The deterioration of China’s media freedom in the Xi Jinping era

On March 19, 2007, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) published a report on the development of China’s media. The paper, titled “The Chinese Media: More Autonomous and Diverse–Within Limits,” outlined how during the previous two decades China’s print and broadcast media had expanded, diversified and commercialized.

Among the factors that contributed to the relative liberalization of the country’s media landscape the report listed “a general decline in the influence of political ideologies and systems of belief; growing Chinese popular skepticism toward authority; increased contact with the West; greater competition in the media market; ebbing government resources; improved professional training for journalists; and new communication technologies.”


(By Calton – CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

“The waning influence of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought,” the report continued, “has weakened the State’s ability to use the media to shape public attitudes and has made it harder for the authorities to penalize the media for publishing material that is not strictly consistent with Marxist theory.”

In spite of all that, CIA analysts remarked that the Communist government was attempting to take back control over the media and public opinion.

More than a decade later, the CIA’s assessment of the evolution of China’s media appears outdated. Between 2012 and 2018, a considerable deterioration of media freedom has taken place in the country.

According to a 2018 Freedom House report: “China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is tightening its control over the media, online speech, religious groups, and civil society associations while undermining already modest rule-of-law reforms. The CCP leader and state president, Xi Jinping, is consolidating personal power to a degree not seen in China for decades.”

In this article we shall briefly discuss the development of China’s media from the period of commercialization and relative liberalization to the growing crackdown on journalism and independent public opinion in the Xi Jinping era.

A taste of freedom

After the Cultural Revolution China was in a state of chaos. As Harry Harding wrote in 1987:

By September 1976, China faced an acute crisis in domestic politics. Large segments of society were alienated from the Communist Party and from the government because of the violence, persecution, and disorder of the Cultural Revolution. The leadership was engaged in a savage internecine struggle unconstrained by the norms of civility and consensus that had once governed political debate. Official ideology had lost much of its ability to mobilize and sustain poular support. And the death of Mao had now removed the one remaining pillar on which the legitimacy of the regime rested” (Harry Harding, China’s Second Revolution: Reform after Mao, 1987, p. 172).

Deng Xiaoping and other reformist leaders in the Party acknowledged that the regime had lost its legitimacy. They saw parallels between China and the social upheaval of other Communist countries, such as Poland. On the one hand, Deng sought to preserve one-party rule. On the other hand, he understood that the state needed to improve living standards to regain the trust of the people.

The reformers were aware that totalitarianism would hinder economic progress. As a result, they relaxed the Party’s control on civil society.

As Harding wrote:

“Retaining the totalitarian system of the past would be incompatible with the economic reforms that they envisioned. Tight organizational and ideological controls would make it virtually impossible for scientists to innovate, technicians to invent, economists to develop new strategies for development, or entrepreneurs to launch new economic activities. Nor would foreigners, particularly those from the West, find it convenient to interact with a China that remained under rigid administrative controls. For all these reasons, China’s reformers have agreed on the necessity for a relaxation of political life” (Harding 1987, p. 173)

The reformers’ desire to maintain one-party rule while at the same time promoting economic development created an irreconcilable contradiction between liberalization and authoritarianism. As the government loosened its grip on society, citizens used the increased degree of freedom to express their views and demand political reforms.

Ever since the end of 1978, small but influential sectors of urban society–particularly young intellectuals–have urged greater freedom in the arts, more opportunities for political participation, and a further relaxation of ideological constraints on the discussion of economic and political reform. Some of these demands were expressed in the wall posters and underground literature published during the ‘Democracy Wall’ movement of 1978-79. Others were stated implicitly in the continuing experimentation with new styles and new subjects in literature and the visual arts. The most dramatic example of the pressure for further political reform occurred at the end of 1986, when tens of thousands of Chinese students launched demonstrations in a score of major cities across the country to demand more freedom and democracy” (Harding 1987, pp. 173-174)

In the 1980s Chinese media became a platform for debates on politics and philosophy the likes of which the country had not seen in decades. The World Economic Herald (世界经济导报) was one of the most prominent liberal magazines of the era. It is not surprising that journalists were among the protesters demanding more freedom in the spring of 1989.
Popular protests culminated in the Tiananmen student movement of 1989, which was brutally suppressed by the Communist government.

Following the Tiananmen crackdown the party once again restricted free speech. Many liberal journalists were fired and newspapers like the World Economic Herald were shut down. The news were dominated by dull party propaganda (see Duncan Hewitt, Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China, 2007, Chapter 5).

