When Xi Jinping was named president of China in 2013, experts were hopeful that he might begin to liberalize the Communist Party regime, opening the door to a new era of press freedom and expanded civil liberties.
But they were wrong. Not only has Xi not loosened the reins of government control, in many ways he has turned back the clock, ushering in a troubling time in which press freedom in the world’s most populous country is under attack.
Here are just a few recent examples of how the authoritarian Chinese regime controls the news media:
- When a series of explosions at an industrial complex in the port city of Tianjin in 2015 killed over 100 people and injured hundreds more, authorities rushed in to censor coverage of the disaster. Residents complained that the local TV station continued to show nothing but Korean soap operas for hours after the blasts.
- In 2015, a Beijing court sentenced 70-year-old journalist Gao Yu to seven years in prison for allegedly leaking government secrets. This, after she was convicted in a closed-door trial that lasted just four hours. The Committee to Protect Journalists called Gao’s sentence “yet another clear indicator that the government of President Xi Jinping is incapable of tolerating any deviation from the party line.”
- Even foreign journalists are not safe from bullying by Chinese authorities. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China, a Beijing-based group of more than 200 reporters from around the world, recently reported that foreign correspondents routinely faced interference, harassment, and even physical violence from government officials.
- The advocacy group Freedom House said journalists in China were often detained, jailed and forced into coerced, televised confessions. Xi has declared that “all forms of media should fully identify with the ruling Communist Party’s agenda, even in the realms of entertainment and advertising,” the group wrote recently.
- The Chinese government, employing what’s known as the “great firewall,” routinely blocks Western news websites that report critically on government officials. The Economist magazine was recently blocked after it ran a cover story with the headline “Beware the Cult of Xi.” The New York Times website has been blocked since 2012, after it ran an expose of corrupt relatives of former Premier Wen Jiabao.
Still, there are signs that Chinese journalists are beginning to push back against such draconian restrictions. A Chinese business journal recently denounced censorship after one of its articles was taken down.
And an employee of Xinhua, the state-run news agency, posted a letter online blasting government censorship, writing: “Under the crude rule of the Internet control authorities, online expression has been massively suppressed, and the public’s freedom of expression has been violated to an extreme degree.”
Of course, the letter was removed soon after it was posted.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons