Xi censors to consolidate

The media crackdown in the run-up to the recent National Congress in China is the latest strand of an ongoing digital censorship drive by President Xi Jinping that underpins the country’s economic goals and ‘great renewal’.

In October, Chinese leaders convened in Beijing for the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The four-day event not only underlined the leadership of President Xi Jinping, but also marked the start of a new era in Chinese politics and power.

Building on the progress made during the country’s 12th Five-Year Plan for national development, the CPC’s collective leadership is now firmly focused on the economic goals of the 13th plan period – namely, to accomplish the first centenary goal of doubling the 2010 gross domestic product and income of both urban and rural residents by 2020.

In the eyes of Xi, in order for the ‘great renewal’ of the Chinese nation to continue, there must be continuity in strengthening the CPC, safeguarding stability and enhancing China’s leadership role – and part of that involves exerting control by censorship.

Writing in the Nikkei Asian Review in August, Ryan Hass of United States think tank, Brookings Institution, said that, given the choice between greater control and greater openness to innovation, China’s leaders always opt for the former. ‘This bias is likely to extend to policies related to the internet and social media, where heightened censorship over the past five years has demonstrated the leadership’s wariness of losing control of information in the digital age.’

In the run-up to the 19th Congress, this caution reached a new level when the government’s desire to control public debate led to the shutdown of a number of Chinese news and entertainment programmes. This followed an announcement in July by China’s media censor, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), to selectively ban shows not previously on their radar in order to ‘better welcome the major propaganda period of the 19th Party Congress’.

In addition, following the SARFT directive, leading Chinese media and web services companies, such as Alibaba, Baidu, Sina Weibo and Tencent, bowed to government demands to restrict online freedoms for citizens inside the country.

Cyber sovereignty

In recent years, the ‘Great Firewall’ – a combination of legislative actions and technologies to regulate the internet in China – has seen platforms, such as Facebook (including messenging service WhatsApp), Google, Instagram and YouTube, blocked in the name of ‘cyber sovereignty’. Beijing is also fighting more covert attempts to circumvent its censorship system. For example, Chinese telecom companies have been ordered to block access to virtual private networks from 1 February 2018.

Back in April 2016, the US Trade Representative listed China’s internet protocols as a potential trade barrier under World Trade Organization rules, as web censorship presented a significant burden to foreign firms and internet users. It’s possible that the current censorship drive might rekindle that controversy. Prior to the SARFT announcement, China’s scholars had borne the brunt of the country’s censors since Xi came to power in 2012. The ideological monitoring of Chinese academics has continued since, and recent developments have raised further concerns.

For example, in August, Cambridge University Press (CUP) initially acquiesced to Beijing’s request to block access to more than 300 articles covering politically-sensitive topics, such as Tibet, the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, in China. This followed a decision in March by the publisher LexisNexis to remove some of its products from the China market that were deemed by authorities to be ‘unsympathetic’.

In the face of widespread criticism from the international scholarly community, CUP reversed its decision to limit access to the academic journal, The China Quarterly. However, the episode has done little to dissuade cash-strapped universities, which are looking to attract Chinese money and students, from staying away from research on ‘sensitive’ topics.

China has apparently since gone one step further in rewriting Chinese history by systematically deleting 1950s scholarly content that questioned the Communist Party’s commitment to the rule of law at that time. Taking advantage of the digitalisation of historical documents, Beijing has reportedly removed articles from the Tsinghua University-connected commercial venture, the China National Knowledge Infrastructure, and the government-sponsored platform, the National Social Sciences Database.

Digitalisation has opened a Pandora’s Box when it comes to rewriting the present or the past

Jukka-Pekka Joensuu
Executive Vice-President of Cinia; Co-Chair of the IBA Communications Law Committee

Caroline Berube, Co-Chair of the IBA Asia-Pacific Regional Forum and a partner at HJM Asia Law & Co in Guangzhou, says the digitalisation of content has become an enabling tool to try and control the historical narrative. ‘Digitalisation of information has provided a way to relate information at a fast speed to a large group of people, but it also helps worldwide to delete, ignore or make people forget what was written.’

‘This needs to be put in the same context as “fake news” issues in the West, which is the other side of the coin,’ adds Jukka-Pekka Joensuu, Co-Chair of the IBA Communications Law Committee and Executive Vice-President at Finnish software developer Cinia. ‘Digitalisation has opened a Pandora’s Box when it comes to rewriting the present or the past.’

Controlling the conversation

The CPC’s justification for blocking access to critical historical research dates back to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. According to Xi, China’s control over the national conversation post-‘89 enabled it to avoid a Russia-style political meltdown, which subsequently paved the way for three decades of economic growth.

While all nation states impose some degree of censorship, Berube says the extent to which a country engages in this activity depends very much on its needs. ‘Given the size of China, in terms of territory, population and the challenge of language, it is very difficult to compare the level of censorship to other countries.’

Joensuu adds that China’s way of thinking over policy is very different to the European way. ‘So when we interpret its censorship drive, it’s very important to take into account China’s history. We need to ask ourselves whether those efforts are so different to ours, or whether it is mirroring our efforts but in a country with a different culture and history. Every generation rewrites their history, and we are facing new challenges with these issues from a legal and regulatory perspective.’

Stephen Mulrenan is a freelance journalist formerly based in Hong Kong and can contacted at stephen@prospect-media.net