Credit: AFP/Wang Zhao
Despite China’s glittering economic success, this was a dark period for the Chinese people’s right to information and, importantly, their right to expression
The International Federation of Journalists’ project to monitor press freedom in China was launched in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. In order to win the Games, China promised a free press and greater human rights and these pledges were expressed in the Regulations on Reporting Activities in China by Foreign Journalists. Critically, the rules set down important freedoms including the right for foreign journalists to freely interview an organization or individual. In October 2008, the authorities extended the regulations indefinitely and hopes rose that this was the beginning of a new, more open era for China.
A decade later, the country’s Olympic reporting regulations remain in operation, but the promise has all but faded away. The overall situation has deteriorated in two significant ways. First, the state of press freedom has regressed in the People’s Republic of China under the repressive regime of long-running president, Xi Jinping. Second, the Mainland government further expanded its ideology and control into Hong Kong and Macau, ignoring their separate status and trampling on the growing public demands for democracy and protection and defence of human rights.
Despite China’s glittering economic success, this was a dark period for the Chinese people’s right to information and, importantly, their right to expression At the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017, Xi Jinping defied convention by taking a second five-year term as General Secretary of the party. As both general secretary of the party and president of the nation, Xi is consolidating and prolonging his hold on power. There is little evidence to suggest that press freedom can improve in the foreseeable future. While the Mainland and Hong Kong Governments attempt to present the administration as “transparent”, “accountable” and “lawful”, the reality falls far short of international standards.
In May 2014, China Central Television broadcast Gao’s “confession”. Her lawyer said police threatened to arrest Gao’s son if she did not confess. This brings into question the legitimacy of such confessions that may be extracted under duress.
A DICTATORSHIP OF LAW
President Xi repeatedly says China is governed under the “rule of law”. He can make this claim because China’s constitution declares that no individual or organisation is above the law, and that the National People’s Congress – the parliament that enacts the laws – answers to the voters. Under the constitution, the organs of the state administration are subject to the NPC. Therefore, in theory, the civil service, police, prosecutors and courts are also accountable to the people.
However, President Xi’s interpretation of the “rule of law” is very different from the way the phrase is understood around the world. The reality of life in China is also very different from the theory. The contradiction arises because there is a problem at the heart of China’s constitution, with Article 1 stating that the PRC is “a socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship” (italics added). This phrase implies that the state is brought into existence through an alliance of workers and peasants and is led by the vanguard of the working classes, represented by the Communist Party of China. With these words, the constitution positions the Communist Party above the state. The laws that are made under the constitution are designed to preserve the power of the party against any challenge by its citizens. Since the media is the major means by which the citizens express these challenges, the laws are also ultimately used to suppress the media.
The blurring between “the nation”, “the state” and “the party” can also be seen in the constitution’s approach to human rights. Article 35 says that the Chinese people enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press, along with other civil and political rights. But these rights are linked to certain duties, which include safeguarding the unity, security, honour and interests of the nation and the Communist Party. The party often cites the citizens’ duties to the nation as an excuse for limiting their rights. This appeal to nationalism is being heard more and more often in Hong Kong and Macau, where any discussion or sign of fighting for self-determination and “independence” is interpreted as disloyalty, or even treason.
LEGAL SYSTEM DESIGNED FOR REPRESSION
China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, meets for two weeks each year to pass laws that have been already approved by the Communist Party. Since 2013, when Xi Jinping was elected president, the congress has rubberstamped more than 30 pieces of legislation. These include the National Security Law (2015), the Administration of Activities of Overseas Non-governmental Organizations Law (2016), the Cybersecurity Law (2016), the National Intelligence Law (2017) and the National Anthem Law (2017). Under these and many other laws and regulations, the authorities give the Communist Party the same status as the state. People who challenge the party or the state can be charged with offences such as “splittism”, “endangering state security” and “inciting subversion of state power”.
