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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.

Cheng Yizhong is a 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, and current president of the Hong Kong Sun Media Group.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

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Political tribes: why democracy is no match for the visceral pull of “us” against “them”

How Donald Trump epitomises and supercharges white American tribalism.

During the Vietnam War, the US thought it was fighting communism. Afterwards, the consensus was that the Vietnamese had been fighting for national independence. But Amy Chua, in her extremely stimulating Political Tribes, suggests an additional factor: many Vietnamese thought they were fighting the country’s Chinese minority.

Ethnic Chinese made up only 1 per cent of Vietnam’s population, yet controlled 70 to 80 per cent of national wealth. They were what Chua calls a “market-dominant minority”. North Vietnam’s leader, Ho Chi Minh, was backed by communist China, but when he attacked “capitalists”, most Vietnamese knew exactly which ethnic group he meant.

After the war, many of Vietnam’s Chinese were either massacred or fled: they made up the great majority of the “Vietnamese boat people” of the late 1970s. The story makes the central point of Chua’s book: American decision-makers, both at home and abroad, have tended to focus on markets and democracy while overlooking tribe. The political salience of tribalism only became unmissable with Donald Trump’s election as US president.

Most people, argues Chua, a law professor at Yale University, don’t simply seek to be free or rich as individuals. They want to thrive within their tribe (usually an ethnic one), often while hurting other tribes. Now, the US risks tottering into the kind of winner-takes-all, tribalised polity that we usually associate with the developing world.

Tribe has always been Chua’s topic. Her 2002 debut, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability, anticipated America’s debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nine years later, she hit fame with her Chinese-American how-to memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, about how ethnic Chinese parents supposedly raise their children to be workaholic winners. Then The Triple Package, co-written with her equally high-achieving husband, Jed Rubenfeld, sought to explain (not altogether convincingly) why certain tribes (such as Jews, Mormons, or Nigerian Igbo) tend to succeed in the US.

Chua has a gift for simplicity, sticking to her main argument and homing in on what matters. She is a digger of surprising facts, which she presents in clear if artless prose. Her occasional oversimplifications, and her willingness to plunge into areas in which she is not an expert, only increase her influence on public debates.

The chief tension in US history is between the rhetoric of universalism and the reality of white dominance. As Chua says, the US officially thinks of itself as a “supergroup”, which can accept people of all tribes as Americans. Hardly any other big country sees itself this way. Even in very diverse states, one tribe usually dominates – in China, for instance, the Han Chinese. Yet whenever American decision-makers discover another country – generally after invading it – they tend to impose upon it the supergroup logic. They assume that once the country is given markets and democracy (or at least a pro-American dictator) then any pesky tribal issues will soon fade away. The prescription worked brilliantly in post-war Japan and West Germany, but then Japan had always been unusually ethnically homogenous, and Germany had become so through genocide. In the first half of Political Tribes, Chua argues that things went wrong when the US applied the usual prescription to more ethnically complex states such as Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Venezuela.

In Afghanistan in the 1980s, American funding helped create the Taliban. In 2001, the US identified the Taliban as an anti-democratic, demonic force that had to be eradicated. That wasn’t totally wrong, but the Taliban was also a resistance movement of ethnic Pashtuns, who feared that their fragmented collection of tribes and clans was losing control of Afghanistan. The US toppled the Taliban in 75 days. Then it installed a new Afghan regime, which (though the Americans don’t seem to have dwelled on the fact) consisted mostly of ethnic Tajiks. Nearly 17 years later, the Afghan war is the longest-running in American history. Trump has sent more troops, while saying: “We don’t want to talk with the Taliban. There may be a time but it’s going to be a long time.”

In Iraq, too, the US initially ignored tribal divides. Peter Galbraith, in The End of Iraq, tells the famous anecdote of the three Iraqi-Americans who were invited to watch the Super Bowl with George W Bush in January 2003. This was two months before Bush invaded Iraq, yet the visitors soon realised the president wasn’t familiar with the distinction between Shia and Sunni. When they tried to explain it, Bush allegedly blurted out: “I thought the Iraqis were Muslims!” The story would have been hard to credit, were it not for everything the Americans did after the invasion.

In countries with sharp ethnic divides, democracy often just makes these worse. When there’s suddenly a free election, the largest tribe – in Iraq, the Shia – tends to grab power and punish smaller tribes. Islamic State was created largely by disaffected Sunni Iraqi military officers. In Myanmar, too, more democracy seems to have led to greater persecution of the Rohingya. Western countries (not only the US) misread Aung San Suu Kyi as a democratic hero; she is in fact a tribal leader.

While democracy can hurt small tribes, the other American prescription, free markets, can alienate big tribes if a country has a market-dominant minority – and it usually does. When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela 20 years ago, the US understood him as a communist stooge. In fact, the brown-skinned Chávez was backed by most of Venezuela’s non-white majority, who were sick of a white elite controlling the economy. But when Chua pointed this out in her first book, many white Venezuelans insisted that they were colour-blind, and that racism didn’t exist in their gloriously miscegenated country. She got death threats.

