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China: Acting To Keep Out 'Harmful Information'

The government under President Hu Jintao is keeping new media under wraps (file photo) The Chinese authorities have made it clear again recently that political rather than economic considerations are paramount in media affairs. Moves to keep foreign capital and influence out of the media appear to be at sharp variance with China's commitment as a new member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to open its markets.

Beijing has used its well-honed skills in public relations in recent years to present an image to foreigners of spectacular economic development and a "peaceful rise" that will soon make China a major factor in virtually all fields of international relations. Occasionally, however, the Chinese authorities let their mask slip and do something that reveals once again that China remains a one-party state ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with "politics is in command" in the time-honored Leninist fashion.

Some recent developments in which the CCP -- and especially its Central Propaganda Department -- intervened in public life involved the media. The Propaganda Department, like the CCP, has an all-pervasive but shadowy presence. Neither institution has a clearly marked headquarters building in Beijing. The Propaganda Department has neither a listed telephone number nor a website. But it led no fewer than four government ministries in issuing a recent order strictly limiting the role that foreign investors can play in China's huge but fragmented media market.
At least part of the reason for the authorities' recent nervousness is apparent concern over the effect that the media in general and modern electronic communications in particular are having on "stability," meaning in the last analysis the continuation of the CCP's dictatorship.

Radio Free Asia's (RFA) Mandarin Service reported in early August that a new policy document from the Propaganda Department and four ministries prohibits, in the words of the state-run Xinhua news agency, "foreign investors from establishing or running news organizations, broadcasting stations, [and] TV stations, [as well as] film manufacturing companies, performing troupes, film imports, exports, and distribution" (see In addition, "no more licenses for foreign satellite channels will be issued," and Chinese officials will be obliged to "conscientiously strengthen management of foreign satellite channels that already have licenses."

Xinhua added that the purpose of the measures is "to safeguard the country's culture industry and ensure the industry's healthy development." The document did not specify which criteria will be applied when officials "strengthen management" of foreign broadcasts.

RFA quoted unnamed Hong Kong-based observers as saying that "the rules mean, in effect, that no licenses will be issued by the Ministry of Culture from now on to foreign companies wishing to set up newspapers, magazines, electronic publications, or children's cartoon production companies." The broadcast also quoted current affairs commentator Zhou Bin as stressing the contradiction between the latest curbs and Beijing's commitment as a member of the WTO to open its markets. "Nevermind about the propaganda side of it; there's a trade agreement in effect under which China should open up its markets gradually. Yes, of course, they want to do it step by step. But that means a gradual opening up, not just getting to a certain point and stopping altogether," Zhou said.

These restrictions seem significant, but they are not the only moves that the authorities have taken in recent months against the free dissemination of news and ideas. On 16 June, state media reported that the Beijing Security Service Corporation, which is run by the police, is setting up a new Beijing Internet Security Service and is looking for 4,000 recruits to staff it. About 800 of them will go to Internet cafes throughout the city and most of the rest to various other Internet-related businesses. Among their duties will be to "delete all kinds of harmful information" as part of a drive that is reportedly being extended to other cities as well.

Given the speed and dexterity that students and other ordinary Chinese have shown in using the Internet, text messaging, e-mail, and other modern electronic communications to organize protests -- such as the recent ones against Japan -- it is not difficult to see why the CCP feels a special need to try to control such sources of information and communication.

And journalists themselves have been reminded of their "duties." On 25 July, Xinhua carried a commentary that referred to "the journalistic front" and the need for those working on it to "do a better job of performing the glorious duties entrusted by the Party and the people." The editorial noted the "direct correlation between the continuous emergence of false news...and the relaxation of efforts by some journalistic personnel to study Marxist views on news [together with] their abdication of social responsibility and violations of professional ethics for economic gain." While acknowledging the positive role of some investigative reporting, the commentary called on journalists to "consciously build a 'fence' to keep out false news" and observe the newly announced "Regulations Governing the Employment of News Reporters and Editors." This does not sound like the stuff of which a free and independent press is made.

The Chinese authorities have, moreover, continued to be vigilant in keeping out "harmful information" from the outside. The prestigious Hong Kong-based "Far Eastern Economic Review" reported in its July-August issue that its June edition had been "banned" in China because of a book review written by Jonathan Mirsky, a former East Asia editor of London's "The Times." Mirsky's article discussed a new and critical 832-page biography of the late Chairman Mao Zedong entitled "Mao: The Unknown Story" by Jung Chang, Jon Halliday, and Jonathan Cape.

The authors' evaluation of Mao as a sadistic "mass murderer" is damning, and they debunk several myths that still remain part of the CCP's official assessment of the "Great Helmsman" and his life. Even though the CCP today officially considers Mao's legacy as just "70 percent good," he and the myths surrounding much of his career remain an integral part of the CCP's claim to legitimacy. Accordingly, the offending issue of the "Far Eastern Economic Review" was barred from circulation in China.

Another message of sorts was recently sent to the journalistic community that deals with China and its recent history. On 5 August the authorities announced that they had formally arrested Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong, who writes for Singapore's "Straits Times," on charges of spying for Taiwan after having detained him since April. If found guilty, Ching could face the death penalty or at least a long prison term. He is an expert on the late CCP General-Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was sacked on 23-24 June 1989 for behavior that the CCP leadership around "paramount leader" Deng Xiaoping regarded as supportive of the Beijing democracy movement that Deng's tanks and troops crushed on 4 June.

Reporting on the Ching case, The "Los Angeles Times" quoted Abi Wright, the Asia coordinator the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, as saying that "the pattern we're seeing is very disturbing. The use of these kinds of security charges is a change for the worse."

At least part of the reason for the authorities' recent nervousness is apparent concern over the effect that the media in general and modern electronic communications in particular are having on "stability," meaning in the last analysis the continuation of the CCP's dictatorship. "The Washington Post" noted on 10 August that "the fallout from a series of [largely economically-motivated local] demonstrations has been magnified recently because of loosened restrictions on news reporting and increased use of cell phones and the Internet, even by villagers in remote areas.... Although [CCP] censors try to stifle reporting on the unrest...word of the incidents is transmitted at a speed previously unknown in China."