In 2003, the Hong Kong government proposed laws to protect national security, as allowed under Article 23 of the Basic Law. While the government eventually withdrew the bill, support for legislation has grown steadily under the slogan that it is the “Hong Kong government’s responsibility”. Most proposals come from veteran politicians from the Mainland Government or pro-Mainland politicians in Hong Kong. Analysts suggest that, if the law is adopted, Hong Kong people who speak out against the Mainland authorities could be charged with treason against the PRC.
In 2009, Macau passed a national security law that enables the local courts to punish acts such as treason, secession and subversion. To date, no-one has been charged under the law. A political commentator suggested that it was likely any law would be well accepted because Chinese patriotism is strong in Macau and people lack awareness of civil rights.
When it comes to use of the laws, vague definitions allow for wide interpretations, while those charged with crimes are not given the benefit of due process of law. In too many cases, they are not informed of the exact charges against them, nor are they given an opportunity to review the evidence before their trials or given proper access to their lawyers. Under President Xi, prosecutors have revived the Mao era practice of televising so-called “confessions” made by accused persons even before they go to trial.
The case of journalist and activist Gao Yu illustrates how China’s law and the court system are used to stifle free speech. Gao was arrested in April 2014, aged 71, just ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and charged with illegally obtaining state secrets and sharing them with foreign media. Prosecutors did not specify the “state secret” in question, but it is believed to be Document Number 9, an internal decision by the Central Committee of the Communist Party warning against seven perils, including a free press. If this is correct, the information was a party document, not a “state” document. Moreover, it was not a “secret”, since it had already been posted online.
In May 2014, China Central Television broadcast Gao’s “confession”. Her lawyer said police threatened to arrest Gao’s son if she did not confess. This brings into question the legitimacy of such confessions that may be extracted under duress. In April 2015, after a four-hour trial that was closed to the media, Gao was sentenced to seven years in prison. On appeal, the judge refused to overturn her conviction, citing the televised confession as evidence against her. CCTV’s actions clearly violated journalistic ethics, but as the “state” broadcaster it follows Communist Party rules, not professional standards. The All China Journalists Association did not speak out against CCTV’s behaviour as it too is subject to the party line.
Many people accused of illegal behavior have little or no chance to defend themselves through a court process. China’s police have discretion to place people in administrative detention on vague accusations such as “spreading rumours”, “disrupting social order”, and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Most targets of these orders are human rights lawyers, non-government organization workers, and netizens who post news or opinion on social media.
While citizen journalists are bravely revealing corruption in local governments and raising their voices against the suppression of the public, they are more vulnerable than mainstream journalists because they do not have access to official press accreditation. In June 2016, blogger Lu Yuyu was detained by police for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. Lu had used social media to post reports of strikes and protests that had already been published in traditional media. In August 2017, he finally went to court and was sentenced to four years in jail.
Among the “forbidden subjects” are the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, and the imprisonment and 2017 death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo
A WELL-OILED PROPAGANDA MACHINE
Propaganda and censorship are central to the Mainland authorities’ efforts to control public opinion. The Communist Party directly controls all state-owned media outlets, including Xinhua news agency, People’s Daily and China Central Television (CCTV), and dictates the content of their reports. In February 2016, President Xi said during a visit to CCTV: “The media run by the party and the government are the propaganda fronts and must have the party as their family name.”
The Central Propaganda Department in Beijing and its provincial departments issue “restrictive orders” that ban reporting on some sensitive subjects and dictate the angle, or the “line to take”, on others. IFJ monitoring has documented that hundreds of these orders are issued every year. The true total is likely to be far higher, because the propaganda authorities often forbid the media to disclose that a restrictive order has been issued. The authorities regularly order independent media outlets to re-publish approved reports produced by state media, even to the extent of re-using the exact headlines.