At times in Political Tribes, Chua overstates her argument. Whatever the country, her moral is always the same, “the blindness [to tribal identities] has been the Achilles’ heel of US foreign policy”. This is broadly convincing but surely exaggerated. Even for the average half-awake layperson, two days in Latin America is enough to establish the centrality of race. Surely American policymakers couldn’t have missed it? But Chua – a canny marketer – makes her points strongly. 

After her tour of American blunders abroad, in the second half of the book she comes home. By now, the reader is primed to see the US as just another messed-up tribal society. Other writers have made this argument over the past two years, but Chua does a better job than most of explaining how the country got there.

We’ve heard a lot since 2016 about how the white working class voted for Trump in a scream of post-industrial economic pain. That is partly the case, but it doesn’t explain why vast majorities of whites in all income groups (and most white women) voted for Trump. He was the candidate of whiteness. Many of his voters were upset by the browning of their country. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the old racist quotas favouring immigrants from white countries. Non-whites arrived and, shockingly, demanded rights.

Perhaps the biggest social change in the West since the 1960s is that ethnic minorities, women, gay people and now transgender people have stood up and said that there are no such thing as second-class humans. Some on the American left have taken their claims to extremes. They ditched Martin Luther King’s dream of a country in which people wouldn’t be judged on “the colour of their skin” (which was also Obama’s ideal); instead they revel in the unique identity and unmatched victimhood of their own subgroup. Chua describes how the acronym LGBTQ has spawned variants including GLBT, LGBTI and LGBTQQIAAP, as “identity groups quarrelled about who should be included and who should come first”.

Still, many members of the former second class have successfully stormed the first-class cabin. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants – for centuries, the US’s proverbial first-class humans – are now under-represented at elite universities, in the music charts, and even on the Supreme Court, which was entirely Catholic and Jewish until the Catholic-turned-Episcopalian Neil Gorsuch took his seat last year. Meanwhile, non-whites such as the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates have claimed a right to retell the national story – helping shift it from Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” to an account of genocide and slavery.

Just as Iraqi Sunnis lost power after Saddam Hussein fell, American whites now fear decline. True, they remain dominant compared with blacks or Hispanics. They are richer, live longer, and have a police force whose self-understood mission seems to be lethal control of black men. But whites are no longer unquestionably first-class Americans.

Even so, says Chua, most of Trump’s 63 million voters are not white nationalists. If you take “white nationalism” to mean that all non-whites should be killed or expelled from the US, only 4 per cent of Americans admit to supporting it, according to an NPR/PBS Marist poll last August. In another survey for the Pew Foundation, even 56 per cent of Republicans said it was “neither good nor bad” that non-whites will become the American majority in the next 25 to 50 years.

Rather, when Chua tries to explain what racial arrangement most Trump voters want, she describes a video in which the Trumpist TV host Tomi Lahren lays into the black American football player Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled in protest at the national anthem. Lahren delivers a lecture on the “patriots” who died for the flag, and concludes: “Colin, if this country disgusts you so much, leave. I guarantee there are thousands and thousands of people around the world that would gladly take your spot.” This video has had 66 million views. Parsing Lahren, Chua argues that Trumpist whites want minorities to be grateful, to know their place, to buy the white narrative of a good America, and not to imagine they are first-class citizens.

Trump now articulates that position daily. He both epitomises and supercharges American tribalism. With him in charge, all other American groups – blacks, women, Mexicans, gays, ad infinitum – feel even more threatened than his base does. Meanwhile, below the radar, new American groups keep spawning. Chua catalogues them diligently: the millions of followers of the “prosperity gospel”, who think Jesus will make them rich; the mostly white, armed “sovereign citizens”, who think they would have been rich but for the federal government’s elaborate scam to rip them off; fans of World Wrestling Entertainment, who aren’t very interested in the reality-fiction distinction, and who embraced Trump years before he went into politics; mostly Hispanic followers of quasi-Catholic “narco-saint” cults, and so on.

Politically, the US seems to have reached the point that the future president John Adams feared in 1780: “A division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our constitution.” Meanwhile, the American patriotism vaunted by Lahren is waning. Trump’s own rhetoric is often caustically anti-American. “In these conditions,” warns Chua, “democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition – pure political tribalism”.

Chua’s conclusion – dripping with optimism about America, in 20th-century, high-patriotic style – doesn’t sound credible. She describes individual Americans who have reached across the tribal divides, and offers some cheerful vignettes from Yale: “I’ve seen a former Navy SEAL and a human rights activist bond over Trivial Pursuit.” She points out that the US is doomed if the left simply writes off the country as inherently racist since its foundation, and the right keeps dreaming of a white Christmas. If American tribes are to continue their common project, they will have to believe that the US can one day attain its promised universalism. Only non-Americans have the luxury of dismissing this as sentimental claptrap. She closes with lines from the black poet Langston Hughes:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath –

America will be!

Chua admits that her extolling of individual outreach can seem like “a Band-Aid for bullet wounds”. An equally plausible scenario for the US is that Trump loses the 2020 election, condemns the vote as rigged and urges his followers to fight it, unleashing a low-level civil war (possibly while boarding a plane to Moscow to escape money-laundering charges). Then, the Iraq war will have finally come home. l

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times. His books include “Football Against the Enemy” (Orion)

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
Amy Chua
Bloomsbury, 293pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit