right The government watches the mass media closely, and maintains tight control over television and radio, as well as newspapers and magazines. The media in China is under the jurisdiction of the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). The press, films and television are carefully supervised by SARFT and the Propaganda Department. The Propaganda Department is headed by the Central leading Group on Propaganda and Ideological Work, whose leader is often a member of the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo and whose deputy leader is a member of the Politburo.

Since Mao’s time the government has controlled radio, television and newspapers and carefully selected what people are exposed to. Explaining the role of the media in modern China, an SARFT official told the Financial Times, “We must insist of the correct leadership of public opinion. We must transmit the party’s and the central government’s voice into every home.”

The main official news sources — New China News Agency, the People's Daily, China News Agency and Guangming Daily — have multiple channel reporting systems with one channel for public consumption and others for “reference” news that goes only to officials. A surprisingly large number of foreign magazines are available uncensored at Chinese public libraries.

In the 1990s, producers of a middle school production of “Snow White” where forced by censors to rewrite the script so the villainous Woodsman would be reformed after undergoing a self-criticism session to present the proletariat in a more favorable light.

Controlling the News in China

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The Chinese government is very successful at stemming the flow of negative information in China on issues it doesn’t want publicized. During a time when there was great deal of international scrutiny and criticism over the contamination and the quality of Chinese products, a survey by the Pew Research Centers found that only one percent of Chinese respondents had heard about problems with Chinese-made products.

Journalists must use euphemisms when reporting on sensitive topics or not cover them at all. Orville Shell told Newsweek, “How often I’ve been at a meeting or conference when the presence of Chinese officials, or even scholars,” serves “as a kind of warning pulse against certain kinds of analysis, using certain turns of phrase or even raising certain questions. These prohibitions radiate outward from a core of historical sensitivity that is still within most Chinese, and seems to have a long half-life indeed.”

Until recently news was only allowed to be released to the public after it had been reviewed by senior officials. One official told the Times of London, “In the past, when something happened the usual practice was that a senior person would hold off and say he would report to the leadership. And once something was reported to the leadership, they would issue an order for a media blackout.” Under a law passed in 2001, journalists based in metropolitan areas are forbidden to independently report on national or international stories and can not modify information provided by the Communist Party’s propaganda department.

In the case of he Sichuan earthquake, and to some degree with the Tibet and Xinjiang in 2008 and 2009, reporters were generally allowed to do what they wanted for a couple weeks before the government clamped down.

After the riots in Xinjiang in 2009 foreign reporters were not barred they were taken on official tours on which the government presented its side of the issue. Rebecca MacKinnon, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong, told Reuters, “They’re getting more sophisticated in how they’re handling foreign and domestic media coverage of a crisis. It used to be in a time of major crisis, you get a blackout...Now the approach is to get the government’s viewpoint out there.”

Reuters, Dow Jones and Bloomberg have filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization that Beijing reneged on promise to allow them access to suppliers of financial information. Instead they are required to get information from a Xinhua-news-agency distributor, which is a Xinhua subsidiary, thus giving Xinhua a virtual monopoly on financial information.

Censorship in the Media in China


Censorship of the media covers not only politics but also sexuality, violence and any topic the government doesn’t like. The "spiritual civilization" directive issued under Jiang Zemin set limits on the amount of foreign programming on television and blocked Internet sites. SARFT is the primary censor.

The Chinese government controls the media less through outright censorship than through the appointment of editors and news directors, the issuing of directives banning coverage of specific subjects and the expectation that journalists will censor themselves. Occasional memos are sent to editors informing them on which topics are sensitive. Those that don’t go along risk having their operations shut down. On rare occasions people got arrested.

The government tries hard to present its version of reality. Everyday government censors send news organizations a list of forbidden topics and guidelines for covering acceptable ones. When editors are informed of breaking news there instinct is not to rush and be the first to print the story but rather to sit and wait for the government to tell them what they can print. If the story is at all sensitive reporters are banned from reporting. Reporters that dare to investigate stories they have been told not to risk being fired or arrested.

When there is a problem such as chemical spill, bombing or disease like SARS, the knee-jerk reaction of the government is to impose a news blackout. Local officials have close relations with those in charge of newspapers and television stations and can block any news they don’t want reported. So much news is blocked people are often poorly informed even about big stories that happened near them.

The decisions by the censors are often arbitrary. Propaganda officials seldom explain to editors and publishers why one story must be deleted and why some reports are forbidden. There's no clear rule in this area, and all decisions are based on the officials' personal judgment. Chinese courts normally won't accept cases relating to the decisions by the propaganda officials, even if these decisions might destroy a publication and leave hundreds of people jobless. [Source: Zhang Hong, The Guardian, November 2, 2008]

The censorship workforce is believed to number in the tens of thousands. In recent years, Chinese censors and propaganda personnel are becoming more sophisticated, using interviews and stories to present their side of an issue rather dogmatic propaganda language; allowing some information against their side to filter through so the government can say they allow all sides to present their side. These strategies were put to effective use during the Tibetan uprising in 2008. Michael Ant, a well-known Chinese blogger at Harvard told the Los Angeles Times, “The government is showing more confidence and learning more about spin. They’ve learned more PR tactics from Western people. They see the way the White House and the Pentagon do it.”

