Censorship in China
Jiao Guobiao discusses how the flow of information is constricted
Published: Wednesday, December 15, 2004
[In a talk for the Center for Chinese Studies on November 29, Jiao Guobiao, associate professor of Communications at Peking University, analyzed censorship in China today. In the spring of 2004, Jiao caused a major stir in Chinese political circles when he wrote a stinging, sarcastic condemnation, widely circulated on the internet, of the CCP Propaganda Department's clumsy, heavy-handed censorship of the mass media. An edited English translation of Jiao's "declaration" is available at the AsiaMedia website: http://www.asiamedia.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=17004
Following is a transcript of Jiao's talk at UCLA, transcribed, translated, and annotated by Lynn Chang, Program Assistant of the Center for Chinese Studies, and a junior in history at UCLA.]
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There are three or four major aspects of media control/censorship in mainland China. The first, and the most important, is the effort to isolate China from the outside world. To accomplish this, China makes it difficult for overseas journalists to gain access to the country for interviews. Even when they do acquire permission from the Chinese government, their freedom is highly circumscribed.
Another method of media control is to interfere with and disturb the reception of international radio services, for example Voice of America and BBC. In cities, the interference is especially strong. There are also serious restrictions on international satellite services. Only hotels with a three star or higher ranking are permitted to receive such signals. Generally, with the exception of government officials of a certain ranking, the general public is kept from receiving such services.
China’s isolation from the outside world has been a long tradition, which ultimately implanted a sense of fear in the general public when dealing with interviews from overseas media. From personal experience, I can say that I have been advised and requested many times to decline interviews with overseas journalists.
Another example of the obstacles overseas reporters face when attempting to arrange interviews comes from a New York reporter who had been assigned to Beijing. The reporter claimed that he faced tremendous difficulties when he tried to arrange an interview with a law school professor in China who at first agreed to be interviewed, but who later decided to cancel because he could not get the responsible departmental officer to approve. Another reporter, from France, experienced a similar situation when he tried to conduct interviews. He failed to secure interviews because the government pressured his subjects. This policy of isolating China from the world has caused the information flow in China to become a one dimensional, one channeled, one way flow.
Major historical events related to natural disasters in China have often been first revealed by overseas reporters to the international community, which in turn exerted pressure on China to seek ways to solve the problem. For example, SARS was first reported by Time magazine. . . . Therefore, it may be concluded -- and I have written about this in one of my articles -- that the Chinese government owes a lot to overseas reporters, and especially Time magazine, which deserves an award.
There has been severe criticism of VOA for "spreading rumors" about the 1989 crisis in China. Here, I want to make two points clear: first, the so-called "rumors" were not created by VOA in a vacuum; people were talking and information was circulating. Theoretically, this issue reflects the question of truthfulness or validity in reporting an event; that is, on the level of truth, dealing with factual evidence and with sources of information. For example, casualty rates are a form of factual evidence because an actual, objective number is present. On the other hand, a reporter reports an event that he did not witness but bases his report upon his informants' accounts; this could also be considered valid. Second, even the circulation of such information or the spread of "rumors" is better than blocking information. This is the first aspect of media control.
The second aspect of media control deals with the control of personnel. Overseas reporters have a hard time understanding the source of the Central Propaganda Department’s authority in maintaining such strict, tight control. For example, Chinese reporters were restrained from reporting the visit of Kim Jong-il to China until the trip officially ended. The same with the Hanyuan issue, which dealt with a disastrous confrontation between local peasants in China and their government.* Reporters could give no direct reports but merely replicated them from the official newspapers. My explanation is that the general directors of media in China are in fact government officials who have been appointed by the government. This is to say, they are selected according to the same procedures and following the same standards and rules as those applied to the selection of public officials. This may explain why when in the face of a political incident, they respond in accordance to the wishes of government officials, instead of playing the role of a professional journalist.
The third aspect of control involves the processing of articles. Each article goes through three or four stages of supervision in order to reach publication: (1) the editor; (2) the branch director in charge of the editor’s work; (3) the editor-in-chief of the agency; and (4) the umbrella company over this agency (if there is one). In contrast to the rigid system of China, I interviewed a New York Times reporter on international affairs about their system and he told me that the final decision on publication was entirely up to him. In China, as an article makes its way up the ladder, the content becomes more politically conscious and less politically sensitive.
