The virus of censorship
Chinese media organizations are riddled with informers who report directly to the government – only a minority of journalists are brave enough to fight the system.
One afternoon in May 2001, I got a call from a stranger claiming to be from the publicity department of Guangdong provincial party committee, asking me to remove an article that was going to be published in the next day’s Southern Metropolis Daily. As editor-in-chief of the paper, I often got similar calls from party organisations. However, on this occasion I did not know the caller and I wanted to take the chance to show my disappointment, so I answered very impolitely: “I’m sorry, I don’t know you. I cannot be certain that this is a directive from the departmental leadership. To prevent anyone from falsely using the name of the publicity department and issuing orders to the paper, please could you fax over written documentation, because it is hard to execute this when there is no evidence.”
Towards the end of Jiang Zemin’s term as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CCP), the control over the media by the publicity department, led by Ding Guangen, got tighter and tighter. One obvious change was that the department no longer sent orders to the media in formal documents or cables, requiring editors to implement them. Instead, it left messages on the phone or sent text messages directly to specific people in charge. The reason for this was that there were increasingly frequent prohibitions. Written documents needed to be approved at every level, and the bureaucracy was too complex and too slow in urgent cases. Passing the message over the phone or by text message was quick; the process was simple and effective.
Before the current general secretary, Hu Jintao, came to power in 2002, human rights worsened, justice took a step back, certain dignitaries rose in power and corruption intensified. The CCP’s ideological clampdown strengthened in all aspects and the media took the biggest hit. Liu Yunshan, a former correspondent for Xinhua, the official Chinese press agency, took charge of the publicity department. He seemed to be professional at hiding the truth and fabricating lies. The authorities exerted greater control over the media and the extent of the control grew even wider. There were ever more tactics, which became more specific and targeted. Every time there was a big emergency or an important meeting, there would be a deluge of prohibitions and regulations from the publicity department.
Early in 2003, when Sars was widespread, the publicity department of the Guangdong provincial party committee sometimes issued up to 30 prohibitions a day. It would even issue specific rules on what articles should be put on the front page, the position of articles, guidance on headlines, specifications of photographs and so on. Southern Metropolis Daily, however, continued to break from the controls and air its voice. Zhang Dejiang at that time was a politburo standing committee member and also secretary of Guangdong provincial party committee. On two occasions, at the provincial standing party committee, he asked his subordinates: “Why don’t we sue the people in charge of Southern Metropolis Daily for exposing confidential information?”
The party authorities’ ideas were consistent with Zhang Dejiang’s, and they began to put these ideas into practice. On 17 September 2004 Zhao Yan, an assistant at the New York Times’s Beijing bureau, was arrested in Shanghai. Two months later, a reporter at Modern Business in Hunan, Shi Tao, was detained in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. Both reporters were sued for leaking confidential information. Zhao Yan was given a three-year prison sentence and Shi Tao ten years. The evidence for Shi Tao’s so-called crime was that he leaked publicity department prohibitions to the outside world’s media.
Publicity department control of the media in the Hu Jintao era became underground and secretive, probably because it knew that its actions were unjust and possibly institutionally criminal. A clear change during this period was the way officials would call the media to communicate a prohibition and often stress before hanging up: “Do not make a written record. Do not leave any written evidence. Do not disclose the content of the ban, which department issued the ban, and especially not the name of the leader who issued it.”
As the prohibitions became more private and hidden, they became a big “power-seeking” tool for the publicity department. High-level party officials, in order to dress up their track record and the realities of society, relied heavily on the publicity department. Propaganda officials were flattered and given more opportunities for promotion. On the other hand, party officials, rich and powerful interest groups and large companies, in the case of a scandal, would no longer think about media relations but instead seek to appease senior officials at the publicity department as soon as possible, in order to shut off and control the information at the source. A media scholar from Suzhou University, Du Zhihong, said on his Weibo account (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) that the prohibition orders were used to protect the interests of the corrupt and criminal activities. He wondered how much protection money was received behind each order.
The publicity department usually controls the media by commenting on news. It publishes a regular News Comments report to central politburo members and all secretaries of provincial party committees. It comments on, and gives suggestions for responses to, news and essays that have already been published. This is classic post-event news censorship. The publicity department news comment group is comprised of extreme leftists retired from the government media. They let off steam about the words of any media organisation that is not faithful to the party or not in the party’s interest. As a result, they receive special treatment and benefits. However, the post-event system has its flaws. It is useful only when working with the tamed majority of the media – people who worry about losing their position – but is less effective with the disobedient minority.
On the line
In April 2000, a column in Southern Metropolis Daily was criticised severely by News Comments. Not long afterwards, at the politburo meeting, the then publicity department director, Ding Guangen, took a copy of News Comments out of his briefcase. With a pencil he wrote: “For the attention of Secretary Changchun”. He then handed it over to Li Changchun, a politburo member and secretary of the Guangdong provincial party standing committee, who was sitting at his side. Several days later, Zhong Yangsheng, another member of Guangdong’s standing committee and director for propaganda, summoned Fan Yijin, director of the Southern Newspaper Group, for a talk. He explicitly asked for me to be dismissed as editor-in-chief of Southern Metropolis Daily and be removed from all responsibilities at the paper. Fan Yijin took the usual steps of delaying the process and, by lifting the barrel of the gun an inch higher, kept me in my position.
