What Does China's Censor Censor?
Since the time of the Caesars, our governments have lied, the media have amplified their lies, and we’ve hated it, but we’ve learned to live with official lies. In that interval, China’s governments told the truth, their media amplified it, and the Chinese came to expect official truthfulness. Today their government media are the most trusted on earth, mostly because they have an official Chief Censor and he publishes his rules.
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China’s government censors the media because most Chinese agree that the media needs controlling. As the embodiment, guardian, and defender of Chinese civilization, the government is obliged to censor anything destructive of Chinese civilization and propagate useful information. In its two-thousand year history, China’s vast Propaganda Department has churned out billions of tracts on irrigation, fertilizer, and the Analects, and still does.
Confucius required the Emperor to set a good example for his officials, and for his officials to set a good example for his people (Mr. Xi was not the smartest candidate for the top job, but was known from boyhood for relentless honesty and unselfishness, like his famous father. His ‘good example’ includes, foremost, always telling people the truth.
In sixty years of following the CPC, I have never known them to lie, or break a promise. Readers with examples of PRC official lies and/or broken promises please comment, with links.
Autre Pays, Autre Moeurs
Chinese media relate differently to society and government, as journalist Ren Xianliang explains:
The relationship of the Government and the Party to the media is different from that in western countries. In the West, these relationships are often adversarial debates with the media, with many pointed questions. This is not true in China because the political system is quite different. The core value of the Chinese Communist Party is ‘to serve the people with all your heart,’ and it embodies the fundamental values of Marxism. The people are the masters of China, and officials are their servants. This is often said, but many leaders don’t know what it means and do not put it into practice. They don’t take seriously the problem of creating an effective system for releasing news to satisfy as much as possible the people’s right to know.
People have a constitutional right to know, express themselves, participate in management and decisions about public life, and exercise oversight of the state. The media supports the right to know, warn society, exercise government oversight, participate in the market economy, and reconcile various interests. The media are the ears of the Party and Government and their microphone. A classic example of the news media in action was the Watergate affair. Watergate’s lesson is that failure to understand the media can be fatal to a government or a ruler. Lies cannot substitute for the truth, and the truth cannot long be concealed. China’s Constitution is explicit: “Citizens have the right to criticize and make suggestions regarding any State organ or official, to make complaints or charges against relevant State organs and expose any State organ or functionary for violation of law or dereliction of duty”.
These rules apply to everyone (more stringent rules apply above five thousand social media followers):
No infringing, fake accounts, libel, disclosing trade secrets, or invading privacy;
No sending porn to attract users;
No torture, violence, killing of people or animals;
No selling lethal weapons, gambling, phishing, scamming, or spreading viruses;
No organizing crime, counterfeiting, false advertising, empty promises or bullying;
No lotteries, rumor-mongering, promoting superstitions;
No content opposing the basic principles of the Constitution, national unity, sovereignty, or territorial integrity;
No divulging State secrets or endangering national security.
The Censor reprimanded the nationalistic Global Times for publishing surveys about reunifying Taiwan by force, President Trump’s election chances, and the release of a Tiananmen arsonist: “These surveys are serious violations of news discipline, sensitive issues likely to cause offense to foreign nations. They have created political fallout and publishers should learn from this and refrain from polls”. (The Global Times publisher grumbled, “The Global Times is pro-government but it’s also market-based, not just State-controlled”).
Censor Wang’s biggest headache is not national security but rumors. A 2017 story about RYB Kindergartens torturing children went viral, and the censor intervened, “Please prevent malicious hyping of the RYB Kindergarten matter. Social media accounts that exaggerate the situation should be closed on sight or have content deleted”. Investigators heard that a teacher had pricked children with a sewing needle and detained her, but they found that the accusations had been fabricated by parents who confessed and apologized. Wearily, the Censor concluded, “Public security organs will always thoroughly investigate and punish real illegal and criminal harms to minors in accordance with the law and also strictly handle intentional fabrication and dissemination of rumors. At the same time, we appeal to everyone to approach information on the Internet rationally and cautiously”. Too late: a class action lawsuit reduced RYB Kindergartens’ valuation on the New York Stock Exchange by forty percent.
In 2018, censors yanked a viral essay, Beijing Has 20 Million People Pretending to Live Here, explaining, “This essay polarizes relations between prosperous Beijingers and the immigrants who sweep our streets and may thus inflame bad feelings towards these vulnerable people”.
