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China: Wiping Out the Truth

Zhongguo zhengfu ruhe kongzhi meiti (How the Chinese Government Controls the Media)

a report by He Qinglian
Human Rights in China, 152 pp., $20.00


Somehow poison got into the food at a snack shop in Nanjing, China, on September 14, 2002, and more than four hundred people fell ill. After forty-one of them died, the official Xinhua News Agency posted a notice warning of contaminated food in Nanjing, but this was quickly withdrawn and the government imposed a black-out on all such stories. Word of the poisoning spread by people telephoning overseas, however, and after thirty-six hours, publication of the news abroad forced an end to the domestic ban. By then about one hundred people had died.

During the news blackout what did citizens of Nanjing hear from their own press and television? Here are three of the lead stories on the nightly news for September 14:

• A reemployment conference in Nanjing elicits a warm response across the country; laid-off workers are grateful for the heartfelt care of the General Secretary of the Party.

• The results of central tax collection for January through March are splendid in every way.

• Senior Minister Li Peng visits the Philippines and delivers a report.

He Qinglian, the economist and journalist whose book China’s Pitfall1 exposed the ways in which officials in control of state-owned resources used their power to make huge unearned profits during China’s economic boom in the 1990s, has now written an account of China’s press. It concentrates on two questions that the bad-food story raises: How is real news suppressed? And what is the effect on popular thinking of the political drivel the government offers the public instead?

He Qinglian considers these questions against the background of a recent boom in popular publishing. In the early 1990s the government cut the budgets of most publishers, whether of books, magazines, or newspapers, making it clear that they would now have to support themselves even while they remained technically within the state system. This presented publishers with a new challenge: how to appeal to the public while still steering clear of political trouble. Many created evening or “metropolitan” newspapers that carried stories on entertainment, fashion, sports, and other popular but politically innocuous topics. By 2002 about half of the two thousand or so newspapers in China were of this kind. Normally they have outsold the mainline Party papers, which they are forced to subsidize.

The new publications have led some foreign observers to speculate that China is developing its own version of a “liberal” press. The Chinese government, trying to improve its international image, encourages such perceptions and hence will find it hard to forgive He Qinglian for showing how very superficial they are. Every Chinese publication, however gaudy, she writes, still has to be owned by a state-controlled organization. Private investors can put money into publications, but accountants have to record this as “debt,” not investment. Officials of the Party’s Propaganda Department allow the papers to publish what they please on many topics but carefully monitor anything that is politically sensitive. About chess tournaments, anything goes. About Taiwan, the implicit message is “you know what we want.” The Party’s goal is to protect Party interests while giving the impression that the press is not controlled. Ironically, because readers prefer the livelier style of the popular press to Party officialese, the less formal papers can be more effective in circulating the Party’s propaganda. So there certainly is more variety and range in Chinese journalism today than ten years ago, but “liberal” is hardly the word for it.

From time to time the Propaganda Department makes broad criticism of the popular press. Last April 30, for example, the hosts of television news programs throughout China were warned that they should not appear with orange hair, tight pants, or partially nude, since these were “un-Chinese”; they were also told to stick to standard Mandarin and avoid the increasingly popular southern accents or English words like “cool.” The Party has long feared that if “bourgeois” freedoms affect matters of dress and speech they could have deeper and more subversive effects. “Southern accent,” moreover, is a euphemism for a Taiwan accent, and mainland Chinese citizens are not supposed to admire Taiwan these days. This kind of censorship, however, is relatively gentle and ephemeral; it is not taken very seriously. The TV hosts dyed their hair black and a few weeks later let the orange creep back.

But He Qinglian shows in detail how censorship, confiscations of editorial work, closings, firings, threats, harassment, beatings, and even killings have been used in the last ten years when serious political issues have been in question and journalists have gone too far. She has compiled lists of banned books, closed-down magazines, and “rectified” (i.e., retrained and reorganized) publishers. She has found that thirty-two journalists were imprisoned between 1998 and 2002, more than in any other country, and she shows that press control under the new Hu Jintao regime has by no means relaxed as outsiders once hoped it would.

What can be published and what is forbidden? The answer is complex, but one way or another it involves the regime’s power. Criticism of political leaders—or merely bad news that might suggest the criticism of leaders—is seen as causing “instability.” A story about an organization that dares to establish itself outside state authority, such as the tiny China Democracy Party or the Falun Gong religious movement, can also “breed chaos.” Even a handbook called Work Manual on Reducing Farmers’ Tax Burdens, which summarizes farmers’ rights under national law, was banned because farmers with grievances have a well-known tendency to rebel.

At the same time, the government insists that all its control of information is based on law. The 1988 “Law on the Protection of State Secrets” prohibits

spreading rumors or libel or in other ways instigating subversion of the state regime or overthrow of the socialist system…[and] obtaining, spying for, buying, or illegally providing state secrets or intelligence to foreign institutions, organizations or persons.

