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died, the official Xinhua News Agency posted a notice warning of contaminated food in Nanjing, but this was quickly withdrawn and the government imposed a black-out on all such stories.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.

There is a long tradition of popular complaint in China by which people with grievances at lower levels can approach higher authorities to seek justice. He Qinglian gives examples of reporters who work on local stories believing that the higher powers will, if necessary, side with them. But she concludes that in recent years this faith has been misplaced. Journalists often take great risks in challenging local officials only to find that the higher-ups, in the end, choose to maintain solidarity with local power-holders.

She found this to be especially common in rural China, where, during the last fifteen years, towns and counties have increasingly become local fiefdoms ruled by semi-independent groups with their own regulations, taxes, police, and jails—but not journalists.2 The ideal situation is that there is “no news here”—and if there is news, it had better be good. Local officials refuse to talk to journalists, and citizens are for the most part afraid to. When reporters find evidence of wrongdoing, officials try to intimidate them and usually succeed. In June 2002, two reporters went to a Shandong village where farmers had accused a Party secretary of keeping a private jail cell in which he tortured people. After the reporters had collected information and left town, they were stopped on the road by police cars with wailing sirens. They were taken to the Party office, where their notes and exposed film were confiscated. A dozen plainclothes policemen beat them up while propaganda officials looked on. When they went to the public security office to identify their attackers, they were beaten again. He Qinglian believes that such beatings sometimes result in death, and she cites the unsolved murders of a number of journalists who had made enemies by their reports. She shows how appeals to higher authority are usually futile, since the highest priority of officials at every level is to protect the Party’s overall image.

She sums up China’s journalists as “dancing in shackles,” and sometimes leaves the reader wondering why a person would try to dance at all. Far from bringing recognition, the hard work of reporting wrongdoing generally brings only punishment. Why not just go along with the system, report only good news, and accept promotions? Payoffs to journalists who praise officials or enterprises are easy to get if one plays by the rules. But despite all this, He Qinglian finds many idealistic journalists who act with great courage, and shows that there is still respect for the traditional Chinese virtue of “speaking for the people.” In recent years there have been rising complaints among ordinary Chinese about corruption, fraud, bullying, and disparities of wealth—topics that would certainly be filling the pages of a free press if there were one. A journalist who can lift the curtain on these issues a bit higher than the competition can become a popular hero. To do so, however, journalists have to figure out ways to work within the system.3 Networking helps, since just as the bureaucracy has its networks, so outspoken reporters, editors, and publishers benefit from informal alliances and exchanges of information. Adventurous reporters whose work is suppressed sometimes can find jobs with different publishers in different cities.

Moreover, since local officials care most about their own districts, bad local news is often easier to publish elsewhere. In the spring of 2000, for example, five farmers in the northwestern province of Shaanxi traveled to the capital city of Xi’an complaining of a “weird illness” that turned out to be AIDS. Public health officials ordered blood tests in the farmers’ home district and found that 4 percent of the population was HIV-positive. The Shaanxi government declared the news secret and ordered a halt to testing. But two local journalists, Du Guangli and Wang Wu, contacted Zhao Shilong, a reporter for Goat City Evening News in distant Guangzhou, who traveled to Shaanxi, interviewed people with the help of Du and Wang, and then went back to Guangzhou to publish the story in the local paper. Furious officials in Xi’an summoned Du and Wang and asked them, “How did you know Zhao Shilong?” By law such questioning should be done by propaganda officials, but here—as usual—it was done by the Bureau of Public Security. In exposing the AIDS problem so that health workers could begin to deal with it, Du and Wang no doubt saved lives; their reward, though, was lifetime banishment from journalism on “suspicion of revealing state secrets.” He Qinglian writes that she looked up the relevant law and found “no language that permits AIDS to be considered a state secret.”

She also writes of a teacher in Hubei who combed Communist Party newspapers from the late 1940s for statements in support of democracy and basic freedoms. He found plenty, because in those days the Communists were opposing the autocratic Nationalist government. By 1999, however, a statement from the 1940s like “without democracy, everything else is whitewash” had very different implications, since China is still very far from having multiparty democracy. Propaganda officials therefore banned the book, blacklisted the writer, “rectified” the publisher, and announced that “we must strictly forbid any more publication of this kind of book that uses history to attack the present.”


“Thought control” was powerful in Mao’s day. Does it still work? When the news is suppressed and replaced by what is essentially political advertising, do most Chinese people really believe, as they are often told, that human rights are only a ploy of Western imperialism? Or that an evil Taiwan president wants to undermine the motherland?

He Qinglian is pessimistic. She believes that the Party needs an ignorant and “semi-benighted” public in order to maintain its hold on power, and that it “freezes” public discussion of controversial questions. The strategy usually works, she argues, not only within China but abroad, since foreigners all too easily accept official Chinese claims.

