Attacks on the Press 2004: China

China (including Hong Kong)

It was a disappointing year for those who hoped that President Hu Jintao would allow a greater degree of freedom for China’s increasingly market-oriented press. After taking over the presidency from Jiang Zemin in 2003, Hu consolidated power in September 2004, when Jiang gave up his final leadership post, the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission. The subsequent crackdown on the media was yet another example of the long-standing government policy of muzzling independent voices.

According to a September 26 statement from the Chinese Communist Party following the plenum that confirmed Jiang’s retirement, officials will “persist in the principle of party control of the media” and “further improve propaganda in newspapers and journals, broadcasting and TV.” With 87 million Internet users among its citizens, the government resolved to “strengthen the building of the Internet propaganda contingent, and form a strong momentum of positive public opinion on the ‘net.”

New and diverse print, broadcast, and electronic media outlets have burgeoned during China’s astounding economic boom. The government has had to adapt to the shifting dynamics of the media amid technological advances and commercial growth. Authorities increased surveillance of cell phone text messaging and digital video broadcasts in 2004 in response to the rapid flow of information throughout the country that those technologies have enabled. The government also struggled to maintain control over reporters and editors who have broken new ground in their coverage of crime and corruption in an increasingly competitive media environment.

However, market forces alone are proving to be inadequate to create an independent press. Private companies, both foreign and domestic, have overwhelmingly demonstrated complacency toward government censorship. Meanwhile, international diplomatic pressure over China’s human rights record–including its treatment of journalists–has diminished as China gains confidence as a world economic power. China continues to be the world’s leading jailer of journalists (42 were behind bars at year’s end), and in 2004, authorities intensified the fear among journalists by going after several high-profile members of the press.

Fighting for reform beyond the scope of economics, growing numbers of journalists, scholars, and lawyers within China have stepped up to challenge the Communist Party line on crucial issues such as rural poverty, AIDS, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, and the media’s role in society. These prominent individuals are censorship’s biggest threat, and the target of 2004’s crackdown. Late in the year, the government even banned the use of the term “public intellectuals” to refer to thinkers who involve themselves in public affairs.

Chinese lawyers are playing an increasingly important role in fighting for freedom of expression. Though the Chinese Constitution protects this freedom, it is mitigated in practice by a complex system of media regulations. The courts, which often follow instructions from high-level party officials, give freedom of expression a narrow range and favor an expansive interpretation of the constitutional prohibition on disrupting the socialist state and the leadership of the Communist Party.

Domestic advocacy by lawyers and others, aided by Internet communication, may have accounted for the unusually light sentence handed to journalist Du Daobin after his October 2003 arrest. Du, a prominent and respected Internet essayist, was convicted of “incitement to subvert state power,” in part for advocating for the release from prison of fellow Internet journalist Liu Di. On June 11, a Hubei court convicted Du on subversion-related charges but suspended his three-year prison sentence and placed him on probation. His lawyer’s argument that Du was simply exercising his right to freedom of expression was bolstered by a letter addressed to Premier Wen Jiabao that was signed by more than 100 supporters. The terms of Du’s probation forbid him from, among other things, posting articles online.

In January, authorities initiated a spurious investigation into corruption among editors at the popular Guangzhou-based daily Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis Daily). In 2003, the paper was among the most aggressive in reporting on the death of a graphic designer who was allegedly fatally beaten in police custody. The paper was the first to report a new case of SARS in Guangzhou on December 26, 2003. On March 19, Nanfang Dushi Bao Deputy Editor-in-Chief Yu Huafeng was sentenced to 12 years in prison on corruption charges. On the same day, Li Minying, a former editor at Nanfang Dushi Bao, was sentenced to 11 years on bribery charges. In an appellate hearing in June, their sentences were reduced to eight and six years, respectively.

Also detained in the corruption investigation was Cheng Yizhong, the independent-minded former editor-in-chief at Nanfang Dushi Bao. The authorities’ decision to go after such a well-known journalist created a stir among Chinese scholars, lawyers, journalists, and government officials. When Cheng was released without charge in August, his lawyer credited the support that the editor had garnered domestically. It was not enough to win Cheng his job back, however; the journalist was later stripped of his Communist Party membership, which means he can no longer practice his profession.