We have touched upon what have been the procedures for the handling of articles before publication. There is also post-publication censorship at both the national and the local levels, where every newspaper, television channel, radio station, even the internet undergo content reviews. What I mean is there is a follow-up system organized to review content and to ascertain what is deemed appropriate for publication and what is not. There is also a system of punishment for media agencies that were responsible for the publication of sensitive issues.
There is also a more collective method to control. In the past, the Central Propaganda Department would routinely call a meeting with publishing house editors and newspaper editors to discuss what could be reported and what could not be disclosed. For instance, the use of words such as "democracy," "freedom and liberty," and "human rights" have been prohibited; expressions such as “media is a social weapon” and the concept of taxpayers are also forbidden.
In the Shanghai Liberation Daily, there was an article stating that talk about "public intellectuals" must also be banned because it would set a trend or act as an encouragement to the independence of intellectuals. Other events about which one may not publish are, for example, the June 4th incident, Falungong, the BMW case, and the Cultural Revolution.**
One scholar did a study on the type of governmental activities the Chinese media usually reports and it appeared that the daily activities of the Chinese government involves no more than where officials visit or how great are their achievements.
The other aspect of media control I will cover today deals with web content. To a great extent, one way to control the internet is to block entire websites so users have no access to overseas news reports. The second way is to screen search engines for words like "Central Propaganda Department" or "Jiang Zemin" or myself, "Jiao Guobiao." You will not be able to find any hits by entering certain key words such are these. As a result of the strict control of web content, I realized that we have not managed to make the best use of the internet and what it has to offer. I have already dropped the idea of accessing international websites because I am certain that they are blocked.
Another aspect of media control involves the issue of subscriptions. Even Beijing University, one of the most prestigious universities in China, subscribes to very few international newspapers and magazines. To my knowledge, the only international news source available in the library in Beijing University is the New York Times.
There is also a macro-means of control of media in China. The customs office in China is especially tight in controlling the importation of books. For example, when the journalism school of Beijing University was established, several scholars from Taiwan donated books to the university; however, it turned out that these books were detained by the customs office for over a year before they finally reached the university.
Another method of information control involves long distance telephone rates. We all know that calling into China is much less expensive than calling out from China. This, to me, is not an economic phenomenon but one that serves to regulate the flow of information. I read a book written by a professor from Tsinghua University who argued that in the early to mid-1990s the Information Ministry placed controls on the purchase of xerox machines because it was believed that easy access to photocopy machines would result in the uncontrolled spread of information. It was from his assessment that I developed my theory on the long distance call rate.
Recently I learned that North Korean citizens are prohibited from using cell phones and that there is only one official channel offered to the public. I believe there is an apparent analogy between China and North Korea situation.
* The Hanyuan case refers to a huge protest by residents of Hanyuan County in Sichuan in November against the seizure of their land and homes. The People's Liberation Army was sent in to suppress the demonstrations, and according to reports many protestors and soldiers were killed. www.theepochtimes.com/news/4-11-20/24465.html / www.chinalaborwatch.org/en/web/article.php?article_id=50225 -- Lynn Chang
** The June 4th Incident refers to the armed suppression on June 4, 1989 of students and others demonstrating for democracy. It is unknown how many were killed and injured: certainly at least several hundred; perhaps several thousand.
Falungong refers to the supression of members of the Falungong religious sect, which claimed millions of adherents in China. From 1999 to 2001, hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of Falungong members were arrested. Many were abused in custody; several were reportedly beaten to death.
The BMW case began in October 2003 when a tractor pulling a load of green onions through a crowed market in the northern city of Harbin, in the province of Heilongjiang, scraped a BMW driven by a Ms. Su Xiwen. In a fit of road rage, Su reportedly swore at the farmer and his wife who had got down from their tractor to apologize, then rammed her car into the crowd that had gathered on the roadside, killing the farmer's wife and injuring twelve others. Su was given a two-year suspended sentence for what the judge ruled was an "accidental traffic disturbance." This led to rumors that her wealthy businessman husband was related to senior provincial officials. The government of Heilongjiang is notorious for being one of China's most corrupt.
The Cultural Revolution refers to the so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, a surrealistic period of chaos and frenzy. -- Lynn Chang