Attacks on the Press 2009: China

Top Developments
• More access for foreign reporters, tighter rules for local assistants.
• As online use grows, government censors sites, jails critics.

Key Statistic
24: Journalists jailed as of December 1, 2009.

While China’s ruling communist party celebrated 60 years in power in 2009, its critics commemorated antigovernment movements in Tibet in 1949 and Tiananmen Square in 1989. Government agencies used a security apparatus strengthened for the 2008 Olympics to restrict dissenting voices during all three landmark anniversaries.


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Foreign journalists were the main beneficiaries of media reforms undertaken in the run-up to the Olympics. Yet compliance with liberalized rules allowing international journalists to travel and conduct interviews without government permission remained patchy in early 2009. In March, international journalists were refused access to the Tibetan Autonomous Region and expelled from Tibetan areas of western China to prevent reporting on the first anniversary of rioting between minority Tibetans and Han Chinese, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising. Police harassed reporters in Sichuan one year after the May 2008 earthquake. On June 4, 20 years after troops fired on
antigovernment protesters in Beijing, journalists with the BBC and CNN reporting from the focal point of the student-led unrest, Tiananmen Square, found police obstructing their camera lenses with open umbrellas. 

Mid-year brought apparent changes in government tactics. Rumors of strife between Han Chinese and minority Uighur workers at a factory in southern Guangzhou province sparked riots in the far-western Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region on July 5. This time, information authorities welcomed international correspondents to the regional capital, Urumqi, to cover the disturbance. The state-run news agency, Xinhua, which notoriously excludes antigovernment movements from coverage, reported a death toll of nearly 200. Foreign news outlets praised the unusual openness. Out of the spotlight, however, restrictions continued. The Guangzhou factory, site of the original tension, was off-limits to foreign reporters, as were other Xinjiang hot spots such as the city of Kashgar, the site of violence in 2008.  

Journalists from the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau were freer than their mainland counterparts but still encountered obstruction. In February, China announced onerous requirements for these journalists entering the mainland, including the need to get permission from interviewees in advance of travel. Hong Kong and Macau journalists feared regulation from afar but were equally concerned at signs of local self-censorship. Reporter Daisy Chu told CPJ she lost her job at Esquire magazine’s Hong Kong edition after revealing on her personal blog that editors had withdrawn a feature on the Tiananmen anniversary. Esquire did not respond to CPJ inquiries. Mak Yinting, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), expressed concern that the dismissal implied that June 4 was off-limits to Hong Kong reporters.

The HKJA asserted itself against the mainland in early September, leading street protests after police roughed up and detained at least three Hong Kong journalists on assignment in Urumqi. Press officials in Xinjiang defended the action, saying the journalists had been inciting unrest, according to HKJA. Mainland Chinese journalists could not mount their own displays of protest without fear of reprisal, although local newspapers reported that they were menaced and assaulted by police, security agents, and citizens in the course of their work throughout the year. Guangzhou Ribao daily said three of its journalists were attacked on the job in separate episodes in August. One, reporter Liu Manyuan, was hospitalized after being assaulted by district security guards in Dongguan City while investigating the death of a young woman, the paper said. 

Progress for foreign journalists was offset by tighter restrictions on their interview subjects and Chinese assistants. In February 2009, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-linked Beijing Personnel Service Corporation for Diplomatic Missions issued a code of conduct for Chinese aides of foreign news outlets. Already forbidden by law from writing under their own bylines, Chinese assistants—who can find legal employment with foreign news providers only through the personnel service—faced dismissal or loss of accreditation for conducting independent interviews, the new code decreed.

Foreign journalists investigating potentially critical stories told CPJ they were increasingly anxious about repercussions for local colleagues and sources. Several Tibetans and Uighurs who spoke openly about minority issues in their respective regions were detained in 2009, lending weight to those concerns. At least three Tibetan writers were arrested between February and July. Overseas Tibetan rights groups reported in November that two had been separately tried and sentenced in closed-door proceedings in Gansu province, both for revealing state secrets. Kunchok Tsephel Gopey Tsang, manager of the Tibetan cultural Web site Chomei, was jailed for 15 years, while environmental activist and writer Kunga Tsayang was sentenced to five years in prison. Tibetan rights organizations said Dokru Tsultrim, a monk who wrote several articles in support of the Dalai Lama, remained in custody at the end of the year, but his location and legal status were not known.

