The constitution states citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” Authorities limited and did not respect these rights, however, especially when their exercise conflicted with CCP interests. Authorities continued ever tighter control of all print, broadcast, electronic, and social media and regularly used them to propagate government views and CCP ideology. Authorities censored and manipulated the press, social media, and the internet, particularly around sensitive anniversaries and topics.
Citizens could discuss many political topics privately and in small groups without official punishment. Authorities, however, routinely took harsh action against citizens who questioned the legitimacy of the CCP. Some independent think tanks, study groups, and seminars reported pressure to cancel sessions on sensitive topics. Those who made politically sensitive comments in public speeches, academic discussions, or remarks to media or posted sensitive comments online, remained subject to punitive measures. In addition, an increase in electronic surveillance in public spaces, coupled with the movement of many citizens’ routine interactions to the digital space, signified the government was monitoring an increasing percentage of daily life. Conversations in groups or peer-to-peer on social media platforms and via messaging applications were subject to censorship, monitoring, and action from the authorities.
Official guidelines for domestic journalists were often vague, subject to change at the discretion of propaganda officials, and enforced retroactively. Propaganda authorities forced newspapers and online media providers to fire editors and journalists responsible for articles deemed inconsistent with official policy and suspended or closed publications. Self-censorship remained prevalent among journalists, authors, and editors, particularly with post facto government reviews carrying penalties of ranging severity. Journalist arrests and dismissals for reporting on sensitive issues continued.
During the year 2019 the scope of censorship grew to the point that, according to several journalists, “almost all topics are considered sensitive.” For example, whereas in past years business news reporting had been relatively free of control, many journalists’ contacts were hesitant to express themselves openly even on this topic. During the year authorities imprisoned numerous journalists working in traditional and new media.
Restrictions on foreign journalists by central and local CCP propaganda departments remained strict, especially during sensitive times and anniversaries. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China (FCCC) published a report in January 2019 detailing conditions for foreign journalists in the country. More than half (55 percent) of journalists who responded to the FCCC’s survey said reporting conditions had further deteriorated over the prior 12 months. They reported the government regularly surveilled foreign journalists, both in person and, increasingly, via electronic means. Of respondents, 91 percent expressed concern about the security of their telephones, and 66 percent worried about surveillance inside their homes and offices. Half of the journalists said this surveillance diminished their ability to report in the country.
Beijing has a history of disappearing, investigating and imprisoning financial tycoons who do not toe the party line. The continued squeeze on one of China's most influential companies is the latest sign that the leadership is ready to deflate the ambitions of big tech firms in a runaway Internet sector. In 2020, outspoken real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was jailed for 18 years on alleged corruption charges, months after penning an essay critical of the Communist Party.
Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Chinese internet behemoth Alibaba, made his first public appearance in over two months in an online video 20 January 2021, ending weeks of speculation about his whereabouts. In the 50-second video, Ma, China's richest man with a net worth of nearly $40 billion, congratulated teachers supported by his foundation and made no mention of his disappearance or official efforts to tighten control over Alibaba and other internet companies. Ma, a ruling Communist Party member, disappeared from public view after he irked regulators by criticising them in an October 24 speech at a Shanghai conference. Days later, regulators suspended the planned multibillion-dollar stock market debut of Ant Group, a financial platform that grew out of Alibaba's payments service, Alipay. Shortly afterwards, the record-breaking $37 billion IPO of his financial group Ant was spiked at the last minute by Chinese regulators in a shock move which some saw as retaliation for Ma's outspokenness.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is stepping up pressure on China's Alibaba group to sell off its media assets including the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper, according to media reports in early 2021. Officials had been in talks with the company since 2020, amid an ongoing clampdown on Alibaba founder Jack Ma's power and influence that saw Beijing pull the plug on a planned U.S.$35 billion initial public offering (IPO) of shares in his financial affiliate Ant Group.
"Government officials are particularly upset about the company’s influence over social media in China and its role in an online scandal, involving one of its executives," Bloomberg reported, citing a person familiar with the matter. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the government is asking Alibaba to offload a number of media assets, including online news sites, newspapers, television production companies, social media, and advertising businesses. It reported that Chinese regulators were shocked at the extent of Alibaba's media interests, and has asked the company to come up with a divestment plan.
Alibaba holds a major stake in social media platform Weibo and video-streaming platform Youku, as well as the English-language SCMP. "Be assured that Alibaba’s commitment to SCMP remains unchanged and continues to support our mission and business goals," Bloomberg quoted an internal SCMP memo from CEO Gary Liu as saying.
The Chinese government imposed a fine of more than 18.2 billion yuan or around 2.8 billion dollars on e-commerce giant Alibaba Group for violating the anti-monopoly law. China's State Administration for Market Regulation made the announcement on 10 april 2021. The fine is believed to be the highest sum ever imposed for a violation of the law. The authorities said an investigation launched in December 2020 found Alibaba was abusing its dominant market position to hinder retailers from putting their merchandise up for sale on other online sites. They said such a practice curtails competition in the e-commerce market.