The tension between reform and authoritarianism remained throughout the presidencies of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Both strove to preserve one-party rule, while also emphasizing the importance of economic reform. The CCP pursued a policy that was reminiscent of that of imperial China. Citizens enjoyed a relative degree of freedom as long as they did not cross the regime’s “red lines”, such as demanding the end to one-party rule, or questioning the one-China policy.

Although the Party clung to Leninist ideology and attempted to restrict free speech and “guide” public opinion, economic development was the authorities’ priority. That had a transformative impact on Chinese media.

In the mid-1990s new commercially oriented media outlets were launched throughout the country. Newspapers like the Southern Weekend reported on and discussed political and social issues, though they were only able to do so with the support of local officials (Qian Gang and David Bandurski, China’s Emerging Public Sphere- The Impact of Media Commercialization, Professionalism, and the Internet in an Era of Transition, in Changing Media, Changing China, ed. Susan L. Shirk, 2011, p. 41).

Commercial newspapers enjoyed massive growth, while official party and state news outlets saw a decline in readership. For example, from 1993 to 2003, the official Beijing Daily went from 523,000 sold copies per day to just 380,000. During the same period, Beijing Youth Daily, a commercially-run newspaper, increased its daily print from 231,000 to 600,000. The circulation of the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper People’s Daily fell from 2.78 million to 1.8 million, while the commercial Southern Metropolis Daily grew from 41,000 copies in 1997 to 1.4 million copies in 2003. A 2004 study conducted among newspaper readers in Beijing showed that nearly all respondents preferred commercial newspapers.

The commercialization of the media was the result of the CCP’s restructuring of the economic system away from the centrally planned economy towards a market economy in which profitability played a major role in allocating resources. Throughout the 1990s the government cut spending for official media, closed down unprofitable newspapers and reduced subsidies. While the most prominent government and party newspapers like People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency continued to be funded, a large number of smaller media outlets found themselves without government subsidies and were forced to look for revenue.

In 2002 president Hu Jintao put forward a policy called “Three Closenesses” (closeness to reality, to people, and to life). The purpose of the policy was to encourage media to abandon the dull style of traditional propaganda while at the same time maintaining the party’s guiding role in shaping public opinion. (Qian, Bandurski 2011, pp. 41-44)

For more than two decades after the Tiananmen Square protests, the CCP’s policy towards the media was ambivalent. On the one hand, the party wanted to maintain control of public opinion. On the other, the regime not only promoted commercialization, but also tentatively began to view the media as a way to understand the mood of the country. The internet provided a new platform for people to express their views in an unprecedented way.

As Delisle, Goldstein, and Yang wrote in 2016:

“The rise of the Internet and social media reflects the partial liberalization of China’s political climate. Over the last few decades, Chinese citizens have enjoyed much more freedom to express opinions on a wide range of issues, including political ones, and to do so in relatively public ways. The criticism of officials (below the very top leadership) and policies (outside certain controversial areas) that has been tolerated and become commonplace among China’s ‘netizens’ is the virtual face of a broader social and political phenomenon. Internet and social media-based expression of citizens’ discontent and exposure of unlawful or outrageous acts by cadres, enterprises, or others are allowed in part because they can serve the regime’s interest. On one hand, they provide a ‘steam valve’ for citizen anger and bring potentially stability-threatening problems to the attention of the authorities who can then respond with ameliorative or repressive measures. On the other hand, new media give China’s rulers novel channels to shape public opinion by directly using such media by mobilizing, and sometimes paying, others to express proregime views (the so-called wumaodang or ‘fifty-cent party’), or by relying on spontaneous expressions of orthodox sentiments by some members of China’s diverse online communities. The Internet and social media also provide a ready means for the authorities to monitor public opinion and, at times, to discover and target dissidents and those who might form more organized opposition to the party-state and its policies” (Jacques Delisle, Avery Goldstein, and Guobin Yang, Introduction: The Internet, Social Media, and a Changing China, in The Internet, Social Media, and a Changing China, ed. Jacques Delisle, Avery Goldstein, and Guobin Yang, 2016, p. 2).

According to Qian and Bandurski, the CCP sought “a power-maximizing balance between censorship and propaganda on the one hand and responsiveness on the other” (Qian, Bandurski 2011, p. 39).

The Southern Daily Group was one of the media organizations that tried to publish investigative reporting and news that were relevant to its readers, while attempting not to provoke the authorities. As Duncan Hewitt wrote:

[W]hen I went to visit Yang Xingfeng, the editor-in-chief of the Southern Daily group, one of Guangzhou’s big three, in its concrete high-rise headquarters in 2002, he certainly seemed to talk the language of the new era. ‘Papers are a product,’ he said, ‘so they must get closer to the market – we can’t ignore income, a loss-making paper is no good!’ The Southern Weekend sometimes ruffled feathers nationally too.