There is little doubt that the Communist Party exerts both direct and indirect controls over news outlets. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party has units inside state-owned media such as Xinhua and People’s Daily. Party members hold senior editorial positions in independent media outlets, giving them power to influence coverage. Many party members also work in lower-level positions. More than 7,000 staff at popular online media outlet Tencent are party members. There is also evidence that the Communist Party routinely recruits non-party journalists to spy on their colleagues. In November 2015 Li Xin, former opinion editor of Southern Metropolis Daily, sought asylum in India, saying he had been pressured into acting as an “undercover state security agent”. In January 2016, Li disappeared while trying to cross the border from Thailand into Lao PDR. All professional journalists must pass the national press accreditation examination, which includes a test of their knowledge of Socialist ideology. Any reporter who offends the authorities can have their accreditation withdrawn, in many cases making it all but impossible to pursue their career. Reporters and editors who make mistakes are punished with suspension or dismissal. In March 2017, Puyang Daily, in Henan province, accidentally omitted one word from Premier Li Keqiang’s name. The Communist Party disciplinary unit inside the paper demanded that the editor, the head of proof reading, and a member of the editorial board all be dismissed. Disciplinary actions of this kind have been compiled to create a “blacklist” to effectively push journalists out of the media.
Publications that challenge the current propaganda line are routinely taken over by authorities or closed down. Yanhuang Chunqiu, a reformist magazine that was established in 1991 by veteran Communist Party members, was abruptly told in July 2016 that the entire top editorial management team would be replaced by staff of the Chinese National Academy of Arts, under instructions of the party.
CENSORING SENSITIVE SUBJECTS
Reporting on events in Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang remains severely restricted because of long-running ethnic and political sensitivities in these border areas. After the 2008 protests in Tibet, journalists were refused entry permits and any reports on the protests were suppressed. Later, selected journalists were invited to join a special tour during which they were closely supervised and given access only to limited areas. In February 2016, Tibetan blogger Druklo was sentenced to three years’ jail on charges including “inciting separatism”. In Inner Mongolia in 2010, a political prisoner named Hada was released after 15 years in jail and placed under house arrest. In August 2014, when his wife, Xinna, posted several messages about Hada’s case, her telephone and web connections were cut and she received more than 400 death threats. In Xinjiang in September 2014, an academic, Ilham Tohti, host of the website Uyghur Online, was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of separatism. Right now, these three regions have almost disappeared into a “black hole”, where people are unable to connect freely to the outside world and have no access to diversity or alternate viewpoints in news reports.
Natural disasters remain a sensitive subject, inevitably because the official response to the catastrophe puts the spotlight on the authorities’ ability to ensure public safety. Man-made disasters are even more dangerous for the media if they raise the possibility that official incompetence or corruption may have caused the problem or exacerbated it. The authorities typically declare a wide exclusion zone around the site of the tragedy, physically block reporters who try to gain access, release of information with lengthy delays, invite only selected journalists to press conferences and ban independent reporting.
The Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 killed about 90,000 people. The situation was well reported until parents of children who died at school protested that corrupt and incompetent companies had constructed the school buildings from “the dregs of tofu”. Riot police broke up the demonstrations and the propaganda authorities ordered the media to cease reporting on any school collapses. When a high-speed train was wrecked in Zhejiang Province in July 2011, the authorities blocked access to the site and ordered reporters not to investigate the cause of the accident. Instead, journalists were ordered to focus on moving stories such as blood donations and the overall theme of “great love in the face of great disaster”. The authorities took a similar approach to a New Year’s Eve stampede in Shanghai on December 31, 2014, the capsize of a cruise ship on the Yangtze river in June 2015, and a series of explosions and fires at a chemical container warehouse in Tianjin in August 2015. In Macau, it was little better, with authorities refusing to allow Hong Kong journalists to enter the territory to report on sensitive events, such Cyclone Hato in August 2017.
Any reporting on official corruption is strictly censored. In January 2016, the International Centre for Investigative Journalism released documents about the use of offshore trusts by family members of China’s leaders, yet follow-up reports were almost entirely absent from mainland media coverage. Those media that did report on the global corruption investigation and its implications failed to include the name of even a single Chinese leader. Meanwhile, reports on other international websites were blocked. In the case of other corruption scandals involving political leaders, including Wang Lijun, Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Xu Caihou and Ling Jihua, the media issued almost identical reports before their trials, but did not disclose the source of their information.
