Censorship Without Borders

China's campaign of intimidation in the run-up to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo is just the tip of the iceberg. The regime's crackdown on freedom of speech is spreading to other countries as well.


With the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarding the Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo on Dec. 10, the Chinese government finds itself obsessed with awards. And there is one field in which China certainly has proved itself worthy of recognition: It has demonstrated world leadership in the development of innovative methods of internal censorship. China’s efforts to muzzle any coverage of the awarding of the Peace Prize to Liu has also brought to the forefront the regime’s determination to extend its censorship methods beyond its borders.

China’s campaign began with a pre-emptive effort to bully the Nobel committee into rejecting Liu and other Chinese dissidents. Once that effort failed, the authorities denounced both Liu and the Nobel committee with vitriolic language — Liu was called a "criminal" and the award decision an "obscenity" — that went well beyond the vocabulary employed by the Soviets when dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were similarly honored.

At the heart of Beijing’s strategy is an effort to manage the message that its own citizens, and people around the world, hear about the decision to award the Nobel Prize to Liu. China is setting a 21st-century standard for media manipulation that many outsiders have failed to adequately appreciate. The Chinese Communist Party has leveraged China’s growing economic wealth, using advanced censorship techniques that use market forces to reinforce its political control.

Economic coercion is the lifeblood of China’s transnational censorship. In the case of the Nobel award, Beijing warned that countries must "bear the consequences" if they attended the ceremony honoring Liu. The Chinese government also threatens to boycott or withdraw government funding from cultural events to pressure them to toe its political line.

For example, the Chinese government threatened to boycott the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, to which it had contributed $15 million, unless two Chinese writers were excluded from the event. The German event organizers initially revoked their invitation to the writers in response to Chinese pressure. However, the writers were eventually allowed to participate after the intervention of the German branch of PEN, an organization that protects freedom of expression.

China’s economic coercion is designed to produce an insidious form of self-censorship. Thus, the Hong Kong edition of Esquire magazine apparently pulled a feature story on the Tiananmen Square massacre in 2009; a prominent legal journal in Hong Kong made a last-minute decision not to publish an article on Tibetan self-determination in 2008; and a blackout on independent coverage of the Falun Gong is believed to be practiced among certain Hong Kong and Taiwanese outlets whose owners have ties to Beijing.

At the same time, China has fine-tuned the traditional, punitive methods of control at its disposal. China’s media landscape is actively policed by government officials who possess the most sophisticated technology available on the world market. Ironically, this is one of the benefits that have accrued to the government due to its decision to open the country to international trade.

Domestically, China’s state-controlled television stations have subjected Liu to an Orwellian campaign of demonization. Simultaneously, Beijing’s sophisticated Internet censorship apparatus has kicked into overdrive to sanitize discussion of the Nobel award and stop Chinese from accessing his writings.

For a time after the award’s announcement, state media squelched any mention of the Nobel Prize. Soon thereafter, state-controlled media was used as an instrument to discredit the Nobel committee and the award recipient, often by stoking nationalist fears of Western domination. Even though some tech-savvy Chinese were able to circumvent censorship, an employee of the company that runs the popular Chinese instant-messaging system QQ told the Associated Press that "only 10 percent of people in China have heard of [Liu]."

This week, Chinese censors reportedly began blocking the websites of news organizations, including the BBC and CNN. On Dec. 5, the authorities disrupted a Japanese language broadcast from NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, which was reporting on Liu. China’s efforts to censor these foreign broadcasts, which are usually available only in high-end hotels and inaccessible to ordinary Chinese, highlight its determination to cut off any information related to the Nobel award.

China’s latest censorship campaign is hardly an isolated case — indeed, it’s only Beijing’s latest attempt to extend censorship beyond its borders. This strategy is designed to prevent the outside world from honoring, or even listening to, critics of regime policies and to squelch discussion of sensitive issues like China’s suppression of minority groups.

In 2009, China pressured organizers of arts festivals in Taiwan and Melbourne, Australia, to shelve a documentary about Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uighur activist. Its efforts in those two instances failed — but, in other cases, they have met with greater success. South Korea denied entry to a Uighur activist to a conference on democracy in Seoul that same year. This January, the Palm Springs Internet Film Festival also came under pressure when Beijing withdrew two films in protest of the festival’s screening of a film on Tibet.

If there are differences between the regime’s response to Liu and previous incidents, it can be found in its intensity, relentlessness, and seeming indifference to world opinion. But the goal is similar — to identify intellectual "no-go areas" that governments, the arts community, and private institutions feel compelled to avoid.

While the Chinese government’s gambit to impose censorship beyond its borders has met with mixed success in the run-up to the Dec. 10 ceremony, the real test lies beyond the awarding of the Peace Prize to Liu. The Chinese leadership is calculating that its intimidation today will lead to a more compliant attitude among foreign governments and news organizations in the future.

The response from the United States suggests that it is not likely back down in the face of China’s bullying tactics. However, other democracies, such as Serbia, have been less resolute. In the future, given China’s rising wealth and power, they will no doubt be tempted to anticipate China’s preferences and quietly accommodate them. Those committed to freedom of speech must speak up loudly and regularly to remind these countries that such a course of action would be totally at odds with the values Liu Xiaobo seeks to defend from his prison cell.

Christopher Walker is vice president for studies and analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy.

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