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On heels of Obama’s Asia trip, new report details extent of Chinese censorship

President Obama’s trip to China gave Chinese citizens a window into the views and vision of the new American leader, but it also gave the world a window into the censorship and information control still practiced every day by the Chinese Communist Party. Obama’s town-hall meeting with handpicked Shanghai students, during which he praised the ...

President Obama's trip to China gave Chinese citizens a window into the views and vision of the new American leader, but it also gave the world a window into the censorship and information control still practiced every day by the Chinese Communist Party.

President Obama’s trip to China gave Chinese citizens a window into the views and vision of the new American leader, but it also gave the world a window into the censorship and information control still practiced every day by the Chinese Communist Party.

Obama’s town-hall meeting with handpicked Shanghai students, during which he praised the free flow of information and citizens’ right to open government, was not broadcast outside of Shanghai.

And Obama’s interview with China’s Southern Weekend newspaper, which has a reputation for pushing the boundaries and the buttons of the government censors, disappeared from both hard copies and electronic versions of the paper.

On Thursday, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which was established by Congress in 2000 to independently evaluate China, came out with a new report that lays out exactly how the Chinese government thinks and acts on Internet censorship and media control through its secretive but powerful "Propaganda Department."

The commission is recommending that Congress look into any agreement with American Internet companies that might give personal information to the Chinese government. The commission is also recommending that Congress investigate whether Chinese Internet censorship violates its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization.

"The propaganda system of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) exercises control of information as a form of state power. It does not limit itself simply to monitoring and censoring news but instead has developed into ‘a sprawling bureaucratic establishment, extending into virtually every medium concerned with the dissemination of information,’" the report states.

The Communist leadership sends policy directives down through the Propaganda Department, which then lords over all sorts of entities, including newspapers, radio outlets, TV and film companies, and even artist and musicians’ associations. Personnel appointments at all sorts of cultural and academic institutions have to be vetted through the Propaganda Department, which works hard to conceal its role.

 "The Propaganda Department is both a highly influential and highly secretive body: it is not listed on any official diagrams of the Chinese party-state structure, its street address and phone numbers are classified as state secrets, and there is no sign outside the Propaganda Department’s main office complex in Beijing."

Meanwhile, the Chinese government operates what the report calls the most extensive and sophisticated Internet control system in the world. A filtering system called the "Golden Shield Project" uses technologies sold to the China by U.S. firms such as Cisco to keep out anti-government information. An estimated 30,000 internet monitors scour the Chinese Web to find violations and a loose network of independent Internet users get paid small amounts for posting content favorable to the PRC in what’s known as the "Fifty Cent Party."

Media, educational, and cultural professionals in China also self-censor under fear of fines, demotion, termination, and imprisonment, the USCC reported. Foreign journalists are not outside the reach of such threats and intimidation.

Although the technologies have advanced, the Chinese government’s drive to drown out outside voices is not new, said the commission’s vice chairman, Larry Wortzel.

Wortzel was an official escort to then Secretary of State Madeline Albright and then First Lady Hillary Clinton to a 1995 women’s conference in Beijing. "When Albright began her speech, seven provincial Chinese women’s bands began playing music that sounded like cats being castrated inside a garbage can and the microphones failed," he remembered. "These are just the sorts of roadblocks that are institutionalized when you deal with the Chinese."

"The reality is, it is still an authoritarian government that still maintains tight access to information, as tight control as they are able to maintain," said commission chairwoman Carolyn Bartholomew.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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