Fan Yijin’s response, in his protection of his subordinates, is no longer possible. In the past few years, the central government has systematically eliminated all opportunities for the media to voice dissent. It has removed any space in which the liberal media can exist. Publicity departments at all levels not only directly or indirectly keep a tight leash on the appointments of senior staff in the media, but they also plant followers and informers within organisations so they can quickly establish the internal situation of the media and respond accordingly.
One morning at the end of May 2003, Zhong Yangsheng summoned the entire Southern Metropolis Daily editing committee to the Guangdong publicity department for three hours of lectures, in which he abused and cursed the paper. After the meeting, back in the office, I treated the editing committee to lunch. At the table, we did not hold back on mocking and criticising Zhong Yangsheng’s rigid and ridiculous extreme-leftist views. In the afternoon, as I was rushing to Shenzhen for a meeting, I got a call from Zhang Dongming, director of the news section of Guangdong’s publicity department. He said harshly: “Not only did you just fail to implement the words of the publicity department leaders, but you insulted them. How dare you!” My hands trembled, and I quickly pulled off the motorway.
After 2005, the system enacted the strategy of “demoralise, divide and conquer”. The central publicity department started sending censors directly to major media organisations to carry out censorship prior to publication. The central government was therefore not only passing comment on news after publication, but had a pre-publication checkpoint. The dual system formed a pincer movement and provided a double safeguard.
Another policy was even more effective: the direct appointment of publicity department officials to leadership positions in major media organisations. Between 1996 and now, three news section directors in Guangdong’s publicity department have been promoted to senior positions in the Southern Newspaper Group. In other words, three news police chiefs took up editor-in-chief positions. This trend became even more evident in 2005. It was prevalent throughout China, but slower in Guangdong.
At the beginning of this year, to prevent trouble from Guangdong before and after the 18th party congress (which begins next month), especially from the Southern Newspaper Group, the deputy director of Guangdong’s publicity department, Yang Jian, was made party secretary of the Southern Newspaper Group. A diehard conservative official, Tuo Zhen, was flown in from Beijing and made a Guangdong CCP committee member and director of the publicity department. The leadership of Southern Newspaper Group, Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend began to reshuffle at this time. The key leaders were replaced by former publicity department officials. Central government authorities, through appointments and dismissals, reinforced their control over the group and its papers.
I had played a role in establishing the Beijing News. In 2005, not long after I was forced to resign from my post there as editor-in-chief, several censors came in. Southern Metropolis Daily has five censors who come and go. They are as detestable and odious as the negative characters in a film, but they hold real power, and have absolute control over what is sent to the printers.
Censorship happens secretly; it is silent and effective. By forbidding any paper evidence, and by phoning or sending text messages directly among different levels, only one-way communication takes place between the publicity department and the media leadership, and between higher- and lower-level media leaders. The only rule for subordinates is to be loyal to the higher leadership and not cause trouble for them. Accountability and respect have become more straightforward. In time, the media leadership and workers have become used to self-censorship. Members of staff can protect their jobs and personal interests by informing on and betraying others, and so this has become the principal management tool. The dark and dangerous sides of the human character have been exploited.
The situation is as follows. Distinguished media leaders are cleared out systematically, excellent journalists are targeted and removed, and even their supporters are completely marginalised. The subdued and obedient hold all the power. Censorship, like a virus, clones itself and spreads quickly; prohibition orders become stricter at every level. Self-censorship is much harsher than passive censorship. The fundamental principles of news reportage have been destroyed, and there is no longer any identification with values. Lowliness has become the only way to get by.
When Hu Jintao came to power, the Communist Party of China became more totalitarian. Under his leadership, it has raced ahead on the path of anti-universal values, anti-human rights, anti-democracy and anti-freedom. It opposes fairness and justice, and associates itself with evil and injustice.
This is a hidden danger in China’s low-cost and peaceful transition to democracy. So long as the central government upholds Hu Jintao’s ideas on governance, it will not be able to achieve true justice. Freedom of speech, with press freedom at its core, is as contrived as the Arabian Nights. The clampdown on media freedom and freedom of speech has become part of the systematic evil of China’s government. Under its strict control, the media have become tired and journalists are at their wits’ end. Media independence and freedom of speech seem increasingly far off, as does the possibility of integrity and ethics. We are moving ever further away from truth and justice.
Cheng Yizhong is a renowned journalist and media manager. He is a co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the Chinese daily newspapers Southern Metropolis Daily and the Beijing News. After Southern Metropolis Daily exposed Sun Zhigang’s confinement and fatal beating, as well as the truth about Sars, Cheng was detained in secret for more than five months by the Guangdong authorities in 2004 for “economic crimes”, before being released as innocent. He received the 2005 Unesco World Press Freedom Prize. He is now president of the Hong Kong Sun Media Group.