The Press in China: A State Instrument of Control and Deception

While newspapers in the U.S. struggle to survive the triple threat posed by the Internet, the perception of a persistent left-leaning bias, and the weak economy, newspapers in the People’s Republic of China simply struggle to report the news.

Most outside attention has been focused on Chinese communist censors’ efforts to rein in internet search engines such as Google and Yahoo. But, while the Great Firewall of China has gotten most of the headlines, more mundane means of information control in the restive nation of 1.3 billion people have gone largely unnoticed.

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That China has a bureau named the Central Propaganda Department should give pause to any Westerner who continues to tout economic development in China as somehow paving the way for individual liberty for the Chinese people. This Orwellian department has, amongst its powers, the ability to issue directives to Chinese newspapers. The Central Propaganda Department’s most recent edict: a demand that Chinese newspapers cease reporting news from outside their area. The reason for the order is simple—reports of unrest or official Communist Party corruption can be isolated to a small region, thus depriving would-be democratic reformers of the fuel of outrage needed to challenge a repressive and increasingly ossified system.

Now all Chinese newspapers may only print stories originating from their own reporters or from approved official reports. Especially forbidden are reports about Chinese security services or “sudden incidences,” unless approved by the authorities.

The catalyst for the edict from Beijing appeared to be the formation by provincial newspapers of a “news agency alliance.” This arrangement allowed Chinese newspapers to swap stories, thus avoiding local Communist censors. An example of this agreement that caught the unwanted attention of the Communist Party was a joint editorial carried by 13 newspapers on March 1 that questioned the continued operation of the household registration system, known in China as the “Hukou” system. China’s household registration system is used to tightly control internal migration, preventing the impoverished rural Chinese from legally moving to the wealthier cities.

Even newspapers in supposedly free Hong Kong have been muzzled. Beginning with the 1997 switch in sovereignty from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, the once-freewheeling Hong Kong press was brought to heel. For a period of about four years after the handover, Hong Kong journalists would often write stories of official corruption in China. One particularly egregious example happened in early 2001 when at least 38 children were killed while being forced to make fireworks by corrupt Communist Party officials. The officials would fine the parents of any child who did not make their daily fireworks quota in between learning the basics along with ingesting the required propaganda about the glories of the revolution. Once the Hong Kong press reported on the incident, Chinese security troops sealed off the city, the telephone lines were cut, and an official cover story was created in Beijing about a deranged man who ran into the classroom and denoted a bomb. This sort of reporting rarely happens anymore out of Hong Kong.

The path to Communist Party control of the news in Hong Kong was necessarily less direct than it was in Mainland China. Rather than employ Beijing’s Central Propaganda Department to make a direct mockery of the “One Nation, Two Systems” fiction, China simply bought its critics. Every newspaper in Hong Kong prone to publishing unflattering articles about China was brought under new ownership. Once owners friendly to Beijing were in place, the publishers simply reminded their journalists that continued employment would be dependent on the writing of stories that would not upset Chinese communists. The arrangement swiftly shut down embarrassing criticism from the former U.K. crown colony.

The bottom line regarding information from the People’s Republic of China is this: treat every bit of information, whether “news” or corporate reports, as suspect. China has centuries of practice in shaping information, both for internal and external consumption, the former, to control its people, and the latter, in present times, to project an image of a weak, developing nation whose sole interest is in trade. As the Chinese warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu wrote: “All warfare is based on deception.”

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