“In 2001 the Chinese police, after a much-publicised manhunt, arrested a man suspected of a series of bombings in the northern city of Shijiazhuang, which killed more than a hundred people. State television proudly announced his arrest and reported his confession. But the Southern Weekend took the unusual step of insisting that he should be presumed innocent until a verdict was announced, and that even if he had confessed, evidence was required to prove that his words were genuine.

“It was typical of a paper which often seemed to be doing its best to put the government’s slogans about promoting the rule of law to the test.On many social and domestic issues, however, there’s no doubt that the Chinese media has generally become more open in its coverage – within limits of course. No editor would dare to criticise a central government leader, for example, but they might be willing to expose corruption or mismanagement involving In 2005 the Southern Metropolis News was again in trouble, after reporting on a rebellion by villagers in Guangdong against their local leaders.

“Its recently established Beijing sister paper, the Beijing News, reported on a case where hired thugs attacked farmers protesting against the construction of a power plant, and killed six people. Local officials were eventually punished – but the paper’s editor was also sacked later the same year” (Hewitt 2007, Chapter 5).

The authorities constantly oscillated between tolerance and repression. This can be best illustrated with the case of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement to the Communist Party-owned China Youth Daily. The magazine, which was founded in 1995, covered a wide range of controversial social and political issues.

On January 11, 2006, Freezing Point ran an article by Sun Yat-sen University history professor Yuan Weishi, in which he criticized secondary-school textbooks’ perspective on the Boxer Rebellion. For the Communist Party the article was too much. Authorities shut down Freezing Point and issued a decision condemning Yuan:

“[T]he China Youth Daily’s ‘Freezing Point’ published an essay by Sun Yat-sen University history professor Yuan Weishi entitled ‘Modernism and History Text Books,’ which spared no effort to reverse the verdict on the crime of the great imperialist powers’ invasion of China, severely contradicted historical facts, severely violated news propaganda discipline, severely harmed the nation sentiments of the Chinese people, severely harmed the image of the China Youth Daily, and had a detrimental social influence. The relevant department of the Central Committee raised severe criticisms,” the decision stated.

However, on February 2, thirteen former high-level party officials and scholars released an open letter denouncing the shutdown of Freezing Point. The letter called for a “free flow of ideas” and urged party leaders to “demolish every method of news censorship.” In mid-February the authorities announced that Freezing Point would be relaunched, but without its editors, Li Datong and Lu Yuegang (Qian, Bandurski, 2011, p. 58).

Nevertheless, Li Datong remained optimistic about the long-term prospects of China’s media. In 2007, after a high-profile talk with German chancellor Angela Merkel, who had herself lived in a Communist dictatorship, Li Datong stated:

“A spokesman for the ministry of public security recently published an article entitled ‘Allowing the Media to Speak Will not Cause the Sky to Fall in’. In it he wrote: ‘Whether you like it or not, and whether you agree with it or not, accountability to public opinion as expressed by the media, is a tool that complies with the spirit of the constitution. It is vital in allowing the public to express its wishes, and in promoting the strategy of governance according to the law.’ This represents the opinion of a considerable number of modern officials. In building on it, steps such as removing limits on foreign reporters, and the passing of laws on freedom of information, will have lasting positive effects on the environment in which the media work …

“In the process of moving away from a totalitarian system, these changes are inevitable. There will be successes, and there will be setbacks, and many games of cat-and-mouse between the media and the authorities. Sometimes these conflicts will be fierce and will bubble to the surface, as was the case when Freezing Point was closed down in 2006, attracting the attention of the global media … But if we choose only to take notice of the setbacks, then we will lose hope for the future of the Chinese media. In fact, the ice is slowing thawing and beginning to crack, and the demands of the Chinese people for democracy and freedom will be increasingly exposed.”

In the two decades following the Tiananmen incident there was indeed some ground for optimism. The internet and the media played an increasingly important role in China, and there is evidence that the CCP regarded the media as a useful barometer of public opinion.

In March 2007 blogger and independent journalist Lian Yue posted a series of articles on his blog warning residents of his hometown, Xiamen, that a paraxylene chemical factory that was being built in the city could pose a risk to the environment. Lian Yue urged his fellow citizens to speak out against the proposed plant.