In 2022, twenty-five-thousand independent outlets publish romances, pornography, intellectual journals, political, financial, and tomes on Swiss democracy. Seven-thousand periodicals, three-thousand cable channels, a thousand radio stations, and seven-hundred TV stations struggle to distinguish themselves in a cutthroat market where niches are worth billions. Says Alice L. Miller,
Virtually every topic of conceivable interest to Chinese politics and policy students now has specialist periodicals devoted to it. This diversity includes publications on previously sensitive issues like foreign affairs and military issues. Since the early 1980s, previously-restricted specialist publications dealing with various aspects of international affairs–journals such as American Studies and Taiwan Studies–and new publications such as Chinese Diplomacy became openly available. In military affairs, the Academy of Military Science’s premier journal, Chinese Military Science, became available for home delivery to Western students of the PLA. In the 1990s, PRC media began routinely to carry opinion pieces by the growing community of foreign policy. National security specialists in China frequently offered competing–even clashing–perspectives on international issues, raising fundamental questions among Western analysts about what political authority to attach to them in Beijing’s policy process… The proliferation of websites hosted by news agencies such as Xinhua has given immediate access to streams of information and commentary far surpassing anything easily accessible by traditional means.
Media scholar Maria Repnikova found journalism alive and well:
In the past decade, a popular depiction of Chinese media has been that of a fearful, loyal agent of the ruthless party-state, which exudes no tolerance towards its critics. Indoctrinated to channel official propaganda to the public, silenced by censorship, and threatened by coercion, Chinese journalists function in one of the world’s most challenging places when it comes to media freedom…What goes unnoticed beneath the stark imagery of collision between the mighty state and the fearless, isolated critics is the web of complex negotiations between some Chinese journalists and party officials. Specifically, whereas the majority of Chinese reporting still adheres to the propaganda model, in the past three decades, an exceptional practice of what I term ‘critical journalism,’ including investigative, in-depth, editorial, and human-interest coverage of contentious societal issues, has emerged in China amid the restrictive environment. What unites these journalists is their pursuit of social justice and their quest to push the envelope of permissible reporting.
Fearless journalists exposed the 2002 AIDS epidemic in Henan province, the 2003 Sun Zhigang case of a migrant worker illegally detained and beaten to death in Guangzhou, the 2008 milk-poisoning scandal, widespread environmental protests, and food safety crises among other contentious issues. In most cases, their stories raised a wide public outcry, as manifested in active discussions online. In some cases, they also produced a moderate policy shift ... recently demonstrated in the courageous investigative reporting of Tianjin’s major chemical explosion.
Investigative journalism is flourishing. On Cui Yongyuan’s talk show, Tell It Like It Is, (twenty-million Weibo followers), ne vehemently opposed the Government’s plan to introduce genetically modified food, made heated, personal attacks on GM food supporters, and helped defeat the legislation. Next he charged China’s highest-paid actress, Fan Bingbing, with cheating on her taxes (triggering a tax audit that cost the entertainment industry two-billion dollars in taxes and fines) while publicly accusing Shanghai police of taking huge bribes while investigating the Fan Bingbing case and of ignoring death threats to himself and his daughter. He then publicly ridiculed them when they claimed they had been unable to reach him. After an investigation, Beijing charged Shanghai’s police chief, Gong Daoan, with corruption.
Cui’s next obscenity-laden Weibo post accused the President of the Supreme Court of malfeasance, and demanded to know why critical case files were missing. A leaked video tape showed a Supreme Court judge hinting that CCTV cameras had been sabotaged when the documents were stolen from his office and an image of the case file’s cover page showed a judge’s directive to keep the case secret. After a Court denial, President Xi personally intervened on Cui’s side. “In China today there are too many damn people afraid of getting into trouble and too few with the guts to speak the truth,” says Cui.
The Censor is remarkably tolerant of contrary points of view. For thirty years, Beijing funded a monthly journal, China Through the Ages, whose 100,000 subscribers enjoyed attacks on ‘the Party’s self-serving narrative about the Cultural Revolution,’ and its advocacy of constitutional, multi-party democracy, and privatization of all State assets. Only after the journal praised Zhao Ziyang, a Minister who collaborated with the CIA, did Beijing lose patience and cancel its subsidy. Even then, the editor went down fighting, “This magazine will stop publication due to policy changes reflecting the establishment’s intolerance of reformers and liberals”. Imagine the US Government funding America Through the Ages for thirty years while it advocated one-party rule, workers’ ownership of the means of production, and the abolition of competitive, multi-party elections.
Deborah Fallows found that eighty percent of citizens want the media controlled and almost all want the Government controlling it. University students say the censorship is too strict, adults think it strikes the right balance, and older folk criticize its laxness, but few find it repressive. One graduate student even praised it, “Our Internet is already in chaos and the Chinese Government is not the only one having paid commentators, for sure. Western governments and others also hire people to create and circulate opinions about democratizing China or colonizing China again. They probably want a Chinese version of the Arab Spring. I believe censorship is necessary to resist some of these influences”.
There's a common expression, 我没那么爱党，直到我翻墙后, "I didn't love the party so much until I got over the great firewall”. The West’s anti-China rhetoric is literally building the PRC’s case domestically, and internationally, too.
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