Crackdowns on the press intensified during the fall. The popular Internet forum Yitahutu, which covered a wide range of topics, including human rights and democracy, was shuttered; the foreign-affairs magazine Zhanlue yu Guanli was closed; and other well-known journalists and their advocates were harassed, detained, or fired for their work.

In September, authorities detained New York Times researcher Zhao Yan on suspicion of “providing state secrets to foreigners,” a crime punishable by execution. Authorities did not release details about the case and rebuffed numerous international inquiries. In the months before his arrest, authorities had harassed and threatened Zhao for his aggressive reporting on rural issues for China Reform magazine. He was a strong advocate for farmers displaced by corrupt local officials and worked as an activist to help them collect appropriate compensation.

But the immediate pretext for Zhao’s arrest appeared to be a September 7 article in The New York Times that disclosed Jiang’s retirement plans prior to the official announcement. Zhao told at least one friend in the days before he was detained that authorities had contacted him to question whether he was the source of the scoop, according to inter-national news reports and the group Human Rights in China. The New York Times stated “categorically” that Zhao did not provide any state secrets to the newspaper. The Times said Zhao did no reporting for the newspaper and had no involvement in the Jiang article.

The arrest was widely seen as an attempt to stymie foreign journalists’ coverage of Chinese political affairs and punish a journalist who had long been a thorn in the side of the government.

Byzantine licensing requirements ensure that press outlets remain under the control of local government agencies. In addition, provincial and central propaganda departments routinely issue bans on a changing list of topics. In 2004, media blackouts were imposed on riots in the countryside, coal-mining accidents, and the regular influx to Beijing of petitioners seeking redress from the central government (who were detained by the tens of thousands during the September plenum). When Beijing University journalism professor Jiao Guobiao wrote an essay that circulated on the Internet in early 2004 slamming the Central Propaganda Bureau and its arbitrary designation of banned topics, he lost his teaching responsibilities and became a banned topic himself.

In the beginning of 2004, the government announced new guidelines to allow private investors to take direct ownership shares in newspapers, magazines, broadcast media, and publishing houses. The guidelines did not rule out foreign investors. In recent years, backdoor private investment in the media and an increased reliance on advertisers have forced news outlets to function more like businesses, competing for advertising and circulation, and less like party mouthpieces. Even state-run publications have had to compete; in March, state media reported that 667 government-run newspapers had been closed in the last seven months in accordance with new measures to end state funding of unprofitable publications.

Pressure to compete has pushed reporters to aggressively pursue stories of local corruption, crime, celebrity scandal, and natural and environmental disasters. The evolving role of journalists as watchdogs and profit-makers has also exposed them to new dangers. In August, CPJ released a special report on journalists who face violent retribution for their work. Incidents of attacks on reporters by those implicated in their investigations of crime and corruption have occurred with growing frequency. The central government is ill-prepared to safeguard journalists, and reporters who are assaulted often have no recourse to defend themselves.

Journalists covering crime and corruption increasingly face politicized civil libel suits intended to bring them to heel. Media outlets almost always lose. In 2004, the banned book An Investigation of China’s Peasantry, which exposed local corruption and official abuse of peasants in Anhui Province, sold millions in pirated copies across China. Authors Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, who did not receive proceeds from the sales, were tried for civil libel in August. An official named in their book sued the two in the same county where he had long served as the local Communist Party secretary. At year’s end, no verdict had been reached.

China stepped up efforts to monitor Internet users in 2004 by improving surveillance systems at Internet cafés. Ostensibly a measure to protect children from viewing violent or pornographic material, authorities also penalized any café that allowed users to spread politically sensitive information. At year’s end, at least 19 journalists remained in prison for posting commentary or information on the Internet, according to CPJ research.

Private companies, both foreign and domestic, have shown little inclination to challenge the party’s ideological monopoly. In 2004, Google launched a Chinese-language news service that doesn’t display Web sites blocked by Chinese authorities. In response to criticism, the company argued that its decision was in line with its policy to avoid displaying links whose contents are inaccessible. Yahoo! had already censored its search engine in China. Other multinationals, including the U.S. company Cisco and Canada’s Nortel Networks, have provided China with technology used to monitor Internet users and filter content. These companies appear to follow the philosophy put forth by Cisco in 2002. A company spokesman told Newsweek: “If the Chinese government wants to monitor Internet users, that’s their business. We are basically politically neutral.”