Official censorship is not necessary for certain subjects because journalists know they are taboo and exercise self-censorship. Among the “forbidden subjects” are the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, and the imprisonment and 2017 death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. While citizen journalists use social media to commemorate these events, the authorities intervene to prevent or block communication. The image of a burning candle has become a symbol of these anniversaries, so the authorities now routinely block posts that use the candle icon.
HARASSMENT IN THE FIELD
Reporters working in the field face the constant threat of harassment by the public security bodies, primarily the police, but also by some members of the general public. Uniformed and plain-clothes officers are used to physically prevent journalists from reaching the scene of newsworthy incidents, often by manhandling reporters to interfere with their reporting. Police intimidate potential interviewees, often by threatening retaliation against family members. At the scene of news events, officers block lenses, delete memory cards and confiscate equipment such as phones, cameras and audio equipment, but they are also know to put reporters under surveillance and compel them to go to the local police station without explanation. Groups of unidentified citizens sometimes back up police harassment, and sometimes act on their own. It is suspected that these vigilantes are local civil servants.
Harassment by plain-clothes and uniformed officers has become common in Hong Kong. During the 2014 Umbrella Movement, police treated media workers roughly and stood by when they were assaulted by pro-Mainland mobs. Even without street demonstrations, media workers are harassed with intimidating emails and phone calls, defamatory posters and death threats. In February 2015, former newspaper editor Kevin Lau was attacked with a meat cleaver by a man who escaped on a motorcycle ridden by a second assailant. Two men were later captured and sentenced but did not disclose their motive or the identity of the “mastermind” behind the crime.
CONTROLLING CHINA ONLINE
President Xi Jinping has recognised that the traditional media is declining and the internet is becoming the world’s dominant communication technology. The internet is a challenge to China’s centralised control. In response, China uses a range of administrative measures, policing tactics and technical controls including the “Great Firewall”, which blocks access to foreign internet sites, and massive cyber-attacks on foreign websites that publish unwelcome information.
President Xi has said: “Without cyber security, there is no national security.” He established the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) to ensure “cyber sovereignty” and the Central Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group, with himself at its head, to focus on the cyber aspects of economic, social, political and military issues. In 2015, China’s Criminal Law was amended to introduce severe punishments for people involved in online coverage of matters of public importance, such as disasters, epidemics and security alerts. The same year, Chinese internet service providers (ISPs) were required to take legal responsibility for content published on websites they host. In 2017, the Cybersecurity Law made it an offence to use encryption programs or to publish anonymously.
Today more than 3000 foreign internet companies, including Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Chinese Wikipedia, are blocked in China. Local companies supplying equivalent services within China, including WeChat, RenRen and Weibo, must cooperate with the authorities if they wish to remain in business. For many years, Chinese residents have used Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to circumvent the Great Firewall. Authorities have responded by launching massive cyber attacks on ISPs outside China that host such VPNs. Going one step further in 2017, all local ISPs providing VPN services were required to register, and anyone who used an unregistered ISP to access a foreign website could be prosecuted. During sensitive periods, even registered VPNs do not function properly.
People registering on a social media account or chat group are required by law to use their real names, rather than pseudonyms or nicknames. Websites carrying materials that are deemed to be pornographic or anti-social are shut down. Any social media account carrying information that is seen as a challenge to the authorities is also blocked or shut down. The Chinese Communist Youth League has recruited an army of students to monitor and respond to online activity. Individuals who speak against the government when they are overseas are vilified. In May 2017, a student at the University of Maryland, Yang Shuping, spoke at her graduation ceremony in praise of her experience of free speech in the US. After her speech appeared on the internet, Yang was subjected to virulent trolling and a torrent of online abuse.
