Dozens of leaked censorship directives reveal a Chinese government increasingly insecure about its image.
- By Sarah CookSarah Cook is a Senior Research Analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin.
China’s sprawling and sophisticated system of censorship is well-known. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the system is static, suppressing news on a standard list of politically sensitive topics. An analysis of leaked party directives to media outlets shows that from one year to the next, there are notable shifts in the types of stories that Chinese government censors are most interested in squelching or amplifying. In 2016, protecting official reputations and influencing coverage of foreign affairs outranked economics, reversing their relative positions in 2015 and illustrating how Chinese Communist Party leaders deploy suppressive tools to meet the needs of their evolving political sensitivities.
On an almost daily basis, China’s ruling party and the state apparatus it controls relay 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. A sampling of these are leaked each year and published by the non-profit California-based website China Digital Times. The collection is not exhaustive, but given the opacity of Chinese government decision-making, the orders offer unique insights into party leaders’ priorities and their favored methods of “guiding public opinion” in a changing technological landscape.
For the past three years, researchers at the Washington, DC-based Freedom House, including this author, have analyzed hundreds of these leaked directives, including all of those from 2016 that were available in CDT’s collection as of December 1. Among the directives from 2016 analyzed, 86 ordered negative actions — such as deleting an article, declining to send reporters to cover a news event, or closing the relevant comment sections on websites — while 23 mandated affirmative actions to promote the party line — such as covering specific topics or using only copy from the official Xinhua news agency on a given story. (Some ordered both.) While it is difficult to verify the orders’ authenticity beyond the efforts of the CDT staff, the leaked documents often match visible shifts in overall coverage and are generally treated as credible by observers of Chinese media.
The most commonly targeted categories of emerging news in 2016 were as follows:
- Party and official reputation: A total of 19 directives restricted circulation of content or news that would undermine the public image of individual officials or the party’s activities, including four directives designed to curb disrespectful or humorous references to Chinese president Xi Jinping. An additional four directives ordered positive actions related to Xi’s image, including one from July instructing all websites to promote an article describing how Xi’s speech on the party’s 95th anniversary evoked a “strong response” among listeners.
- Health and safety:A total of 18 directives restricted coverage of man-made accidents, environmental pollution, or food and drug safety. Even investigations by favored commercial news outlets were not spared. “Do not reprint or hype [digital outlet] The Paper’s article, ‘Hundreds of Millions of Yuan in Unrefrigerated Vaccines Flow into 18 Provinces: Possibly Affect Human Life,’” reads one order from March. Other directives barred coverage on the anniversary of fatal chemical explosions in the northeastern city of Tianjin and stymied reporting on a medical advertising scandal that was widely blamed for the death of a young cancer patient.
- Foreign affairs: In a year that included presidential elections in the United States and Taiwan, nuclear provocations by North Korea, and rising tensions in the South China Sea, 15 directives sought to curtail Chinese audiences’ access to news about events occurring outside of mainland China. Elections and referendums — which might draw attention to the party’s lack of democratic credentials — emerged as particularly touchy topics. Nine directives restricted coverage of developments such as the U.S. presidential debates, the election of opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen as president of Taiwan, and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
- Official wrongdoing: A total of 13 directives restricted coverage of official wrongdoing, including news of Chinese elites’ control of overseas entities as revealed in the Panama Papers, incidents of embezzlement, and high-level corruption cases like the sentencing of former security czar Zhou Yongkang in June. This indicates that even as party leaders engage in a high-profile effort to curb graft, they remain aware that extensive reporting on the details of corruption cases could lead to more public awareness of the problem, undermining party credibility. Five directives restricted coverage of police misconduct, including one wrongful execution and one suspicious death in custody.
- Media and censorship:Eleven directives restricted circulation of content from less tightly controlled media sources (like the commercial outlet Caixin or a popular Korean drama) or to reporting on information controls themselves, such as the prosecution of a journalist or the dissolution of journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, run by party members who tackled sensitive political debates.
- Civil society: Six directives restricted coverage of civil society, including an ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers that was part of a broader assault on China’s “rights defense” movement during the year.
The remaining directives sought to control reporting on seemingly benign government policies, the economy, and events in Hong Kong.
Last January, Freedom House conducted a similar analysis of 75 censorship and propaganda directives published during 2015. A comparison of the most censored topics from that period and from 2016 suggests a number of possible changes in Communist Party priorities:
|Rank||Topic||Ranking change v. 2015|
|1||Party and official reputation||↑ (4 spots)|
|2||Health and safety||↓ (1 spot)|
|3||Foreign affairs||↑ (5 spots)|
|4||Official wrongdoing||↓ (1 spot)|
|5||Media and censorship||No change|
|6||Civil society||No change|
|7||Economics||↓ (6 spots)|
The changes in 2016 appear to reflect increased political attention to certain official narratives, such as Xi’s drive to increase what he called “positive energy” in the media sphere, as well as concerns over Xi’s personal reputation as he consolidates significant power in his own hands. Meanwhile, other factors that drove censorship in 2015 may have receded. Notably, there was no repetition of the previous year’s dramatic stock-market crashes, and a number of journalists who aggressively covered financial news have since left the profession. For these reasons, censors’ need to impose extraordinary restrictions on reporting of the economy appears to have eased.
One particularly popular tactic in 2016 — evident in 22 of the directives analyzed — was instructing editors and web portals to downplay stories that might otherwise garner significant public attention, or whose popularity may have already exceeded party leaders’ tolerance levels. The actions ordered included generic “don’t hype” instructions, bans on special features or homepage spotlights, and highly specific directions on the ranking of top stories. One leaked order from May 2016 declared that a certain story “must be kept no higher than seventh” on lists of top news items. Compared with other censorship methods, like the deletion of individual users’ social media posts, this kind of behind-the-scenes manipulation is less visible, generates less netizen resentment, and is therefore less politically costly to the party.
Looking ahead to 2017, Chinese citizens’ need for timely, accurate information about the very topics targeted for censorship in these directives — excessive police force, foreign affairs, and the actions of their own leaders — is only set to grow. Yet with the Communist Party scheduled to hold its 19th Party Congress at the end of 2017, and with speculation rife about who — if anyone — will be named as Xi’s eventual successor, censorship is likely to tighten further. The country’s journalists, netizens, technologists, and the international community will have to find new, creative ways to produce and disseminate news in a political environment increasingly hostile to those efforts.
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