Attacks on the Press 2005: China


President Hu Jintao consolidated his leadership in March during a legislative session that formalized the transition of power from Jiang Zemin. Hu’s administration distinguished itself by its hard-line stance against dissidents, intellectuals, and activists, intensifying a far-reaching and severe crackdown on the media. Central authorities arrested and prosecuted journalists under broad national security legislation, while simultaneously ramping up the regulations that undermine the right to express opinions and transmit information in China.

The government’s ambitious project of media control is unique in the world’s history. Never have so many lines of communication in the hands of so many people been met with such obsessive resistance from a central authority. The Chinese government has merged its participation in the world market and political affairs with a throwback attachment to Mao-era principles of propaganda. By fostering technological and commercial growth, it has placed the media in the hands of ordinary citizens—and then used these same capabilities to ensure that its citizens cannot blog the word “democracy,” publish an independent analysis of cross-straits relations, send a text message about a gathering protest, or report on the workings of the Propaganda Department.

More people use cell phones in China than anywhere else in the world, even as authorities continue to monitor and censor text messages. The nation’s Internet users surpass 100 million by most estimates, although they face a massive and sophisticated government firewall restricting news and information.

This is repression of a different order. As in the former Soviet Union, regimes in North Korea and Burma have exerted more direct and absolute control over a few, limited paths of communication. China, by contrast, is encouraging greater commercialization of the mass news media; broadcast and print news outlets have broadened their roles, and the press corps has grown to hundreds of thousands of government-accredited journalists. But as the Chinese government promotes market-based mass media, it still censors to great effect. The government-run People’s Daily reported in February that censorship agencies permanently shut down 338 publications in 2004 for printing “internal” information, closed 202 branch offices of newspapers, and punished 73 organizations for illegally “engaging in news activities.”

The death of Zhao Ziyang in January offered international observers an opportunity to witness the kind of top-down censorship that marks events involving Communist Party leadership, past and present. Zhao, a former party chief, was ousted from his position and placed under lifelong house arrest after appealing to students to leave Tiananmen Square before the military crackdown of June 4, 1989. After his death, propaganda authorities permitted newspapers in China to carry just a few state-produced sentences about his life and death. The official government obituary issued by the Xinhua News Agency and read on Chinese TV after his unpublicized memorial service cited Zhao’s “serious mistakes” during the “political disturbance” of 1989. Internet bulletin boards hummed with eulogies that vanished like the sound of voices a moment after they appeared. Only statements in code or oblique metaphor survived online in China, while overseas Chinese-language Web sites were flooded with memory and protest.

The blackout of Zhao’s death seemed to spring from the government’s fear that the event could generate protests or calls for reforms, as other reformists’ deaths have done previously. Three months later, China saw the kind of mass, unauthorized urban protests it feared—albeit in an unexpected form. Japan’s approval of a textbook that glossed over World War II atrocities sparked large demonstrations in China’s major cities over a period of weeks. Protesters initially found some support in the strongly nationalist rhetoric of editorials and news articles from newspapers under direct government control. Authorities acted to stop the protests only after groups and individuals had circulated a petition signed by millions to keep Japan out of the United Nations Security Council and organized spontaneous nationwide demonstrations through Internet chat rooms and cell phone text messages. Censorship agencies suppressed coverage of the protests, and references to the demonstrations on Web sites were excised.

News reports said that several people were arrested for inciting protests online. Local media reported that Shanghai resident Tang Ye was sentenced to five years in prison for “disturbing public order” for distributing a guide to an April 16 protest via text message and the Internet. Writer Yang Maodong, commonly known by his pen name Guo Feixiong, was held for 16 days after applying for a permit to hold a protest; he later told reporters he believed he was detained because he was an Internet writer. Guo was arrested again in September for his online writing and advocacy of villagers’ campaign to recall an elected chief in the Guangdong village of Taishi. This time, Guo was held for three months before being released in late December. Prosecutors told him he would not be indicted.