Censorship of the media drives consumers to pursue other avenues of information such pirated DVDs and Internet downloads. Sometimes it fuels social unrest by allowing rumors to circulate and people get stirred up.

Upper middle class people in gated communities generally enjoy uncensored satellite television and unblocked Internet access. The rest of China has to deal with stricter controls.

Propaganda Directives and Deletion Orders by Chinese Government Censors

left Keith B. Richburg wrote in the Washington Post, “When fears of radiation spreading from Japan prompted a rush on iodised salt in China, a weekly business newspaper posted the story on its website under the headline: ''Panic buying in Guangdong, Shenzhen and Dongguan; iodised salt out of stock, nuclear panic in Japan spreads.'' Within minutes, government censors called the Economic Observer's vice-chief editor, Zhang Hong, ''and asked us to delete that post immediately'', he said. In a small act of defiance, Zhang left the story on the site, but he changed the second part of the headline to read: ''Salt bureau said the stock is sufficient''. [Source: Keith Richburg, Washington Post, April 16, 2011]

That March 17 incident is just one example of the daily tussle between editors of China's state-controlled media and the government's army of propaganda officials and censors shaping every aspect of what its citizens read, see and think. Normally the government's relentless effort to control information plays out behind the scenes. But an aggressive news website called China Digital Times, run from Berkeley, California, by Xiao Qiang, a long-time human rights activist, has begun publicly exposing the practice by publishing the official weekly directives and guidelines to the print media from the government's main censorship organs.

The list of do's and don'ts opens a window on how the party and government pay close attention to even the most seemingly routine news stories and how they might affect Chinese opinion. For example, when the Japanese earthquake struck in March 2011, during China's annual meeting of its two legislative bodies, the media were instructed to give prominent coverage to the disaster and the role of the Chinese rescuers, but not to neglect the annual legislative forum.

''We must fully propagandise the state of the rescue work that our teams have initiated in Japan. We must closely follow the circumstances of Chinese people and overseas Chinese in Japan,'' the March 13 directive read. A week or so before the disaster the came the intriguing item: ''All media are not to hype the salary increase given to the People's Liberation Army.''

Most journalists said they had never actually seen the written directives from the censors. Those are normally passed only to a newspaper or television station's top editor, and the rest of the staff receives spoken instructions. For websites, with their faster-moving pace, the censors prefer to use a Chinese instant messaging system called RTX. The message typically ends with the request: ''Please delete.'

Self-Censorship in the Media in China

The propaganda department issues directives on what can not be covered such as the military, religion, ethnic problems but on other issues the process is more flexible.

Publications operate under a kind of “yellow card” system like that used in soccer. If a paper or magazine get three yellow cards in a year they can be shut down. In 2004, 35 publications were suspended for publishing “internal” information.

Lu Yiyi, a research fellow at the London-based Chatham House, an international affairs institute, told the New York Times: “In China your need to know how to do things and there are boundaries that you are not supposed to overstep.” As for those who get in trouble he said, “I think there always individuals who are not as skilled at this as they should be.”

Princeton China scholar Perry Link compared the undefined limits on the press with “a giant anaconda coiled on an overhead chandelier.” “Normally the great snake doesn’t move,” he wrote in the New York Review of Books. “It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its silent constant message is, “You yourself decide...after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadows makes his or her large and small adjustments — all quite naturally.”

Chinese Journalist Challenges Censors in Court

In October 2008, in what is thought to be the first time a journalist has challenged the censors through the courts, Cui Fang, a reporter working for China Business Post, filed a lawsuit on against the Bureau of Press and Publications in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, accusing the Bureau of violating laws when it ordered a three-month suspension of the paper. [Source: Zhang Hong, The Guardian, November 2, 2008]

Zhang Hong wrote in The Guardian, “The previous July, China Business Post published a story based on Cui Fang's investigation, reporting that a subsidiary of the Agricultural Bank of China in Hunan province breached regulations in writing off 4.61 billion yuan (£387 million ) bad debt, an allegation the bank strongly denied. Two months later, China Business Post was suspended from publication for three months by a “superior administration” — believed to be the Bureau of Press and Publications.”

“In her complaint, Cui demands the administration lift the suspension of China Business Post, issue a public apology and pay her a symbolic one yuan (9p) compensation. According to Zhou Ze, the lawyer representing Cui, a court in Hohhot (the capital of Inner Mongolia) is now assessing the lawsuit and will decide whether to accept it later.”

“But Cui's attempt to challenge the censors through the courts is the first time this legal loophole has been brought to the attention of the public. Hopefully a debate will follow. Nobody in China expects censorship to disappear because of this challenge, but if the censors are forced to hand out clear rules then some progress will have been made. Undoubtedly, this process will take a long time, since control of the media is something the Communist party won't give up easily.”