On top of paying the fine, Alibaba is obliged to report on the state of progress in its efforts to rectify the situation over the next three years. In a statement, Alibaba said it accepts the penalty with sincerity and will ensure its compliance with determination. It also vowed to operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence. Beijing is stepping up its crackdown on tech giants, as their influence grows. It was poised to revise the anti-monopoly law within this year to stiffen penalties on violators.
While Ma was initially lionized by state media as a loyal entrepreneur and billionaire, his huge wealth and power were increasingly being seen as a threat to CCP rule. His criticism of financial regulation in China and Alibaba's lightning-fast censorship of content referencing a scandal surrounding one of the company's executives are seen by many in Beijing as a threat to CCP authority. According to The Wall Street Journal, an investigation sparked concern after it found that Ant Group's investors included Jiang Zhicheng, the grandson of Xi's predecessor Jiang Zemin, and Li Botan, son-in-law of Politburo standing committee member Jia Qinglin.
A scholar who gave only the nickname Si Ling said the government is very worried about the extent of Ma's power and influence. "They want to avoid a repeat of the Southern Weekend incident [that saw concerted resistance to government censorship]," Si Ling said. "They would feel more at ease if the media organizations currently controlled by Jack Ma were to come under the direct and total control of the CCP," he said. He said the intention would likely be to sell the SCMP off to a CCP-backed buyer, removing any trace of independent journalism, and replacing it with propaganda from Beijing's Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong and long screeds on Xi Jinping Thought. "That would involve sending personnel from CCP propaganda departments, or maybe from Xinhua news agency or the People's Daily, to work in the offices of the SCMP," he said.
Fang Kecheng, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), was once a journalist at Southern Weekend, which has been similarly reduced from delivering cutting-edge reporting to tamely parroting state propaganda. He said such a drastic change at the SCMP is unlikely in the short term. "The next step is to see who will take over [the SCMP], and how they deploy commercial methods, such as bringing in shareholders closer to the government, and larger advertisers, to exert control," Fang told RFA in March 2021. "I personally think there won't be an immediate change; rather a series of changes, the effect of which may take a long time to become visible," he said.
The CCP is in the process of "re-educating" its already tightly controlled state media, requiring hundreds of thousands of journalists to sit an exam on the political thought of Xi Jinping to qualify for a new generation of official press cards. The process started with a 2014 requirement for journalists to study Marxism, and followed up by Xi in 2016, when he warned during visits to state media organizations that state media are part of the CCP family.
All media operating in China must safeguard the authority of the Communist Party central committee, and adhere to "the correct direction" in forming public opinion, Xi said at the time. Many journalists trace the beginnings of that process back to January 2013, when an op-ed article in the formerly cutting-edge Southern Weekend newspaper was forcibly expunged before publication, transforming a call for constitutional government and freedom of expression into a paean to the ruling party, and sparking a journalists' strike and days of street protests. Tuo Zhen, the propagandist who penned the replacement editorial, was recently promoted to editor-in-chief of CCP mouthpiece the People's Daily.
China now ranks bottom in the world in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, and had the largest number of journalists behind bars, according to a 2020 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Countless citizens were arrested and detained for “spreading fake news,” “illegal information dissemination,” or “spreading rumors online.” These claims ranged from sharing political views or promoting religious extremism to sharing factual reports on sensitive issues. For example, in Nan Le, Henan, a netizen was arrested for spreading “fake news” about a chemical factory explosion on WeChat. In Lianyungang police arrested 22 persons for “internet rumors,” and in Huzhou a netizen was arrested for “spreading rumors,” while he claimed he was only sharing political views.
The government increasingly moved to restrict the expression of views it found objectionable even when those expressions occurred abroad. Online, the government expanded attempts to control the global dissemination of information while also exporting its methods of electronic information control to other nations’ governments. There was a rise in reports of journalists in foreign countries and ethnic Chinese living abroad experiencing harassment by Chinese government agents due to their criticisms of PRC politics. This included such criticisms posted on platforms such as Twitter that were blocked within China.
In October 2019 PRC authorities publicly condemned a tweet by the professional basketball team Houston Rockets’ general manager that expressed support for Hong Kong protesters, and the state-run CCTV cancelled broadcasts of games involving U.S. professional basketball teams visiting China. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent an official from its consulate general in Houston to personally denounce the statement to the Houston Rockets. Similarly, in December Chinese state television cancelled the broadcast of an English Premier League soccer game after one of its players, Mesut Ozil, posted messages on Twitter and Instagram–both of which were blocked in China–denouncing the government’s policies towards Muslims in Xinjiang.
In July 2019 Dalian police detained a man only identified as “Lu” for distributing online cartoons that featured pro-Japanese and anti-Chinese contents. The CCP-controlled Global Times accused Lu of being “spiritually Japanese” by advocating for Japanese right-wing politics and militarism. In March 2018 Foreign Minister Wang Yi reportedly criticized such pro-Japanese cartoonists as “scum among Chinese people.”