Government authorities deleted Lian’s posts, but word had already spread. On 1 and 2 June thousands of residents organized a protest “walk” in front of the city hall. Due to public pressure, the government of Xiamen decided to relocate the plant (Xiao Qiang, The Rise of Online Public Opinion and Its Political Impact, in Changing Media, Changing China, ed. Susan L. Shirk, 2011, p. 202).

Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua commented that the actions of Xiamen residents showed “a change in the weight given to the views of ordinary Chinese in recent years.” The Southern People’s Weekly magazine elected “Xiamen citizens” as the “people of the year,” and the German news organization Deutsche Welle awarded Lian Yue the Weblog Award as the best Chinese blogger of 2007 (ibid., p. 203).

That year Xiao Qiang, editor of the US-based China Digital Times, told The Independent that Chinese bloggers were “at the forefront of debate on specific social issues,” though they abstained from talking about “pure politics” because it was “too dangerous.”

John Kennedy, Chinese language editor at Global Voices Online, remarked that the phenomenon of activist blogging was “unstoppable”, and that “[i]n the absence of a normally functioning legal system, the internet is where the engaged public is coming to consensus on what the future of China is going to look like.”

Since the late 1980s the Chinese Communist authorities had sought to control the internet through regulations, detention of activists, surveillance, propaganda, censorship, and the blocking of foreign websites (the so-called Great Firewall) (Xiao 2011, p. 206).

In spite of all restrictions, in those years the government mainly censored content that openly challenged CCP rule, or criticized the regime’s official position on taboo topics such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown or Tibet. According to Xiao Qiang, the most important aim of censorship was “to prevent large-scale distribution of information that may lead to collective action” (ibid., p. 209).

The Internet had become “a quasi-public space” where the CCP’s regime was being “exposed, ridiculed, and criticized, often in the form of political satire, jokes, songs, popular poetry, code words, mockery, and euphemisms” (ibid., p. 210).

As Anne S.Y. Cheung wrote in 2016, the internet became a powerful force that allowed citizens to exercise a limited degree of government oversight in a society where there were no other checks and balances on the authorities’ power (Anne S. Y. Cheung, Microbloggers’ Battle for Legal Justice in China, in The Internet, Social Media, and a Changing China, ed. Jacques Delisle, Avery Goldstein, and Guobin Yang, 2016, p. 129).

Bloggers sometimes succeeded in influencing government and judicial actions in controversial cases. As Cheung states, in China the judiciary is like a “state bureaucracy” where all judges are civil servants who have the obligation to implement their superiors’ directives. Judges are thus apparatchiks with no independence from the will of the CCP. The Chinese “blogosphere” exerted pressure on the judiciary in situations where the public was emotionally involved in the fate of victims of ruthless, powerful officials (ibid., p. 130).

For example, in 2009 Deng Yujiao, a twenty-one-year-old hotel waitress, killed a government official and wounded another while defending herself from attempted rape. Though Deng called the police herself, she was detained on charges of “intentional killing.” The Public Security Bureau concluded that she had used “excessive force” and decided to prosecute her. The case became a hot topic on the internet, and public opinion generally viewed Deng as a victim of abuse by both the officials who tried to rape her and by the judicial system.

A China Central Television (CCTV) online survey found that over 93% of respondents believed that Deng’s actions constituted lawful self-defence and she was not guilty (ibid., p. 140).

“Deng’s case – and its handling by police – has become emblematic of the struggle of ordinary people against abusive officials,” The Guardian wrote at the time. “The message was spelled out in a protest at a Beijing university this week in which a gagged female student bound in sheets was shown with a message reading: ‘Anyone could become a Deng Yujiao.'”

In June 2009 the Badong County Court found Deng guilty of intentionally causing bodily harm, but did not sentence her to prison, arguing that she had acted in self-defence, had turned herself in to police and was ‘suffering a certain level of mental disorder’.” The verdict was seen as a compromise after public outcry had exposed abuse of power by government officials (Cheung 2016, p. 141).

Another famous case was that of Wang Shuai, who in 2009 criticized online the government of Lingbao County, in Henan Province, for seizing land from farmers without compensation. His own family had been evicted from their land. Wang, who was living in Shanghai, was detained by local authorities and charged with defamation (ibid., p.142).

