Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Journalism, Interrupted

Chinese Journalism, Interrupted

Throughout 2015, on an almost daily basis, China’s ruling Communist Party and its state apparatus relayed detailed instructions to news outlets, websites, and social media administrators throughout the country on whether and how to cover breaking news stories and related commentary. Given the opacity of Chinese government decision-making, identifying what authorities want censored offers a unique road map for deducing what leaders consider most important, especially for protecting the Communist Party’s power. As such, Freedom House recently analyzed dozens of directives that were leaked online, revealing that the subject areas targeted for censorship by Chinese authorities are far broader than mere criticism of the regime, dissident activities, or perennially censored issues.

We analyzed all 75 leaked directives published by the California-based website China Digital Times (CDT) in 2015 that ordered “negative” actions such as deleting an article, declining to send reporters, excluding a topic from website homepages, or closing the relevant comment sections. It is difficult to verify the orders’ authenticity beyond the efforts of CDT staff, but the leaked documents often match visible shifts in coverage and are generally treated as credible by observers of Chinese media.

This collection of available directives is not exhaustive. In fact, it may only be the tip of the iceberg; one leaked order from the party’s Central Propaganda Department in September was listed as number 320 for the year. Nevertheless, an examination of the orders can provide insight into what content the party considered most sensitive.

The most commonly targeted categories of emerging news in 2015 were as follows:

  1. Health and safety: Over one quarter of the analyzed directives (21 of 75) restricted coverage of man-made accidents, violent attacks, environmental pollution, or food safety. “Do not place news of the Zhangzhou, Fujian PX explosion in lead story sections of news agency websites,” reads one such order from April, for example, censoring news about a blast at a factory that produces paraxylene (PX), a chemical whose facilities have spurred numerous protests in recent years. Five instructions specifically aimed to limit circulation and discussion of the air pollution documentary Under the Dome, which went massively viral in March 2015 before being abruptly censored.
  1. Economics: The second-largest group (11 of 75) restricted coverage of the Chinese economy, the stock market, or draft legislation related to economic policy in a year that witnessed slower growth and turbulent markets, poking a hole in one of the bedrocks of Communist Party legitimacy. One such directive requires deletion of an article, “Why Hasn’t There Been an Inquiry into Rare Stock Market Crashes?” initially published by online news portal Sina and then reposted on blocked overseas Chinese websites.
  1. Official wrongdoing: A total of 10 directives restricted coverage involving official wrongdoing, ranging from news of officials’ overseas assets, to police abuses, to deaths connected to corruption investigations. Two of the deaths pointed an unwelcome spotlight on an unsavory side of how Xi’s aggressive anti-corruption campaign has unfolded — a convicted ally of former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai died in custody and a whistleblower was beaten to death by unidentified masked men.
  1. Media and censorship: Nine directives restricted discussion of official actions related to media or Internet controls, such as the detention of journalists, the blocking of online censorship circumvention tools, or new regulations requiring deletion of online music. Both online and offline media controls tightened in 2015. Commercial news outlets known for their financial reporting came under particular pressure and specific articles they published were singled out for deletion.
  1. Party and official reputation: Eight directives restricted circulation of content or news that would undermine the positive image leaders sought to convey of individual officials or the party’s activities, including a large military parade held in September. Five of the directives aimed to limit circulation of disrespectful or humorous references to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi’s centralization of power and state media’s unusual focus on him relative to his predecessors have magnified the sensitivity to news reports or online commentary that might tarnish his image — and by association, the party’s.
  1. Civil society: Seven directives restricted coverage of civil society, including the detention of an anti-corruption activist and a summer crackdown on human rights lawyers that was part of an unprecedented assault on China’s “rights defense” movement during the year.

The remaining directives sought to control reporting on seemingly innocuous official activity, foreign affairs, Hong Kong, and Tibet.

In 2014, Freedom House conducted a similar analysis of 318 censorship and propaganda directives published between November 2012 and May 2014. Although the samples are not all-inclusive, a comparison of the most censored topics from that period and from 2015 suggests a number of possible changes in CCP priorities.

Rank Topic Direction of ranking change
1 Health and safety ↑ (2 spots)
2 Economics ↑ (5 spots)
3 Official wrongdoing ↓ (2 spots)
4 Media/censorship ↑ (2 spots)
5 Civil society ↓ (2 spots)
6 Foreign affairs ↓ (3 spots)

It is impossible to explain conclusively the causes of these shifts. However, they appear to reflect both the increased political sensitivity of certain topics, such as the state of the Chinese economy during a slowdown, and the absence of other forces such as web users and journalists exposing official wrongdoing — and therefore needing to be censored — in an era of tightened media and Internet controls.

Yet in 2016, Chinese citizens’ need for timely, accurate information about the very topics targeted for censorship in these directives — environmental pollution, excessive police force, the economy, and others — is not going to decrease. The country’s journalists, netizens, technologists, and the international community will need to find new, creative ways to produce and disseminate news in what is increasingly looking like the most restrictive period for Chinese media in over a decade.

Graphic by C.K. Hickey.

AFP/Getty Images

Clarification, Jan. 7, 2016: One article marked for deletion was initially published by Sina and then reposted on blocked overseas Chinese websites, including Boxun. A previous version of this article stated that the article was initially published on Boxun.