She is right that the world is generally naive about China’s “news” system. The international press often refers to the Xinhuashe (New China News Agency, or Xinhua for short) as if it were like Reuters or the AP. In fact, Xinhua has two primary functions, and neither resembles what happens at Reuters. Most Xinhua reports are for Party leaders and remain classified. At the highest and most secret levels (as The Tiananmen Papers shows4 ) the reports are detailed and accurate accounts of very sensitive topics, such as the spread of popular protest, that the public is never allowed to see. In producing such reports Xinhua resembles an intelligence service much more than a news agency. (In fact, some Xinhua staff members are undercover intelligence agents.) Xinhua’s second main function is to present the public with the carefully selected information that Party leaders want to have published. Called “propaganda” in Party jargon, these reports are a blend of news and political advertising.

He Qinglian may be too pessimistic, however, about the degree to which the Chinese public accepts Xinhua’s slanted information. The Party’s campaign against Falun Gong has obliterated every trace of that group in public, but if the Party were to disappear tomorrow I would bet on the return of Falun Gong within a month. Official propaganda is most effective when it coincides with public sentiments—such as fervent Chinese nationalism—that are already either current or latent. After the US bombed the Chinese embassy, “mistakenly” or not, in Belgrade on May 7, 1999, anti-US propaganda found a ready audience. In recent months Xinhua has published a barrage of articles claiming that Taiwan’s “return to the motherland” is inevitable. Such reporting is almost laughably one-sided, yet its blatant display of nationalist sentiment seems to be popular.

On domestic questions propaganda is less easily accepted. Nationalism is less a factor, and daily life provides people with plenty of evidence concerning issues such as corruption and the growing disparity of incomes. Standard Party newspapers like People’s Daily have sharply declined in circulation, and the readers who remain are mostly people who learned long ago to decode what they read. When they see a report on a “heroic rescue at Nandan mine,” for example, many Chinese will immediately conclude that there has been terrible loss of life in a mine collapse there.

The prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib shows the different ways in which news is perceived inside China. When the scandal broke, Xinhua issued statements such as “Washington’s self-proclaimed guardians of international human rights are facing a serious credibility crisis”; and “the images clearly torpedo America’s high-sounding words and phony righteousness.”5 Popular responses in China’s Internet chat rooms echoed these views, and there can be little doubt that the outrages in Iraq have indeed caused damage to the reputation of the US in China. But when Chinese citizens compared the abuses at Abu Ghraib with China’s own record of torture, opinions were different. The problem with “some countries,” wrote one Internet commentator, “is that when they harm their own people they don’t even apologize, and they don’t allow you to talk about it.” A sociology graduate student at Yale, Anthony Spires, has analyzed five hundred comments on Abu Ghraib that were posted in early May 2004 on a People’s Daily Internet bulletin board.6 Spires found a “wide diversity” of opinion, with about 45 percent of comments anti-American and about 33 percent praising US democracy for acting openly to correct its own mistakes.

Opinion would not have been so split if the victims had been Chinese, not Iraqi. When three Chinese were killed by the US attack on China’s Belgrade embassy, anti-US sentiment was intense and unqualified. He Qinglian shows how the Propaganda Department sometimes encourages antagonism to the US, and she fears that many Chinese learn to “hate.” The word may be too strong, however. Most anti-American sentiment in China seems to me a complex blend of envy, awe, and grievance. People feel that the world’s richest and most powerful country doesn’t give the Chinese the respect that they deserve. They resent American power and see the US as a rival country, but at the same time wish they could live more as Americans do. Students who stoned the US embassy after the Belgrade bombing included many who were also applying to US graduate schools. Some Party leaders who promote anti-Americanism in their official roles also quietly send their grandchildren to the US and set up bank accounts there.

He Qinglian argues that China’s overall economic performance (if corruption, inequality, inflated statistics, and environmental damage are considered) is not nearly as successful as Xinhua claims. Since the Party depends on economic growth (along with nationalism) for its legitimacy these days, and because economic growth in turn depends importantly on foreign investment (around $45 billion annually), the Party needs to keep the views of China among foreign businesspeople as favorable as possible. And here the regime generally succeeds. He Qinglian is frustrated to see how easily deceived foreigners seem to be, and she expresses contempt for foreigners who succumb to Chinese government pressures and knowingly cooperate in projecting false images while accepting censorship. Yahoo, for example, in 2002 agreed to let Chinese police censor any messages in its system that allegedly affected “national security” or “social stability.”

