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Column: China's great firewall grows ever higher

Customers use computers at an internet cafe in Hefei, Anhui province March 16, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer
Customers use computers at an internet cafe in Hefei, Anhui province March 16, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer

By John Lloyd

This week I was scheduled to attend a seminar on new and social media in China with other British journalists, but first I needed a visa. It never came. Consular officials told me that I was denied entrance because I didn't have an appropriate letter of invitation — but others in my party traveled with the same documentation that I provided.

So why couldn't I visit? I fell back on an explanation that seemed rational: the authorities hadn't liked my journalism.

I've been working for the last three years with a young Chinese journalist on a book about the state of Chinese investigative journalism. Over a year ago, we published a joint piece in the Financial Times in which we argued that the scope of investigative journalism in China has narrowed, and noted the growing list of reporters who have been fired. One of the most famed, Wang Keqin, had uncovered a series of frauds and failures by the authorities that resulted in his sacking, twice — once in 2011, and again, from another paper, in February of this year.

We argued that what had been at least a partial breakthrough to real — if risky — investigative writing was now being suppressed. Because of this, journalists had to turn to activism — bearing witness to protests, environmental and industrial issues and mobilization of disaffected groups.

I may be over-hasty in concluding that I was refused because of my journalism (though two Chinese friends were sure I wasn't). And I'm aware this might be self-serving: in western journalistic circles there's more pride than shame in having a visa denied on the basis of publishing something unwelcome. Regardless, the situation my co-author and I wrote about a little over a year ago has become worse. New media, which was to bring unprecedented freedom of expression to authoritarian societies, has been proven no more immune to control than the mainstream media.

Not only have the boldest spirits among China's journalists been squelched, but the Internet has, too. Bill Clinton once argued that trying to control the Internet was "like nailing jello to the wall," but in China it's being controlled nonetheless. Reportedly up to 2 million Internet monitors scan the estimated 700 million Chinese Web users (which is more than half the population), while an even greater army of "50-centers" put out positive messages about society, government and the Party for which they are paid 50 cents. The artist Ai Weiwei managed to persuade one of them to speak to him last year: the 50-center told the artist that every day, an email from the government's Internet publicity office gives "instructions on which direction to guide the netizens' thoughts, to blur their focus, or to fan their enthusiasm for certain ideas."

On the micro blog site Weibo — developed by the Sina online media corporation after the Chinese authorities barred Twitter from the country, now with 500 million users' accounts — the more outspoken commentators have been warned to cool it. In one case, Charles Xue, a Chinese-American venture capitalist with 12 million followers on Weibo, was arrested in August, and charged with having sex with a prostitute: whatever the truth of the charge, Mr. Xue's public apology was not for a sin of the flesh but for — as he said in his confession — "irresponsibility in spreading information online (in)…a negative mood…freedom of speech cannot override the law." An authoritative account for the Reuters Institute by the Beijing-based reporter Bei Jiao concluded that "control over Weibo is intensifying, limiting freedom of speech. Journalists are increasingly cautious posting anything significant after learning the lessons of their own or others' mistakes."

One observer, Xiao Qiang of the University of California at Berkeley, told the New York Times that "we're only seeing the beginning of this campaign…(the authorities) will be much harsher, and the targets will be the more influential people in the Chinese public sphere."

Most observers credit the crackdown to Xi Jinping, the new Communist Party leader and president: though Chinese top level politics remain opaque, informed commentators believe that he and his closest colleagues have a strong bias toward closer control over all aspects of society.

Last week, People's Daily published a long editorial by the chief editor Yang Zhenwu. It was a commentary on Xi Jinping's speech in August, at a conference on propaganda and ideology, underscoring how important the words of the new leader were. The piece repeated, many times, the absolute necessity of having the media "run by politicians" — by which the editor means that all media must be under the direction of the Party, and "consolidate and expand mainstream ideology and public opinion."

The repeated invocations of the necessity of "politicians running newspapers" harks back — though Yang Zhenwu did not say so — to a debate that Mao Zedong had with senior party journalists in the 1950s, when the Communist Party was consolidating its role. Some editors sought to keep control of the press in the hands of intellectuals — who, though loyal party members, nevertheless could preserve a measure of detachment and even space for some criticism. Mao dismissed that. For him, the press was the extension of the party. Its importance lay in what it could teach the masses, how it could inspire them. The People's Daily editorial of last week — arguing as it does that "traditional and new media must explicitly implement the policies of unity, stability, encouragement and give first place to positive propaganda" — is an extension of Mao. As the penitent Xue said, "freedom of speech cannot override the law" — and the law is constraining freedom of speech.

As the Chinese leadership surveys the geopolitical scene, the decline of the West is evident, not just because of its economic crises but also because of the free press it cultivates. Journalism, with its revelations of vast surveillance of communications by security agencies in the U.S. and the UK, has undermined the countries' standings. For the Chinese leadership, the spectacle of a determinedly revelatory news media and so-far powerless governments must point to only one conclusion: don't let the journalists take any real power. Tell those who try to take it to hold their silly tongues. And do everything in your power to make sure they do. Politicians must run the news.

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