The CCP and government continued to maintain ultimate authority over all published, online, and broadcast material. Officially, only state-run media outlets have government approval to cover CCP leaders or other topics deemed “sensitive.” While it did not dictate all content to be published or broadcast, the CCP and the government had unchecked authority to mandate if, when, and how particular issues were reported or to order they not be reported at all.
During the year 2019 state media reported senior authorities issued internal CCP rules detailing punishments for those who failed to hew to ideological regulations, ordering a further crackdown on illegal internet accounts and platforms, and instructing media to further promote the interests of the government.
The government continued its tight ideological control over media and public discourse following the restructuring of its regulatory system in 2018. The CCP propaganda department has the ultimate say in regulating and directing media practices and policies in the country. The reorganization created three independent administrative entities controlled by the CCP propaganda department: the National Radio and Television Administration (NART), the General Administration of Press and Publications, and the National Film Bureau. While NART is still ostensibly under the State Council, its party chief was also a deputy minister within the CCP’s propaganda department.
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which directly manages internet content, including online news media, also promotes CCP propaganda. The CAC served as the representative office to a CCP committee on cyberspace, which is nominally chaired by President Xi Jinping. One of the CCP propaganda department deputy ministers ran the organization’s day-to-day operations. It enjoyed broad authority in regulating online media practices and played a large role in regulating and shaping information dissemination online.
In 2018 the government directed consolidation of China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio into a new super media group known as the “Voice of China,” which “strengthened the party’s concentrated development and management of important public opinion positions.”
Authorities continued to ban books with content they deemed inconsistent with officially sanctioned views. The law permits only government-approved publishing houses to print books. Newspapers, periodicals, books, audio and video recordings, or electronic publications may not be printed or distributed without the approval of central authorities and relevant provincial publishing authorities. In May 2019 media reported that three government officials in Chongqing and Yunnan were disciplined for “secretly purchasing, reading, and keeping overseas books and publications with serious political problems.” In the fall 2019 the Ministry of Education directed all school libraries to review their holdings and dispose of books that “damage the unity of the country, sovereignty or its territory; books that upset society’s order and damage societal stability; books that violate the Party’s guidelines and policies, smear or defame the Party, the country’s leaders and heroes.” Officials at a state-run library in Zhenyuan, Gansu, responded by burning a pile of “illegal books, religious publications, and especially books and articles with biases,” according to a notice and photograph on the library’s website, which circulated widely online.
All books and magazines continued to require state-issued publication numbers, which were expensive and often difficult to obtain. As in the past, nearly all print and broadcast media as well as book publishers were affiliated with the CCP or the government. There were a small number of print publications with some private ownership interest but no privately owned television or radio stations. The CCP directed the domestic media to refrain from reporting on certain subjects, and traditional broadcast programming required government approval.
Although the internet was widely available, authorities heavily censored content. The government continued to employ tens of thousands of individuals at the national, provincial, and local levels to monitor electronic communications and online content. The government reportedly paid personnel to promote official views on various websites and social media and to combat alternative views posted online. Internet companies also independently employed thousands of censors to carry out CCP and government directives on censorship. When government officials criticized or temporarily blocked online platforms due to content, the parent corporations were required to hire additional in-house censors, creating substantial staffing demands well into the thousands and even tens of thousands per company.
In the first three weeks of January 2019, the CAC closed 730 websites and 9,300 mobile apps, and during the second quarter of the year, it shuttered a total of 2,899 websites. The CAC announced that it had deleted more than seven million pieces of online information, and 9,382 mobile apps by April. These were deemed “harmful” due to inappropriate content, which included politically sensitive materials. For example, in July 2019 alone the CAC reportedly collected nearly 12 million “valid” reports of online “illegal and harmful” information.
The CAC also specifically ordered Tencent’s “Tiantian Kuaibao” news app to make changes, alleging it had been spreading “vulgar and low-brow information that was harmful and damaging to the internet ecosystem,” per the CAC statement. Tencent’s popular messaging app WeChat announced in late February that it had closed more than 40,000 public accounts since the beginning of the year and removed 79,000 articles. The announcement stated the contents of the closed accounts were “false, exaggerated and vulgar” and that they “conveyed a culture of hopelessness and depression,” which “tarnished users’ taste” and the overall environment of the platform.
The CCP also policed cartological political correctness to ensure that cartoons and documentaries supported the CCP. In one example the domestic television drama Go Go Squid was investigated after displaying a map that did not show Taiwan and Hainan Island as part of China.
Control over public depictions of President Xi increased, with censors aggressively shutting down any depiction that varied from official media storylines. Censors continued to block images of the Winnie the Pooh cartoon on social media because internet users used the symbol to represent President Xi Jinping. Social media posts did not allow comments related to Xi Jinping and other prominent Chinese leaders.
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