“Even if the court accepts her case, Cui faces the task of proving her reporting is correct. Some have speculated that the court will order her to give the names of her sources, several local bank officials. In her blog, Cui says it would be difficult to persuade those people to testify before the court. They would lose their jobs if they did. Cui is facing the double burden of challenging the censors as well as protecting her sources. She may be fighting a losing battle, but whatever the outcome, she deserves all our support.”

Control and Censorship in the Media Under Hu Jintao


Censorship and restrictions on the media have increased under Hu Jintao. Books have been banned, Internet sites have been shut down, journalists have been jailed in increasing numbers and publications have received orders “not to sensationalize.” CNN broadcasts on issues deemed sensitive have been blacked out and commercials with “foreign actors” have been banned because they promote “excessive materialism.” Surveys have shown a clear decline of articles critical of the government under Hu.

Hu has curbed the media while pushing an image of openness to West. This has left journalists baffled as to what the rules are and how far they can go. During the SARS crisis media sources were both criticized and praised of their coverage depending on what they said and when they said it. Journalism students were required to take courses in “Marxist journalism” in which they sit through lectures on how the Dalai Lama is trying split China but, I some caes, are also encouraged by their professors to investigate corruption and advised to push the envelope of what is allowed rather than challenge the censorship system. .

In March 2005, journalists were told they would banned from five years to life from reporting if they were caught taking bribes, making up stories or convicted of crimes. . The rules were initiated after 11 Xinhua journalists were caught taking bribes in return for underreporting casualty figures from a mine blast in central Shanxi Province. In December 2005, Chinese authorities banned 79 newspapers and seized 169 million publications deemed illegal. The crackdown, authorities said, was targeted at pornography and intellectual property piracy but was the effort was used to shut down many small independent publications that the government found a threat, A similar campaign resulted don seizing 230 million illegal publications in February 2005. More than 41,000 publishing houses and bookstores were shut down in 2004.

New media regulations announced in September 2006, attempted to firm the government’s grip not only the Internet, television and newspapers but also on karaoke, video games and even children’s cartoons. The move was discussed on Internet chat lines with sarcasm and even mockery. In 2006 a number of reality shows, sitcoms and dramas that featured violence and steamy love affairs or dealt with themes that hinted of corruption were banned. Media censors called for more “ethically-inspiring” programing and that would “ensure a better TV environment.”

In August 2007, the Chinese announced new measures to crack down on the media and stop “false news, reports, unauthorized publications and bogus journalists.” The announcement came after the bogus story about cardboard being put into steamed buns. This was followed up by the purging of television shows of crime and even mildly suggestive sexual references.

In November 2008, the propaganda department launched a new policy to make more of an effort to report the news as it happens. What at first seemed like a move towards more openness was actually a way to preempt other news sources so the government could maintain its grip on the news. Li Changchun, China’s propaganda chief and Politburo member, is reported to have said, “Let us use the method of providing the news as a way to control news.”

The move came in response to the reality that Chinese can now get news from a variety sources, mainly over the Internet, that were not available to them in past and the fact that rumors, speculation and inaccurate reports are circulated without official version of events. The trigger was disapproval over the way the government handled the tainted milk scandal. News releases are still tightly regulated to make sure anything potentially incendiary or disruptive is not released.

Xi Jinping’s Crackdown on the Media

Xi Jinping officially became the leader of China in 2013.Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “President Xi Jinping has overseen what experts have called China's most intense crackdown on freedom of speech and civil society in decades: Authorities have closed scores of nongovernmental organizations and detained hundreds of critics and activists, further tightening the already limited space for free expression. The country's independent film scene has been particularly hard-hit. Last year, authorities shut down China's most prominent film festival, the Beijing Independent Film Festival, for the first time in its 11-year history. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, October 14, 2015]

Michael Forsythe wrote in the New York Times: “In China under President Xi Jinping, journalists who stray from the Communist Party’s official line are increasingly being muzzled as part of a widespread crackdown on civil society that has led to human rights lawyers and feminists being imprisoned, influential bloggers having their social media accounts deleted and professors being told to limit the use of foreign textbooks. The Communist Party is increasingly intolerant of what it calls “historical nihilism” that tarnishes its stewardship of the nation. [Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, February 16, 2016]

Hannah Beech wrote in Time, “China’s journalists are subject to intense censorship, with editors receiving daily directives on what topics have been deemed taboo. Self-censorship is rampant. While a few enterprising newspapers gained fame for their muckraking after the turn of the century, their exposés have waned in recent years, as liberal editors have been sacked and investigative reporters punished. In 2015, China had the largest number of journalists behind bars of any nation, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Several imprisoned reporters have been paraded on state TV to confess to their purported crimes. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, February 19, 2016 ++]

Image Sources: 1, 2) Landsberger Posters ; Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese: photo.huanqiu.com, Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2022

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