7 Jan 2013

The Chinese media and the fight against censorship

The new Chinese leadership has made much of its plans to curb official corruption, but the first conflict of the year suggests that they won’t be using the most effective tool – the media.Today, staff of China’s  bravest newspaper, Southern Weekend (also known as Southern Weekly) demonstrated outside their offices in Guangzhou, placing bouquets of yellow chrysanthemums – symbolising the death of press freedom – in front of the door.

They carried banners saying “Press freedom, constitutionalism, democracy.”

The story goes back to new year’s day when the editorial staff wrote a front page editorial saying Chinese citizens should be allowed to “voice their criticisms of power loudly and confidently.”

After intervention by the provincial propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen, the editorial instead read: “We Are Now Closer to Our Dream Than Ever Before”and continued with a paean of praise to the Chinese Communist Party. The staff went on strike in protest.

Censorship is a complex issue in China. Many young people play cat-and-mouse with the censors, posting critical comments on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of twitter, and reposting as quickly as they get censored.

When search terms are banned, they invent new terms. Every week the propaganda department sends a list of banned terms and subjects to newspaper and website editors – the staff of Southern Weekend said that 1,000 of their articles were censored or scrapped last year.

In today’s South China Morning Post – published in Hong Kong, where there is less censorship – the writer Han Han described what it’s like to work in such a system.

“Even though you want some clear rules to go by, they never tell you what they are – so everybody assumes they’re breaking the rules somehow,” he said.

“The only way for you to completely abide by their rules is to become like them. We end up censoring ourselves, always apprehensive, always afraid, always guessing.”

Which brings me back to corruption. How does it ever get exposed? Usually by the media. Southern Weekend has exposed several important cases.

The party, by contrast, has only cumbersome internal mechanisms, which target those who are falling out of  favour rather than the most egregiously crooked.

A few days ago, the Chinese government refused to renew the visa of a leading foreign journalist, Chris Buckley, of the New York Times, which had run an investigation into the family wealth of the former premier, Wen Jiabao. So much for the war on corruption.

The Southern Weekend strike is a big story in China – this is the first time in more than two decades that staff from a major newspaper have gone on strike.

Not that you’d know about it from reading other Chinese newspapers. The topic has been banned, and those who have tried to mention it have also been censored.

Asked to explain by the foreign media, the foreign ministry spokesman spoke clearly and concisely. “There is no censorship of the media in China,” he said.

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