In September, the government announced a fresh set of restrictions on Internet news content that seemed to reflect its concerns over the anti-Japan demonstrations and increasingly frequent rural protests. The rules added two new areas of forbidden content to a list that already included news that “divulges state secrets,” “jeopardizes the integrity of the nation’s unity,” “harms the honor or interests of the nation,” or “propagates evil cults” (an apparent reference to the banned Falun Gong religious sect). The new regulations also banned content that incites “illegal” gatherings or demonstrations, or is distributed in the name of “illegal civil organizations.” Web sites posting restricted news content would be fined or shut down, according to the regulations.

The new Internet restrictions also aimed to stem independent reporting and commentary by requiring bulletin board systems, Web sites associated with search engines, and online text messaging services to register as news organizations. The rules stated that Web sites that had not been established by an official news outlet (“news work unit”) were forbidden from gathering or editing their own news or commentary. The regulations outlawed the kind of self-generated news and commentary that had become a fixture of search portals like Sina and Sohu and popular bulletin board systems such as Xici Hutong. Administrators of these sites had long censored their own news content and monitored public discussions to avoid being shut down by authorities, but the new restrictions added a layer of direct government involvement in their practices while circumscribing their legitimate scope.

Less than a week after these regulations were issued, the popular bulletin board system Yannan posted a notice that it would be closed for “cleanup and rectification” until further notice. The Web site’s administrators had earlier deleted all entries related to the turbulent recall campaign in the village of Taishi, which pitted hundreds of protesting villagers against local officials and police. The Taishi protests captivated observers around the country, who saw it as a test of the government’s commitment to experiments in “grassroots” democracy. Yannan was pivotal in providing updated information and commentary that went further in scope and diversity of opinion than the restricted coverage allowed in mainland print and broadcast news. Guo was arrested after writing extensively on Taishi for Yannan.

Later, two foreign journalists who traveled to the area were beaten, while others were harassed and interrogated. The attacks on foreign correspondents highlighted the problem of violence against the media in China, which much more often targets local journalists.

According to CPJ research, China was the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the seventh consecutive year in 2005, with 32 behind bars on December 1. Yet, imprisoning journalists is not the government’s principal means of keeping a rein on the press. Instead, a program of self-censorship and direct censorship is achieved through administrative mechanisms that guarantee a hierarchy of control extending from the central government to news editors. Editors are much more often fired, demoted, or otherwise penalized by the Propaganda Department than criminally prosecuted, local journalists told CPJ. Loopholes in this system of control are quickly identified, first by reporters, and then by authorities who seek to close them. Hong Kong and international newspapers reported that propaganda officials worked to close one such loophole in 2005 by cracking down on “extra-territorial reporting” (yidi baodao), a common practice of conducting investigative reporting outside the jurisdiction of local officials in a newspaper’s home area.

Criminal prosecution is devastating for the individuals involved and sends a strong warning to other journalists. The detention in April of Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong, a veteran reporter for the Singapore daily The Straits Times, set off shock waves among his many supporters worldwide. It sent a disturbing signal particularly to Hong Kong journalists accustomed to protection from repressive mainland laws. Ching’s wife told CPJ and international reporters that Ching was detained while seeking transcripts of interviews with Zhao Ziyang. After international media reported the news a month after his arrest, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement accusing Ching of spying for an overseas organization. Ching was unable to give his side of the story; authorities used the national security accusation to deny him access to a lawyer.

A small bomb explosion at the offices of the independent Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao gave journalists there another shock in November. It was unclear what motivated the attack. One staffer was injured.