When the Chinese government manipulates the perceptions of foreigners it wins twice, He Qinglian argues, because a favorable image of China created by a foreigner—whether a politician, a Sinologist, or an institution like the World Bank—not only misleads foreigners but has propaganda value inside China. Xinhua regularly selects and edits Western comment on China and publishes it in order to show the Chinese people how well the world says the Communist Party is doing. Even when foreign comment is not exactly positive, it is edited to make the Party look better than the speaker intended—as both Hillary and Bill Clinton discovered in mistranslations of their recent books.7

The Internet, which has grown explosively in China, has become the biggest obstacle to the government’s control of information. In 1997 the country had about 620,000 Internet users; today there are about 80 million, whether they use home computers or frequent the “Internet cafés” on the streets. E-mail—flexible, fast, and unorganized—is the most frustrating medium the Party has ever confronted.

But if the problem has been large for Chinese officials, so are their efforts to control it. In 1996 the government started issuing proclamations forbidding the use of the Internet to circulate information objectionable to the regime, but it soon realized that this was futile. He Qinglian describes how, beginning in 1998, the Ministry of State Security recruited a great many young university graduates with high-tech skills to monitor and control the Internet. Today there are thousands of them surfing the Web in search of anti-Party opinions (Amnesty International has estimated that there are some 30,000, but no one outside the system knows for sure). When they find something they want to suppress they have a number of choices. If the offending Web site is foreign, they can block it, either temporarily or permanently, and sometimes can edit it electronically. If the Web site is domestic, they can issue a warning or they can close it down, a practice more common during “sensitive periods” like the run-up to a Party congress or to an anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. In early 2003, during the SARS cover-up, forty-two of Google’s one hundred most frequently visited sites were blocked in China.

If electronic methods fail, the police can be sent to deal with the offending blogger. Then the sanctions become essentially the same as for work in print: “rectifications,” fines, confiscation of money and equipment, closings, and, in extreme cases, arrests. Of sixty-nine people throughout the world listed by Reporters Without Borders as in jail for using the Internet, sixty-one are in China, where most of them have been charged with “subversion” and given sentences ranging from two to twelve years. Four Internet offenders, all from Falun Gong, have died in prison.

And yet even these measures have not been enough to control the Web. Electronic cat-and-mouse games continue between bloggers and the regime. In recent months the government has added psychological weapons to its offense in an effort to induce Web users to start policing one another and, by generating fear, to make people censor themselves.

In August 2002 new regulations required that Web publishers in China have organizations, bylaws, and an editorial system in which they assign a “responsible editor” to supervise each article they publish. In form these rules only bring Web publishers into line with print and other publishers. But the real intent was to ban personal Web sites. Now at least two people, and usually more, must be collectively accountable for what any one of them does on the Internet, and hence each has an incentive to watch the others and prevent their mistakes. (Similar techniques of enforcing collective responsibility have ancient roots in China, and were much used during the Mao years.)

Moreover, Web sites are being held responsible not only for their own postings but those of all chat room visitors; managers are therefore obliged to stand in for the government, monitoring and censoring what gets posted. Managers of Internet cafés can be punished if any of their customers sends or receives illicit messages. During the “sensitive periods,” cafés and Web sites thus ask their visitors to be careful, to “please cooperate,” and so on. He Qinglian points out that this system tends to encourage a perverse assumption in the minds of all concerned, namely, that if someone does “make a mistake” and precipitate a shutdown, the calamity is the fault of that person, not the government.

In early 2004 the government set up a new Chinese Center for Informing on Illegal and Harmful Information, which hugely expanded the possibilities for anyone, anywhere, to report bad thinking to the Chinese police by sending an e-mail to jubao@china.org.cn.8
(Jubao means “informing.”) If you want to attack your enemies, however, it is illegal to do so anonymously. Another recent rule for the Chinese Web says that surfers must use their real names, a requirement that naturally strengthens the Web user’s “self-discipline.” In March 2003 the government asked Internet service providers in China to sign on voluntarily to a “Public Pledge of Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry.” About three hundred providers, Yahoo among them, did so.

In her conclusion He Qinglian touches on the most sensitive question of all when she analyzes the term “state security,” which is used by the regime to justify its efforts to block news from reaching the public. The regime also claims that popular elections above the village level will not work because the suzhi (quality, character) of the people is too low. The masses are ignorant, and would be too easily swayed by passion or bias. Therefore, they continue, we, the masters of the regime, have to be in control. The logic is not only humiliating to the Chinese people but oddly circular: we must, the regime says, run things in our own repressive way because the people are ignorant, and the people are ignorant in large part because we keep them from being informed. The result is described as “stability.” But the lesson of He Qinglian’s book is that it is the security of the dictatorial system itself that is at stake.

This Issue

February 24, 2005