But despite increasingly threatening censorship from the central authority, this is both the worst time and the best time for reporters working in China, according to the Nieman Report. And the new rule doesn’t seem to be slowing all journalists down.

“If a good story is there, I am not going to give it pass because I think it might hurt the government’s feelings,” said Chin, the Wall Street Journal China Real Time editor. “Worst case scenario, I get kicked out of the country, I would hate for that to happen because I’ve put a lot of time and energy into trying to understand this place, but it’s something I could live with.”