The espionage charges leveled against Ching, a Hong Kong citizen, were uncommon, and extraordinarily serious. But authorities frequently imprison mainland Chinese journalists on national security–related charges, especially those of “inciting subversion” and “divulging state secrets.” In November, CPJ honored imprisoned journalist Shi Tao with its 2005 International Press Freedom Award. Shi, an editor of the Changsha-based Dangdai Shang Bao, was arrested in late 2004 and convicted of divulging state secrets abroad for posting online his notes summarizing Propaganda Department instructions to his newspaper. The information contained in the notes outlined only the broad areas of concern brought up in the meeting, including the government’s warning about the possible destabilizing effect of dissidents’ returning to mark the 15th anniversary of the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, and instructions to news editors to gather relevant information. For that, Shi was sentenced to 10 years in prison in April.

The Chinese law on state secrets is toxic to the development of a free press. The government counts several categories of official data on land use, labor protests, unemployment, public health issues, environmental pollution, war casualties, and ongoing investigations of party leaders among its “state secrets,” according to a widely cited list compiled by a Chinese blogger and considered to be authoritative. In September, Xinhua reported that the death toll in natural disasters would no longer be labeled a state secret. But the classification can also be applied after the fact by the State Secrecy Bureau, as it was in Shi’s case. The law is vague enough to be used against any journalist who reports on politically inconvenient news, including information that is widely known or has been previously published. Once applied, it allows detention for renewable periods of months without access to a lawyer and without charge or trial. New York Times researcher Zhao Yan, arrested under this law on suspicion of leaking advance information about Jiang Zemin’s retirement, remained in jail without trial more than a year after he was initially detained in September 2004. Zhao was finally indicted in December on charges of leaking state secrets.

An outbreak of the avian flu, including a handful of human cases, was not officially treated as a state secret in the manner of SARS, and the government pledged full transparency. But an editorial in the pioneering Beijing-based Caijing magazine accused officials of withholding information and criticized the local media for being slow to report the story. In November, officials covered up news of a toxic slick from a chemical plant explosion, initially attributing a disruption in the water service in the northeastern city of Harbin to pipe repairs. When authorities later admitted that 100 tons of poisonous chemicals had spilled into the Songhua River, the national news media condemned the actions of officials responsible for withholding information and called for accountability. The official cover-up, coming on top of the avian flu problems, further undermined the government’s credibility.

Writers working outside of China’s regulatory framework remained at huge risk in 2005. Two freelance journalists, both contributors to banned overseas news Web sites, were charged and sentenced to long prison terms for “inciting subversion,” and another was indicted on the same charge. Zhang Lin, a longtime dissident, was sentenced to five years in prison in July for essays criticizing the Communist Party. His wife believes that he was also punished for his reporting on labor protests and official scandals. On September 1, he launched a hunger strike that he sustained for nearly a month. Another Internet essayist, Zheng Yichun, was sentenced to seven years in prison on the same charge. Freelance journalist Li Jianping was detained on suspicion of defamation in May, apparently for his online writings criticizing party leaders. Authorities brought subversion charges against him in August.

Prosecution of journalists, though not widely reported, was not lost on their colleagues. In June, more than 2,000 Chinese journalists signed an open letter to a Guangdong court urging the release of imprisoned Nanfang Dushi Bao employees Yu Huafeng and Li Minying.

Amid the increasingly visible media crackdown of 2005, foreign players in the information sector came under pressure from the Chinese government and scrutiny from CPJ and other international observers. Throughout the year, the government announced a series of regulations restricting foreign influence and investment in news, film, and other cultural products. Backing off a liberalization of foreign investment rules in 2004, which appeared to be promulgated in preparation for Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics in 2008, the government made it more difficult for foreign companies to participate in joint media ventures. At the same time, the intensity of the crackdown raised inevitable questions of international companies’ complicity in China’s censorship and prosecution of journalists.

In July, the news Web site Boxun News, which is banned in China, reported that American Internet giant Yahoo had provided account information used to prosecute journalist Shi. When international newspapers picked up the story, Yahoo responded by stating that, as a global company, it had to follow the laws, regulations, and customs of the countries in which it was operating. In August, Yahoo beat its rivals to win a large stake in the Chinese e-commerce company