The Foreign Ministry said Gauthier had offended the Chinese people with a column about terrorism and the violence-hit Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
FOREIGN MEDIA ON A KNIFE EDGE
Foreign journalists regularly carry out their duties in the difficult and unpredictable environment in China, where authorities use their power to withhold working visas as a weapon to influence coverage. According to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, four American journalists – Phillip Pan, Chris Buckley, Austin Ramzy and Javier Hernandez – were denied working visas in 2014. Journalists who offend the authorities can be expelled. A case in point was Melissa Chan, a correspondent for Al Jazeera English, who was expelled in 2012 on the grounds that she had violated the regulations for foreign correspondents after she reported on a “black jail”. In 2015, Ursula Gauthier, the Beijing correspondent for L’Obs, was also expelled. The Foreign Ministry said Gauthier had offended the Chinese people with a column about terrorism and the violence-hit Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
China uses diplomatic channels to pressure managers in the head offices of foreign news organisations. In 2014, Su Yutong, a Chinese journalist working for Germany’s Deutsche Welle, was sacked after she organized for an independent film maker to interview a member of Tiananmen Mothers, which represents families of people who died in the Tiananmen Square massacre. DW’s Director General, Peter Limbourg, said later that “under the principle of respect for China”, DW would carry more reports covering German-China trade, history and culture. In April 2017, Voice of America cut short a livestreamed interview with controversial billionaire Guo Wengui, who is resident in the US. According to several reports, Chinese officials had said that, if the interview went ahead, VOA journalists’ working visas in China might be at risk.
Foreign journalists are not exempt from harassment in the field, and their local assistants are even more vulnerable. In 2014, Angela Koeckritz of German publication Die Zeit and her assistant, Zhang Miao, travelled to Hong Kong to follow up on the Umbrella Movement. Zhang posted pictures of herself wearing a yellow ribbon, the symbol of the pro-democracy movement. When she returned to Beijing, Zhang was detained and held without charge for eight months, while Koeckritz was interrogated by security agents who accused her of being a spy. She left China in 2015.
President Xi Jinping has turned back the clock by using Mao era practices such as televising forced confessions. At the same time, he has harnessed the power of modern technology to spy on Chinese citizens and to prevent them accessing the liberating and empowering potential of digital media for freedom of expression.
HONG KONG AND MACAU
Two decades after Hong Kong reverted to Beijing’s control under the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement, media workers are fighting hard to defend press freedom. The Mainland authorities regard any freedom of the media as a barrier to their control of Hong Kong, and use financial muscle, political pressure, legal manoeuvres and street violence to interfere with reporting and silence critical voices.
Traditional media that rely on advertising, including newspapers, radio and free-to-air television stations, have suffered in the same way as similar media all around the world. Under the pretext of downsizing the outlets, media proprietors have forced many veteran journalists to resign. The decline in revenue has made it easier for pro-Mainland interests to invest through different entities in order to influence editorial policy. In December 2015, Mainland billionaire Jack Ma became the dominant shareholder in South China Morning Post through his company Alibaba, the online retail giant. Many Hong Kong media owners, such as Charles Ho Tsu-kwok, of Sing Tao News Corporation Limited, have been appointed to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee, an advisory body that meets annually at the same time as the National People’s Congress.
During the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the Mainland authorities were suspected of “packaging” news events to create an alternative propaganda stream. These events included protests by previously unknown anti-democracy groups. The authorities also mobilised pro-government celebrities, politicians, columnists, legal experts and media to publish articles and commentary criticising the movement. On the streets, at least 79 journalists were attacked by police and unknown people while they were carrying out their duties. This was the highest number of attacks on journalists on record in Hong Kong.
