Walls and Whispers


That the Chinese Government fears political change is no secret; but fear of recent regime changes in Central and Eastern Europe may be the reason for the tightening of controls over freedom of speech in China.

According to the Government-run People’s Daily, in 2004, Chinese censorship agencies permanently shut down 338 publications for printing ‘internal’ information, closed 202 branch offices of newspapers, and punished 73 organisations for illegally ‘engaging in news activities’. China ranked 159th out of 167 countries in the Reporters Sans Frontières 2005 World Press Freedom Index (New Zealand was 12th, the UK 24th, Australia 31st, and the US 44th).

Credits to Cindy Osborn

Two journalists were jailed for 10 years in January, according to the official Xinhua news agency, for publishing an unauthorised magazine exposing local land disputes — the biggest cause of unrest on the mainland. When local villagers saw the articles, they volunteered to give the magazine 30,000 yuan (A$5,000). This amounted to bribe-taking so the journalists were charged with fraud. Court officials said:

These journalists also threatened the local government. They said if the government did not resolve the peasants’ legitimate demands, they would write up the stories. This constituted extortion.

Only one journalist has been recorded as being killed in China since 1992: Feng Zhaoxia, an investigative reporter found with his throat slit outside Xian in 2001. Kristin Jones, Asia research associate for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told the South China Morning Post that this lack of reported fatalities was largely because the greatest threat to the press in China comes from the Government, which has other methods available to it, such as censorship, legal action and detention. She said the current regime has demonstrated real antipathy towards freedom of expression and the press in China and is unlikely to improve in the near future.

As of 1 December 2005 there were 32 journalists imprisoned in China — more than any other country in the world. The Government’s efforts to control and suppress information in China are ambitious and sophisticated. In their eyes, these policies are meeting with success and it seems unlikely they will be curtailed.

Journalists are not only detained for reporting on sensitive matters. Chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Cheung Ping-ling, says the central Government’s attacks on the press were widespread but generally more subtle than outright violence. It was common for Hong Kong journalists on assignment in China to be detained for several hours and then released. ‘If you accumulate those hours over a year it adds up to a lot of hours. It’s also psychological violence because you never know when and if they will release you’, she said.

But in prominent cases, journalists can be detained for a long time. Ching Cheong, a respected Hong Kong journalist for the Singapore Straits Times has been detained by mainland authorities for more than eight months without trial. Ching Cheong was detained after he tried to collect documents connected with the former Communist Party leader, Zhao Ziyang, who died in January 2005 while under house arrest for negotiating with Tiananmen demonstrators in 1989.

The central Government is not the only source of attacks on the mainland’s press. As the press in China becomes increasingly market-oriented, more aggressively pursuing readers and advertising revenue, journalists are reporting crime and corruption. There are now more than 2000 publications: an 11-fold increase since the late 1970s, according to the South China Morning Post. But journalists are now facing attacks from the subjects of their reporting. Kristin Jones of CPJ says violence is often initiated by unidentified persons who could be the State, criminals or virtually anyone else.

Such was the case last October when men identifying themselves only as ‘villagers’ attacked South China Morning Post and independent reporters to prevent their reporting attempts to oust the village chief. ‘Lawlessness is a problem’ says Jones, ‘and the central Government is unprepared to defend journalists’ rights.’

In September, Paris-based Reporters San Frontières alleged that Yahoo! helped Chinese authorities link Chinese journalist Shi Tao to a US-based website, which led to him receiving a 10-year prison sentence for revealing State secrets. Last week, Yahoo! was again accused by Reporters San Frontières of handing data to mainland authorities on a subscriber in China, leading to his arrest and imprisonment in 2003. Yahoo! has dismissed what it says are mis-characterisations of its past practices in China.

China, with 111 million internet users, is the second-largest market in the world. The internet, via an estimated 14 million weblogs, provides new opportunities to express and circulate information and opinions.

American companies have been widely criticised over their role in China in the US House of Representatives Committee for International Relations and Humanitarian Affairs. During the hearing last week, the major US internet companies such as Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google and Cisco systems, were required to explain their collaboration with the Chinese authorities on web censorship.

As Sophie Cunningham reported in New Matilda 77 Google has now joined Microsoft and Yahoo! in policing the web. Jane Cai reported in the South China Morning Post that search results on Google.cn will be filtered concerning the three ‘Ts’ (Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen), and the two ‘Cs’ (the ‘Falun Gong’ cult and the Communist Party). Recent searches keying these words didn’t show links to dissident or critical websites, but showed scores of sites that supported central Government positions.

The former editor of China Youth Daily’s respected Bingdian Weekly supplement, Li Datong, received a notice from the Central Propaganda Department in Beijing late in January notifying him that his popular supplement was to close. ‘For a certain period of time, a number of the articles incompatible with the mainstream ideology have been continuously published in your section and have had very bad effects’ the notice said. ‘The weekly should be suspended until it is rectified and fully recognises and corrects its mistakes.’

Bingdian Weekly was closed after a group of textbook writers complained to State leaders about an article that disputed mainstream assessments of the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. At a press briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said that the original article by Professor Yuan had ‘gravely violated historical facts, gravely hurt the national feelings of the Chinese people, and gravely injured the image of the China Youth Daily‘.

The editor’s weblog and the weekly’s website were also erased.

Josephine Ma reports from Beijing that mainland journalists are experiencing their worst censorship in recent years. Besides the closure of Bingdian Weekly, senior staff have been removed from the popular Beijing News, the Guangzhou (Canton) publication Tong Zhou Gong Jin, and the Southern Metropolis Daily. The tightening of control over liberal publications commenced in 2004, after a brief thaw in 2003 when the new leadership was projecting a liberal image that allowed the media to investigate and report accidents and disasters, like the SARS epidemic.

Thirteen senior intellectuals and retired officials signed a joint declaration protesting the closing of Bingdian Weekly. They called for the publication to resume. Among the signatories are Mao Zedong’s former secretary, Li Rui; Hu Jiwei, a past editor of the People’s Daily; Li Pu, former Xinhua News Agency director; Zhu Houze, a former head of the Central Propaganda Department; and lawyer Zhang Sizhi, who defended Mao’s widow, Jiang Quing.

The declaration said the Central Propaganda Department’s ‘review and assessment team’ had long been exercising ‘an illegal control and clamp on public opinions’. It continued:

We were all senior revolutionary people inspired by freedom, though we are getting to old age … but reviewing the lessons of the past seven decades, we know that once the freedom of speech is lost, the authorities can only hear one voice.

The signatories urged the Central Propaganda Department to publish a report of the incident, apologise for Bingdian’s closure, and abolish the review and assessment team. They want authorities to let Bingdian resume publication without taking revenge later and to draft a journalism protection law ‘to replace all the vicious media control measures’.

Li Rui, Mao’s former secretary commented:

The Bingdian event is not the first, and won’t be the last case to prove the absence of freedom of speech is a long-term shackle that has never been tackled in China.

Bingdian Weekly is to resume publication on March 1, but without its editor and deputy editor. It is to carry a feature article criticising the article that led to its five week closure. Senior staff of its parent publication, China Youth Daily, have been ordered to make ‘in-depth self-criticism’.

The joint declaration was a rare public denunciation of the Government by senior figures and indicates there is a heated debate going on about press censorship. It exposed opposing lines of thinking in ruling circles at a time of growing commercialisation of the media and increasing internet usage.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.