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The East Is Red: Big Brother Is Watching You

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image Emilie Tran


In the weeks leading up to the 18th Party congress last November and up until now, China watchers around the world have been commenting on the new leaders in Beijing. Much has been said and written about whether or not the 5th generation would be up to the tremendous challenges awaiting the country, to what extent the “magnificent seven” would continue market reform, whether they would allow more political liberalization, etc. Whereas some were baffled to see such a conservative team, others were full of hope, interpreting Xi Jinping’s style, such as cutting down on flower displays in meeting rooms, and limiting the number of dishes served in official banquets, as refreshing. The appointment of Wang Qishan as the new anti-corruption ‘tsar’, who started his job by giving a book recommendation (The Old Regime and the Revolution by French historian Alexis de Tocqueville), has been interpreted as another sign of change from the previous leadership. But whether or not this 5th generation will be genuinely different from the past four ones remains to be seen. So far, certain developments within this month do not bode at all well, at least with regards to freedom of the press. The latter constitutes a good indicator or the (non-)liberalization of the PRC regime.

Guangdong provincial propaganda authorities rudely forced Southern Weekly (Nanfang Zhoumou), considered as the most outspoken newspaper in China, to run a provided commentary glorifying the Chinese Communist Party, in place of the paper’s annual new year editorial, which had been a call for proper implementation of the country’s constitution. After a week-long confrontation with the authorities, the paper resumed normal operation. But in the meantime, the website of the mainland’s most outspoken political magazine, Yanhuang Chunqiu, was shut down by having its registration cancelled without any justified grounds. Some suspect this is pay-back for having published an editorial calling — once again — for political reform and constitutional government.

There is a new leadership and we have started a new year, but the tightening on mainland media is not new. In 2011 and 2012, there were many acts of censorship and purges targeting the Southern Metropolis Daily. But that trend goes beyond Guangdong and dates back towards the end of the Jiang Zemin era, when control over the media by the publicity department, got tighter and tighter. One obvious change was that the department no longer sent orders to the media in formal documents or cables, requiring editors to implement them. Instead, it left messages on the phone or sent text messages directly to specific people in charge. The reason is that there were increasingly frequent prohibitions. 

Written documents needed to be approved at every level, and the bureaucracy was too complex and too slow in urgent cases. Passing the message over the phone or by text message was quick; the process was simple and effective. Under Hu Jintao, control became more underground and secretive. Officials would call the media to communicate a prohibition and often stress before hanging up: “Do not make a written record. Do not leave any written evidence. Do not disclose the content of the ban…” Prohibitions became a “power-seeking tool” for the publicity department: party officials, rich and powerful interest groups and large companies all seek to appease senior officials at the publicity department in order to shut off information at the source. After 2005, the strategy was to “demoralize, divide and conquer”. 

The central publicity department started sending censors directly to major media organizations to carry out censorship prior to publication. The dual system of a double safeguard consisted in passing comment on news after publication, and having a pre-publication checkpoint. On top of that, there have been direct appointments of publicity department officials to leadership positions in major media organizations. 

So, for those who still had any doubt about the intention of the seven magnificent, political liberalization is not on its agenda.


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