Chinese Censorship Faces Its Toughest Challenge
Despite routinely interrogating dissident writers, the government is losing its ability to control the message.
By Jessie Yang, The University of Hong Kong
In China, citizens’ freedom of speech is under constant monitor by authorities.
Although the news media is highly developed, their affiliations with the government make it difficult to exercise their power as the fourth pillar of democracy. Journalists are constantly exploring different measures to expose corruption of the government to the public, but it’s not uncommon for officials to “invite them for tea,” which is a term in Chinese indicating interrogation.
Recently, some journalists critical of social issues have “disappeared” without leaving any message behind. Some suggest that the Chinese government is responsible for their disappearance, and if you examine the cases carefully, it becomes apparent that the missing journalists all have one thing in common—political dissidence.
Recent Cases of Missing Journalists
Last year, an active journalist in China, Jia Jia, who was prominent in petitioning against President Xi, went missing on his plane to Hong Kong. Jia had a strong political stance, and he commented frequently on social and political issues. Prior to his disappearance, his name showed up in the Chinese media “Wujie,” and the sensitive article detailed criticisms of the central government’s conducting a “personal cult.”
After his release, the server was immediately cut. It was after several days that government officials released Jia Jia, and he soon after leveled down on his sharp commentaries.
Chinese president Xi has embarked on an unprecedented effort to clamp down on the internet and censor opinions that do not reflect those of Communist party leaders, including imposing tougher penalties for what the government calls “spreading rumors” through social media, which leads others to suspect the level of free speech that exists in China.
In fact, Jia Jia is not the only journalist who has been interrogated in recent years. Another journalist, Li Xin, a dissident writer who refused to be an informant for the Ministry of State Security, went missing on his way to Thailand. Although the “Bangkok Post” reported that the government and police were not aware of the incident, a month later, his wife received a call that he was “volunteering” and assisting the government in investigation.
“I know this is [the Chinese government] speaking,” his wife said in a tearful conversation with CNN. “It completely contradicts what Li Xin would like to say.”
While Jia Jia and Li Xin remained silent after their releases, journalist Wen Tao, who was missing along with famous artist Ai Weiwei, both spoke about their experience.
Just hours after Ai Weiwei was detained at the Beijing airport, five plainclothes officers took away Wen Tao.
“I was beaten and they dragged me into a black car. I stayed in a room without curtains for three months. It was three months later when they released me,” Tao said.
Ai Wei Wei, instead of staying quiet, created a series of artworks about his life in prison as a way of critiquing the central government. As the artist was cruelly denied his freedom by nearby guards, peepholes offered a glimpse at the humiliation on display. Ai’s vitriol against the Communist Party has made him a polarizing figure in the Chinese art world.
All three cases of missing journalists follow similar patterns, as the government simply deprives their freedom of speech in order to maintain “harmony” in society. Human rights are constantly under question, and even though Chinese journalism struggles to take different measures, the complex political environment still means uncertainty in regard to the future of Chinese media.
A Chance for Journalism in China
In order to better understand the nature of Chinese journalism, it is necessary to understand its development. Since 1976, when China adopted “socialism with Chinese characteristics” to satisfy material aspirations of the people, the media also drifted from being a mouthpiece for the government to making profit to sustain business.
While the government cut down on sponsorship, media agencies began to gain power to choose personnel and manage their own finances. The opportunity gave media agencies in China a new space for expression. Increased press autonomy diversified the news content, but it does not mean that news media are free of government control.
Journalists are often under scrutiny, from applying self-censorship to ending up in prison.
For the sake of combating the strict regulation, more and more investigative journalists have emerged, forming a bottom-up approach to better assess public perception of government policies.
Moreover, diverging interests open up space to pursue investigative reporting without prior official sanction; however, as the previous examples of missing journalists prove, the media still can’t fully exercise their power to monitor the government.
As a result, in recent years, there has been a rise in citizen journalism, which is when ordinary citizens take up an active role to collect and report news, documenting social issues instantly in order to break through government control.
On July 23, 2011, two high-speed trains crashed into each other and caused serious casualties in China. Before the news was released by “Xinhua,” a major news agency in China, citizen journalists and photographers quickly responded to the incident and spread photos and news on “Weibo,” which accumulated more than two million related tweets in a month. The eyewitnesses also served as evidence to criticize and monitor the government’s actions in the crisis, and the public were further mobilized by social media to provide immediate assistance to the victims.
Citizen journalism has expanded the role of social media to provide a platform that allows for instant response to social issues in order to mobilize the public. When only certain news is published, and dissenting journalists are banned from their publications, social media offers an alternative in news reporting to air the hidden stories.
The nature of social media brings certain political and social issues into discussions, and further challenges the existing problems and regulations. As a result, journalists in China, both citizen and professional, are continuing to explore different platforms to foster discussion and exert influence as whistle-blowers, exposing evidence of corruption and misconduct by their government.