This law was useful, for example, when a journalist named Jiang Weiping was charged in 2002 with “revealing state secrets to foreign nationals” and “incitement to subvert state power.” Jiang had published in Hong Kong several articles exposing high-level corruption in the northeastern city of Dalian, in Liaoning province. He signed his articles with a pseudonym, but the authorities were not fooled—or amused—and Jiang was given an eight-year sentence.

Jiang’s articles were especially bold because he criticized Bo Xilai, the governor of Liaoning and the “princeling” son of Bo Yibo, a retired member of the Central Politburo. China’s courts are quick to come to the aid of such families. He Qinglian writes also of Ma Hailin, a military writer, who dared in late 2001 to show, in the Stock Market Weekly, how the children and wife of Li Peng (China’s widely unpopular premier from 1988 to 1998) were profiteering in a state-related energy company. The Propaganda Department immediately issued a bulletin denouncing the article and ordering that all copies of the Stock Market Weekly be confiscated. Frightened editors at the Weekly published a “correction” in their next issue—only to have that, too, confiscated. All mention of the matter in any form was obliterated. At the Shenzhen Legal Daily, where He Qinglian worked as a journalist until 2001, Li Peng’s name was once misprinted using a character that meant “vulture.” Was this a prank or simply error? To the authorities it did not matter: the editor was fined and forced to write a statement of self-criticism.

The Propaganda Department has several different methods for preventing trouble before it arises. Its monthly bulletin called Report on Conditions lists political mistakes that have recently appeared in print. Any publication that gets mentioned too frequently runs the risk of being closed down, so editors watch the Report closely. When necessary the department also summons reporters to attend what it calls “atmosphere-spreading sessions,” meetings that are used, for example, to explain why particular reports on corruption amount to leaking secrets and hence are criminal. Beginning last year broadcasters had to follow a new rule for call-in talk shows: all stations that broadcast opinions of “the masses” must use equipment that allows for a twenty-second delay so that incorrect views can be filtered out. Show hosts must strengthen their “political consciousness” and “sense of responsibility.” If a station lacks the requisite equipment, it cannot have call-in shows.

When warnings, threats, and prevention don’t work, the regime uses tougher measures. He Qinglian describes some major shifts in the way blacklists are used. From the 1950s through the 1970s, offending writers were humiliated by being officially criticized, banned from being published, and sometimes physically assaulted in public “campaigns.” Their cases were publicized as warnings to others. Such campaigns subsided in the 1980s and disappeared in the 1990s, but everyone still knew which authors were banned and their examples still served as warnings of what could happen. Recently, however, blacklists have been covert. Editorial boards are told about them orally, and editors are warned not to divulge them as “state secrets.” He Qinglian, herself blacklisted in 2000, heard from several editors who published her writing in the late 1990s that they had received official threats that they would be closed down if they published her work again—or if they let anyone, specifically including He Qinglian herself, know about the oral ban. The reasons for this recent move into deep secrecy are not clear, but it seems designed to promote the public image of a “liberalizing” China that the government wishes to project to the outside world.

A refractory editor can be declared an “object of internal control.” This means that he or she is invited to be more responsible and to write a statement of self-criticism. As everyone understands but no one says, he or she will face being fired if things don’t improve. Friends can be organized to offer advice to the miscreant. Dismissals, if they come, can mean loss of a position or a permanent banishment from all work “on the cultural front” anywhere in the country. The cases of fired editors and banned authors who refuse to submit (here He Qinglian writes partly from personal experience) are handed over from propaganda officials to offices of public security and state security. Plainclothes police may move in next door, tail a journalist, or break into a residence to confiscate address books or computers—always maintaining the fiction that nothing is happening.

In 1994 a guideline attributed to then president Jiang Zemin said “handle political questions through nonpolitical means.” This opened the way for the use of spurious charges—of corruption, fraud, sexual misbehavior, or whatever—to discredit journalists whose actual offenses were political. He Qinglian writes of Gao Qinrong, a reporter for Shanxi Youth Daily who in 1998 exposed waste and corruption in a local irrigation project; he was then arrested by county leaders, tried behind closed doors, and given a twelve-year sentence for “taking bribes, visiting prostitutes, and fraud.” In 1999 in Henan, when a worker (not a journalist) named Zhang Chongbo collaborated with another writer on an article describing how a “wild construction boom” in his county was leaving ordinary people homeless, he was charged with “misappropriation of specially designated funds.” Indignant at his prison sentence, the Party chief in his village appealed the case directly to Beijing, only to be arrested himself—as “a Falungong element”—and also sent to jail. Another charge used against critics is that they have a “foreign background,” even if they do not. A member of a Propaganda Department work team told one of He Qinglian’s editors that she had been “an economic adviser to President Clinton.” This charge was made before she had ever been outside China. But after Time magazine and the Financial Times wrote about He in 2000, pressure on her briefly abated.

  1. 1

    See Lin Binyan and Perry Link, “A Great Leap Backward?,” The New York Review, October 8, 1998.

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