China Policy Institute: Analysis


Media Freedom

Taiwan’s media: More reforms needed

Written by Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley.

The media are central in a modern, functioning democracy, facilitating dialogue, flows of political information, accountability, transparency and popular participation. Studies of the media system in Taiwan help us grasp the pace and scale of the social, cultural and political developments and gives us an insight into the changes and continuity in Taiwan’s position in relation to China and the rest of the world in the processes of globalisation and regionalisation. Continue reading “Taiwan’s media: More reforms needed”

Xi Jinping ramps up his crackdown on the Chinese media – both online and off

Written by Sally Xiaojin Chen.

With almost no notice, any website in China can be shut down on a temporary or permanent basis if it’s deemed to contain “politically incorrect” content. And sure enough, this summer, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) announced a crackdown on online news reporting, targeting some of China’s most popular internet giants – including Sina, NetEase, Sohu, Tencent, and Phoenix.

While China is used to tight controls on the internet and the media, this was nonetheless a remarkably aggressive move. And it speaks of a renewed zeal for an all-encompassing control of information. Continue reading “Xi Jinping ramps up his crackdown on the Chinese media – both online and off”

Great firewall of China reinforced as foreign media banned from publishing online

Written by Dianjing Li.

A new Chinese rule banning all foreign media from publishing online will come into effect on March 10, affecting everything from the press, radio and television to music and computer games. The edict provides legislative backing for the government’s existing control of the internet and will empower the Chinese cyber-police to further assert their “cyber sovereignty” inside the country’s online Great Wall.

Those Chinese media companies already acting as mouthpieces for the communist party now have legal backing that enforces their monopoly over online content.

The new directive, jointly issued by China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, prohibits any foreign media companies from engaging in online publishing in China.

This is not new: foreign media outfits, such as the Financial Times, New York Times and Reuters who have invested in Chinese-language services, are frequently blocked in China.

The BBC has also experienced difficulties, despite establishing different websites aimed at different demographics. The minority of people in China who can speak English have access to the unblocked, but the Chinese language BBC Chinese Net is blocked.

Still room to collaborate

The new law will, however, allow foreign media institutions to cooperate on individual projects with firms that are wholly-owned and based in mainland China, as long as they obtain prior permission from authorities.

This kind of collaboration has been going on for some time. The nature documentary seriesWild China, for example, co-produced in 2008 by the BBC Natural History Unit and China Central Television, was approved by the government. These kind of collaborations have been well received by Chinese audiences, and the BBC now is co-operating with the Chinese film company SGM Pictures to produce the documentary Earth: One Amazing Day, for release in cinemas in 2017.

There is little new about the thrust of the law and it is the product of increasing Chinese observation and regulation of the internet that began in 2002. A 2005 regulation named Opinions on Canvassing Foreign Investment into the Cultural Sector banned foreign investors from establishing and managing news agencies and providing online publishing services in China.

So the new rule will have little impact on the way foreign media currently operate, although it’s still unclear how it will impact other foreign tech companies producing online content. And of course, online content by foreign media will still be available to Chinese netizens who use a virtual private network or other tricks to get around the censors.

Boost to Chinese online business

But the new legislation is no political platitude. It is a signal that China is hardening its line in the ongoing battle between communist party doctrine, the cyber police, commercialisation, and the consumption habits of sophisticated Chinese netizens.

The Chinese government has paid very close attention to how the internet and social media are changing society. It relies on more than two million cyber police to maintain internal security through censorship.

By stopping foreign media from publishing online in China, the new law is aimed at encouraging native Chinese media institutions to develop online publishing services. This fits with a new economic “Internet Plus” action plan launched in 2015 by Chinese premier Li Keqiang. This is aimed at driving economic growth through the integration of internet technologies, manufacturing and business.

Native Chinese internet companies and media institutions have already benefited from the government’s censorship and regional protectionism. For example, the search engine Baiduwas one of the biggest beneficiaries after China expelled Google in 2010.