The shocking Causeway Bay Bookstore incident in 2015 demonstrated how bold the Mainland authorities have become in ignoring Hong Kong’s separate status. Five media workers associated with Mighty Current Media and Causeway Bay Bookstore went missing after the companies published and distributed books criticising President Xi Jinping. Gui Minhai, a Swedish national, disappeared from his holiday home in Thailand and was taken to China. Lam Wing-Kee was detained when he was crossing the border from Hong Kong. Most alarmingly, Lee Bo, a UK national, went missing in Hong Kong and later re-appeared on the Mainland, having crossed the border without travel documents. This suggested Mainland security officers were operating in Hong Kong in contravention of the Basic Law. The missing workers were never charged or tried in court, but several appeared on selected Hong Kong and Mainland television outlets and admitted to selling books illegally. When Lam Wing-Kee returned to Hong Kong, he revealed he had been abducted, detained for eight months, interrogated about who bought the books, and forced to “confess”.
The incident highlighted the dangers facing media workers in Hong Kong. The Mainland authorities ignored inquiries by the governments of the UK and Sweden, and asserted they had jurisdiction because the workers were all “Chinese”, even though Gui and Lee held foreign passports. The Hong Kong authorities were slow to investigate the disappearances. Some Hong Kong media outlets allowed themselves to be manipulated by the Mainland and agreed to broadcast the questionable confessions.
The Mainland authorities are steadily taking control of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, which is elected under an unequal voting system that comprises both electoral districts and functional constituencies. In October 2016, at the first meeting of the newly elected council, 12 localist and pro-democracy members used the oath-taking ceremony to protest against China’s growing influence. Hong Kong’s then Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, launched a judicial review seeking to disqualify several of the newly-elected members. In Beijing, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress said that members must take the oath in a way that is “sincere” and “solemn”. The courts eventually ruled that six members could be disqualified. As a result, the pro-Mainland camp gained the majority in the Legislative Council and later amended the Council’s Rules of Procedure to make it harder for pro-democracy lawmakers to criticise or delay new legislation.
As it stands today, the Mainland effectively controls Hong Kong’s executive government. In 2017, the new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, surrendered jurisdiction over several platforms in a railway station being constructed for the new high-speed link with Guangzhou. Although the station is inside Hong Kong’s borders, the Mainland now has effective sovereignty over the land on which the platforms are built. This gives it the right to comprehensively implement Mainland law in that area. Legal experts strongly criticized this loss of Hong Kong’s autonomy, saying it violated the Basic Law and jeopardised the principle of “One Country, Two Systems”. Journalists are concerned that reporters working for media outlets seen by the Mainland as “unfriendly” could be barred from reporting on events that occur on those platform in the future.
Like Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, Macau’s Legislative Assembly is elected through both direct voting and functional constituencies. In the 2017 election, a pro-democracy activist, Sulu Sou, was directly elected as a legislator but his post was suddenly suspended by the Assembly on the grounds that he had been charged with illegal assembly in May 2016, when he protested in front of the residence of Chief Executive of Macau.
Chinese journalists in Macau regularly experience different kinds of intervention. In October 2015, the Commissioner of Customs was mysteriously found dead in a public toilet, but the public security bureau delayed informing the media until after the crime scene was cleaned up. A similar event occurred in October 2016, when two Macau hotels received false bomb threats. The bureau told the media: “We do not inform the media until we have eliminated all risk.” In 2014, two online journalists were detained by the authorities because they had published the police department logo. In 2017, media outlets received directions to positively report on how the local government was dealing with the aftermath of Cyclone Hato, which left Macau almost completely paralysed.
The trends of the past decade clearly show that the People’s Republic of China is relentlessly expanding its control over life in the Mainland while extending its grip in Hong Kong and Macau. President Xi Jinping has turned back the clock by using Mao era practices such as televising forced confessions. At the same time, he has harnessed the power of modern technology to spy on Chinese citizens and to prevent them accessing the liberating and empowering potential of digital media for freedom of expression. In the face of this repression, the IFJ urges the international community and the journalism profession worldwide to unite in support of the courageous individuals who put their liberty and personal safety at risk to report in the public interest and defend the rights of all. It also urges journalists and media workers across China, Hong Kong and Macau to keep up the fight. You remain the brave watchdogs of the Chinese state and give a voice to the voiceless.