Hong Kong

Pro-democracy politicians, journalists, and citizens, who have been some of the best advocates for press freedom in Hong Kong, suffered setbacks in 2004 that adversely affected conditions for the local media. Nonetheless, Hong Kong’s press remained among the freest in the region.

Beijing tightened its grip on Hong Kong in 2004, barring direct elections in 2007 and 2008 for the territory’s chief executive and legislature, respectively. Observers say the move was a direct response to demonstrations in 2003 against repressive anti-subversion legislation that brought an astounding 500,000 protesters out onto the streets and ensured the indefinite shelving of the bill. But the ban on direct elections did not impede

a huge turnout for the July 1 protests marking the anniversary of the handover of power from the United Kingdom to China in July 1997.

Despite the anti-China sentiments, Beijing won a victory when the pro-democracy Democratic Party failed to take a majority of seats on the Legislative Council (LegCo) in September elections. The outcome did not reflect popular opinion; pro-democracy candidates won a clear majority of the popular vote. Only half of LegCo’s 60 members were elected by Hong Kong citizens; professional and industry groups–so-called functional constituencies that are traditionally pro-Beijing–chose the remaining 30.

In the run-up to the election, three popular radio hosts left their jobs in quick succession, claiming that they had been threatened and pressured to stop their pro-democracy broadcasting. Albert Cheng, longtime host of the popular morning call-in show “Teacup in a Storm,” aired on privately owned Commercial Radio, resigned on May 7, citing anonymous death threats, as well as Hong Kong’s “suffocating political climate.” Cheng, who won a seat in LegCo in September, was known for his staunch criticism of China and Hong Kong’s China-appointed Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Days later, on May 13, Wong Yuk-man (also known as Raymond Wong) announced that he was taking a temporary break from hosting the Commercial Radio evening show “Close Encounters of a Political Kind” because he was “physically and mentally tired.” Wong had criticized the Communist Party in his broadcasts. He later told the Hong Kong-based Chinese-language weekly Next that pro-Beijing businessmen had attempted to bribe and coerce him into silence. When a third host, Albert Cheng’s more moderate replacement, Allen Lee, resigned from “Teacup in a Storm” on May 19, Hong Kong academics, journalists, and Democratic members of the legislature protested the erosion of press freedom.

Lee, a Hong Kong delegate to the Chinese legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), told members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council that Chinese officials had threatened and pressured him to cease his on-air support of democracy. A commentary in the Chinese government-owned English-language China Daily warned Lee before he resigned that, “Political figures must watch their words and deeds very carefully.” Lee also resigned from the NPC on May 19.

Despite the resignations, Commercial Radio Chief Executive Winnie Yu denied that the station was succumbing to political pressure. But the popular “Teacup in a Storm” was taken off the air in October to make way for programming with “rational and emotional appeal,” Yu told reporters.

Some journalists said that pressure to avoid harsh criticism of China has steadily increased since the 1997 handover; the owners of most of the territory’s print and broadcast outlets have business or political interests in China. But other journalists note that China continues to have little day-to-day control over media operations. Despite the loss of an important talk-radio forum, Hong Kong print and broadcast outlets thoroughly covered the summer’s demonstrations–which Beijing sought to downplay–and continued to serve up hard news and criticism of China and the local government.

In July, officers from Hong Kong’s anticorruption agency, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), raided the offices of seven newspapers. In a sweeping and heavy-handed investigation to identify who leaked a protected witness’s name, officers subjected journalists to extensive questioning, searched computers, and seized material from their offices.

In August, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance ruled in favor of Sing Tao Daily, one of the newspapers that was raided, and revoked the ICAC search warrant. Court Justice Michael Hartmann called the agency’s tactics unnecessarily intrusive. The ICAC appealed the ruling, and the Court of Appeal dismissed the case, saying it had no jurisdiction. However, the court did release a legally nonbinding, but potentially persuasive, statement saying that the ICAC was justified in its raid.