Baidu – also one of the Chinese companies in the new Internet Plus alliance – experienced a 33% increase in revenue in the fourth quarter of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014. Yet, there are signs that Chinese citizens are wary of increased control of their online habits, and some are boycotting Baidu for its collaborations with censors and unethical commercialisation.

The government’s latest edict cements the Chinese government’s control over the internet. And by fixing the government’s quest for cyber-sovereignty further into law, the Chinese public’s position as consumers has been weakened yet again.

Dianjing Li is a PhD Candidate on Media and Communication at the University of Westminster. This article was first published on The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit:CC by Times Asi/Flickr.

Unreliable evidence in the case of the missing Hong Kong booksellers

Written by Jackie Sheehan.

So, the Chinese authorities – you remember them, they’re the people who had absolutely no idea what had happened to five missing booksellers and publishers from Hong Kong, and certainly had nothing to do with their disappearance – have now paraded Gui Minhai on television confessing that he went back to China of his own accord last October, stricken with guilt at having left the country 11 years ago in contravention of the terms of a suspended jail sentence he received for causing death while drunk-driving in Ningbo.

He ran then, he explained in his emotional confession, because he was so afraid of going to jail. It’s not the most logical series of events: having received a suspended sentence, he was so afraid of prison that he immediately broke one of the main terms of the suspension that was keeping him out of prison. And then, having escaped from China, in order to lie low and do his utmost to avoid attracting Beijing’s attention, he set up a publishing company specialising in books about the CCP leadership such as Yu Jie’s Xi Jinping, China’s Godfather, using the same name (more or less) under which he was supposedly convicted in Ningbo in 2003.

Two friends of Gui, poet Bei Ling and publisher Jin Zhong, have said they had heard that Gui had been involved in a fatal drink-driving incident in China in 2003, but for everyone else, the credibility of his supposed confession has not been helped by crude continuity errors in the film shown by CCTV, with Gui’s hair changing length and his undershirt switching from grey to black and back again. There are also discrepancies between an original Xinhua report on the fatal accident from April 2005, which gives Gui’s age as 46, and current Xinhua and CCTV statements that he was born in May 1964, and so was aged only 40 in April 2005. The Min in his given name is also represented by a different character in the Ningbo records and in Hong Kong references to him.

But there’s no need to spin conspiracy theories about events in Ningbo more than a decade ago, as they clearly have nothing whatever to do with the real reasons for Gui’s detention and that of four or his colleagues from Hong Kong. In another well-timed letter from detainee Lee Bo to his wife in Hong Kong, Lee has revealed that he has only just found out that Gui “has a complicated history” and is “a morally unacceptable person”, so it’s hard to see what he could add to the evidence in a case he’s only just heard of and which was settled more than ten years ago. Nor does it explain why Lee had to be taken over the border to Shenzhen to help with enquiries, or why the three other associates of Lee and Gui are still missing and unacknowledged as guests at Xi Jinping’s pleasure.

Conveniently enough for Beijing, Gui also used the opportunity of his televised confession to try to wave away the Swedish authorities who, due to his Swedish passport, have been investigating his disappearance. Fortunately they regard his citizenship as more relevant in strictly legal terms than the deep sense of being Chinese which he claimed, under what duress we can imagine, properly brings him under Beijing’s jurisdiction, and continue to seek clarification as to his whereabouts. His daughter, Angela Gui, also has no intention of letting up on her efforts to secure her father legal representation.

But it’s not easy to find a good lawyer on the mainland these days. Pu Zhiqiang’s three-year suspended jail term looks less like leniency for a high-profile figure than it does a way of exercising complete control. As others noted as soon as Pu’s fate was announced, this is exactly how the ordeal of his fellow lawyer and rights-defender Gao Zhisheng started. As Gao was repeatedly disappeared into detention and brutally tortured, so the Chinese authorities denied all knowledge of where he was, right up until the moment they returned him to prison days before the period of suspension expired. It’s a worrying precedent for the missing men from Hong Kong.