Uighur Web site managers were also targeted. Dilimulati Paerhati, a U.K.-based student, told Amnesty International that unidentified men took his brother, Dilixiati Paerhati, manager of a popular Uighur Web site Diyarim, from his Urumqi apartment on August 7. “He only edits a Web site; he hasn’t done anything wrong,” his brother told the group. Ilham Tohti, a professor and founder of the Web site Uighurbiz, was questioned about the contents of the site and detained for more than six weeks before being released in August, according to international news reports. Security officials later arrested Hailaite Niyazi, a journalist who managed Uighurbiz until June 2009, on charges of endangering national security, the reports said. Niyazi formerly worked for state newspapers Xinjiang Legal News and Xinjiang Economic Daily. 

Han dissidents working online also remained vulnerable: Tianwang Web site founder Huang Qi, imprisoned in June 2008, was tried August 5 on charges of possessing state secrets after advocating for earthquake survivors in his writing. He was sentenced to three years in prison during a brief hearing in November.

At least 24 journalists were imprisoned for their work when CPJ conducted its annual worldwide census on December 1. Most worked online, publishing independent news and opinion on local or overseas Web sites that did not have political sponsorships. Many lawyers representing these journalists complained of irregularities in the prosecution of their clients, including prolonged detentions without charge. More than half of the journalists were jailed on vague, antistate charges such as revealing state secrets or subverting state power.

The targeting of online journalists was part of a broader campaign to expand government control of the Internet—often in the guise of anti-pornography campaigns—in ways that tested the patience of ordinary users. The Google-owned video-sharing site YouTube was blocked for much of the year. Several Internet users complained it was still blocked as late as November. Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang declined to say whether Google’s English-language search engine had been blocked after users reported accessibility problems in June, but asserted that the search engine had “spread large amounts of vulgar content.”

Chinese users embraced the micro-blog and social networking to spread news and opinion, but over the summer Twitter and the social network platform Facebook disappeared from screens in much of China, apparently victims of the government’s Golden Shield Project, which monitors and censors the Internet. Twitter and Facebook remained “intermittently” blocked in China in September, according to freelance journalist Thomas Crampton, aggregating data collected by the Herdict project of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The project collates individual reports of blocked sites. Several local micro-blogs and social networking sites also closed for “maintenance.” Broad censorship was at work in Xinjiang, where whole swaths went offline after July’s unrest. Nearly four months later, business owners were still commuting to neighboring Gansu province to access e-mail, according to international news reports.

In May, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in Beijing caused an outcry with the announcement that pre-installation of two software programs, Green Dam and Youth Escort, would be mandatory on all personal computers sold in China as of July 1, ostensibly to filter pornography. Only the programs’ local manufacturers, poised to make enormous profits, welcomed the arrangement. Analysts exposed security flaws, violations to international trade agreements, and the programs’ potential to monitor individual Internet use and block politically sensitive keywords. Local bloggers and international technology companies united in outrage. The Global Network Initiative—a collaboration of Internet corporations, academics, and human rights groups, including CPJ, to promote best practices for Internet and technology companies in defense of free speech—issued advice for companies struggling with the software’s implications. The government first delayed the mandate; by July officials backed down, denying they had ever intended one.

Free expression advocates claimed victory in the battle, but the conflict continued. In the run-up to National Day celebrating the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, several analysts commented that online censorship was as severe as it had ever been. At Hong Kong University’s China Media Project, Qian Gang and David Bandurski noted that pressure on the mainstream media to report only positive, patriotic news appeared tighter than it had been for the 50th anniversary. Propaganda department directives for news outlets dictated limits on historical analysis as well as breaking news. “Do not allow articles that ‘keep dwelling on the ’60s and ’70s.’ Look back immediately starting from 1978 [when reformist Deng Xiaoping came to power and started to launch economic reforms], with the main subjects of development and progress,” read one, according to the Berkeley-based China Digital Times Web site. In mid-December, the agency in charge of China’s .cn domain announced that individuals must provide identification and a business affiliation in order to register new Web sites. Although Internet users in China could still register sites under other domains, many were concerned the registration requirements signaled new limits on online expression.

Domestic news outlets must be sponsored by a party-affiliated organ, leaving them susceptible to political pressure. CPJ research shows that commercial success following market reform has provided some media groups with both the incentive and the political protection to sidestep the propaganda department and publish aggressive investigative reporting. But limits remain. On October 12, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that 11 executives and 70 percent of staff had resigned from the Beijing-based Caijing, a business weekly and flagship of Chinese watchdog journalism. Caijing’s founder and editor, Hu Shuli, resigned soon after. Journalists associated with the magazine refused to comment, but the news followed rumors that the publication’s management had decided to scale back politically controversial reporting. “It was not the editorial side but the purse strings calling for caution,” according to Foreign Policy magazine, placing responsibility on the SEEC Media Group, which owns Caijing under the auspices of the party-linked All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce. Although the circumstances remained murky at year’s end, journalists faced the possibility that editorial freedom was threatened by commercial and political interests acting not in opposition, but in concert.