Once again, many netizens identified with Wang. Stories of illegal land seizure or seizure without compensation had become common. The government listened to public criticism. Not only was Wang released, but the police publicly apologized to him. As state-run Chinese newspaper China Daily reported in April 2009:

A senior provincial police official has apologized publicly for detaining a person on charges of defaming the government in his blog, or web log, which criticized a local policy related to illegal acquisition of farmland. ‘There was not enough evidence to arrest Wang Shuai on defamation charges,’ said Qin Yuhai, director of Henan provincial public security bureau, in an online interview to the website, http://www.people.com.cn, on Thursday. ‘I would like to apologize to Wang and his family as I am partly responsible for the incident.'”

“We recognize that the Internet is the ‘new channel’ for public opinion,” Qin was quoted as saying. “We take public tip-offs seriously; investigations will be launched as soon as any accusation is proved to be true.”

It is remarkable that Chinese state media would openly discuss corruption and abuse of power, and that a police officer would praise media freedom.

In 2010 Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told CNN that freedom of speech was necessary:

I believe freedom of speech is indispensable, for any country, a country in the course of development and a country that has become strong. Freedom of speech has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution … I often say that we should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we more importantly must create conditions to let them criticize the work of the government. It is only when there is the supervision and critical oversight from the people that the government will be in a position to do an even better job, and employees of government departments will be the true public servants of the people.”

It is clear that from the early 1990s until the first decade of the 2000s the CCP regime allowed a relative degree of liberalization and redefined the role of the media. The government accepted criticism as long as it was confined to specific, practical topics or to cases of corruption, while it did not tolerate free speech that was directed against the legitimacy of the regime itself. It was not, of course, real freedom of speech. But it was a step towards increased pluralism.

However, the CCP’s approach to the media changed when Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. It may be argued that the events of the Arab Spring changed the dynamics within the Communist Party and fuelled a totalitarian revival. The CCP, confronted with the spectacle of pro-democracy uprisings throughout the Middle East, may have feared that free speech would lead to social activism in China, causing the party to lose control. Whatever the explanation, the Communist leadership in Beijing quickly abandoned its free speech rhetoric and returned to the traditional Communist suppression of independent ideas.

Xi Jinping and the crackdown on free speech

The modest progress with regard to free speech that China had made after 1989 was swiftly and decisively undone under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

From the start Xi struck a very different tone from his predecessors, echoing Maoist slogans and leaving no room for doubt about his intention to bring journalists and bloggers into line.

In a speech from August 19, 2013, at a national meeting of propaganda department leaders, Xi laid out his vision for a Chinese media landscape completely dominated by the party. He urged the party to spread a positive message and emphasize “the great struggle and the exciting life of the people” and to talk about “exemplary people and deeds” (the speech is quoted in Xi Jinping, The Governance of China).

The following month the Communist regime launched the fiercest crackdown on free speech since the Tiananmen incident.

On September 9, 2013, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, China’s highest judicial authorities, issued a joint legal interpretation of existing laws that criminalized online “rumours”. Any “libelous” posts or messages that are viewed or clicked on more than 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times are punishable by three years in jail.

Hundreds of people were detained during the “anti-rumour” crackdown. As Freedom House reported in 2013:

The Chinese authorities have reinforced their current crackdown on online speech by airing confessions and statements of contrition by influential bloggers on state media, prompting comparisons to the coerced self-denunciations of the Mao Zedong era. In a newscast aired by China Central Television (CCTV) on September 15, popular Chinese American microblogger and businessman Charles Xue, who was detained in August for allegedly soliciting prostitutes (see CMB No. 92), was shown handcuffed in a detention center, confessing that his 12 million followers on the Sina Weibo microblogging platform had fueled his ego and made him feel ‘like an emperor.‘”

Liu Hu, a reporter with Guangzhou’s newspaper New Express, was arrested on charges of defamation on September 30, 2013. In October, online entrepreneur and blogger Dong Rubin was detained in Kunming on “suspicion of falsely declaring the capital in his company’s registration.” Political cartoonist Wang Liming, known as Rebel Pepper, was also arrested in October and later left China. He now resides in Japan. These are just a few individual examples of a crackdown that affected hundreds of people.

Xi’s obsession with controlling speech has led to almost grotesque incidents. In July 2018 a 29-year-old woman was arrested after she live-streamed herself splashing ink on a poster of Xi.

In October of the same year Yang Kaili, a 21-year-old vlogger, was detained after she streamed a video of herself singing the national anthem in a way the authorities deemed “disrespectful”.

The arts, too, did not remain free from government influence. “Fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles,” Xi told a delegation of actors, dancers and writers in October 2014, echoing Mao Zedong’s Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art.

Within a few years, the Communist Party under Xi Jinping’s leadership has managed to wipe out China’s thriving blogosphere and impose the Party line on all media.


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