In the crackdown which since last July has seen 317 lawyers or law-firm employees detained, taken in for questioning, or having other restrictions placed on their liberty, the Fengrui legal firm in Beijing has been a particular target. Ten of its staff, including Wang Yu, are now facing serious criminal charges under state-subversion legislation following up to six months of detention, mostly incommunicado and without legal representation. Three more staff who are supposed to be out on bail also remain incommunicado.

Meanwhile in Shandong, lawyer Shu Xiangxin has been jailed for six months ostensibly for defamation, but actually, most believe, because of his investigation into links between Jinan officials and organized crime as part of his work on a land dispute. While in detention he was reportedly punched, dragged across the floor, left in the cold with inadequate clothing, and suspended by a handcuff from an iron bar for eight hours, as well as being denied medical treatment, food, water or access to a toilet.

It’s no great surprise that these cases continue to occur given China’s official response to questions before a UN committee in November 2015 about the disappearance and torture of Gao Zhisheng and many other lawyers: “The ‘report’ about the incommunicado detention of some ‘dissidents’ for more than three months and about the ‘torture’ they have suffered is not true.” Three years earlier, the torturers of lawyer Jiang Tianyong put it equally directly but with greater candour to him: “Here we can do things in accordance to law. We can also do things not in accordance to law, because we are allowed to do things not in accordance to law.”

Jackie Sheehan is a professor and Head of the School of Asian Studies at University College Cork. Image credit: CC by 黃埔體育會/Flickr

A new episode of left-right confrontation

 nanfang zhoumoby Zhengxu Wang.

Southern Weekly has long been the banner of media freedom. Indeed it has, since the mid-1990s, long been the banner of general ideas of political freedom, democracy, civil liberty, freedom of speech, human rights, and the like. The quality of its content and professionalism of its staff have sometimes been called into question, but in general it has succeeded in maintaining its credibility among the liberal camp (called “the right” in the Chinese context) in China’s political and intellectual circles. Therefore how it fares is highly indicative of the overall political trends of China.

Through these years it has always tried to push the limits of China’s media freedom by running sometimes very controversial articles. Other liberal media such as Hu Shuli’s Caixin and the magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu are also similarly trying to push the envelope while staying alive (and thrive, hopefully) by “correctly” gauging the degree of tolerance of the political authority.

So indeed there is some space for media freedom. It is, of course, not a secure space. And it could shrink when a more hard-line political leadership settles in. Regional papers, such as Southern Weekly, are subject to two levels of political censorship—one by the Central Propaganda department, and one by their Provincial/Municipal Propaganda Department. This makes their censorship environment much more complex.

In this current episode, it started as an intervention by the Guangdong Provincial Propaganda Department. Details are still missing. It is unclear, as it is to this commentator, whether the Director of the Propaganda Department directly intervened into a piece the paper was going to run, or whether it is a Deputy Director of the Propaganda Department that did it. There is indication that Mr. Tuo, the Guangdong Propaganda Chief now despised by the Southern Weekly supporting microbloggers, was not in Guangzhou when the event took place.

The Deputy Director, however, serves concurrently as the vice chairman of the paper’s controlling company, the Southern Newspaper Group. If indeed it was him that requested the rewriting of the editorial triggering this crisis, then we have to debate whether this was a censorship issue or whether this was an internal management issue.

Regardless, the liberal community has framed the issue as a life-and-death struggle for the paper, and a referendum for freedom of speech. Public opinions have been mobilized on microblogs, and people, most of them young , have staged peaceful demonstrations in front of the paper’s building in support.

But the event has also invigorated the leftists. In the last few days, demonstrators holding Mao Zedong’s portrait and Maoist slogans actually appeared in sizable numbers outside the paper’s building too. For the leftists, the paper has long been on the wrong side of the history, and is working hard to undermine China.

chi zhenSo it is another episode showing how divided Chinese society is today. The Party will weather this storm, but the social divide that made this incident so emotional for many people will not disappear.

The challenges from the right  to the Party’s rule will continue to rise, and such confrontation between left and right will erupt with a higher frequency.

How the Party can manage such intra-society divisions is the key for its sustained ability to rule China. Unfortunately, it is proving increasingly incapable in doing that. Again and again it will have to resort to heavy-handed measures to put things down, yet it will find it harder and harder to do so.

Zhengxu Wang is Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors

Taiwan’s ‘Strawberry Generation’ and Media Freedom

photo by Ketty W. Chen
photo by Ketty W. Chen

By Michal Thim.

Taiwan’s youth is often referred to as the ‘Strawberry Generation’, unable to work hard, selfish, spoiled, and disinterested in public affairs. Data shows that such labelling is untrue. In fact, the Taiwanese are shouldering the longest working hours in the world; a burden carried jointly across generations. Yet, one label given by the ‘veterans‘ of great political battles from 1980s and 1990s still sticks; young people nowadays are not interested in politics and do not care about the big issues society is facing. However, recent youth-driven protests over media acquisitions by Beijing-friendly businessmen prove critics wrong.

On 26 July 2012, the National Communication Commission (NCC) approved the acquisition of China Network Systems (Taiwan’s second largest cable TV network) by Want Want Group, effectively handing one third of the cable TV market over to the new owner. The Chairman of Want Want Group is Taiwan’s richest man Tsai Eng-meng, a controversial figure and advocate of prompt unification with China. According to a longitudinal survey(link for this) , his views on unification are at odds with the majority of Taiwanese.

NCC’s decision prompted a first wave of student-led protests later followed by a larger demonstration (link for this)that took place on September 1st this year. This time, the protest also addressed the smear campaign against academic Huang Kuo-chang, wrongly accused by Want Want Group media of paying students to attend the first protests. For the opponents of the deal, this was a clear example of why the merger should have been rejected by NCC.

In November earlier speculation that Want Want group intended to buy Next Media assets in Taiwan came true when an agreement was reached between Next Media founder Jimmy Lai (businessman and democracy advocate from Hong Kong) and a group of Taiwanese businessmen led by Tsai.

The Next Media deal (yet to be approved by NCC and other agencies) is perhaps even more troubling than the previous one. Apple Daily might be a sensationalist, tabloid-type newspaper but together with Next Magazine it represents a rare independent view in an environment where the stance of major news outlets can be identified either with the pro-independence Green camp or pro-unification/status-quo Blue camp. Should the deal be approved, Tsai & Co. will be in control of around 50% of news media in Taiwan(link for this). This led to the latest wave of protests. On 30 November, around 500 students gathered in front of the Joint Government Information Office to raise their concerns about media freedom and urge the responsible agencies to thoroughly review the deal and eventually reject it. Although numbers may seem to be modest, it represented participants from 36 universities nationwide. In addition, students from all around the world expressed their support through a campaign on Facebook(link for this).

photo by Ketty W. Chen
photo by Ketty W. Chen

There is indeed a need to worry about the future of media in Taiwan if both deals proceed. Fears that recent acquisitions are orchestrated by Beijing in order to manipulate public opinion in Taiwan through friendly media might be difficult to substantiate. Yet, the danger lies in editorial self-censorship by concerned media owners over protecting investments in China.

However, what is clear is that civil society in Taiwan is strong and the allegedly apathetic ‘Strawberry Generation’ is increasingly taking the initiative. Certainly, opposition representatives endorsed the protests but the ‘strawberry generation’ are largely non-partisan in nature. This is something relatively new and it  shows disconnection (and frustration to some degree) of young people from traditional blue-green political divide but not from politics per se.  For a stable democracy, a strong civil society is as important as media plurality. Taiwan still has both.

Michal Thim is PhD student at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham and research fellow at Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors

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