by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: How Hwee Young/EPA
A Continued Downward Spiral in Press Freedoms in China
ALTHOUGH ALWAYS already precarious, press freedoms in China have seen a further downward spiral under the Xi Jinping administration as of late, recent events having raised fears regarding Xi’s incipient cult of personality and controls on media. Namely, a string of over 20 arrests have been made regarding a letter published on the partly state-backed Wujie (Watching) News calling for Xi to resign.
The first indication of a crackdown in relation to the letter came with the arrest of Chinese journalist Jia Jia, who wrote a column for Tencent and also previously worked Hong Kong’s Initium Media and Apple Daily, before taking a teaching position at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. Jia disappeared while en route from Hong Kong from Beijing.
Jia Jia. Photo credit: CNN
Others were detained in connection with the letter, including Wujie News staff members, staff of a related technology company, as well as well-known dissident Wen Yunchao and members of his family. Wujie News is owned by the government of Xinjiang, and SEEC Media Group and Alibaba are known for specialty in news related to China’s One Belt, One Road development project aimed towards China’s western perimeter. Wujie News was briefly taken offline but is now online again.
According to Jia’s lawyer, Jia was released after ten days in detention Jia also announced his release on social media subsequently. Jia’s legal representatives have denied that he was the author of the letter, but a connection is speculated nonetheless. After German-based Chinese journalist Chang Ping published a letter in German newspaper Deutsche Welle criticizing Jia’s detention, his siblings within China were detained, with one of his brothers later offering a criticism of Chang’s actions as working against the interests of the country.
The authorship of the letter calling for Xi’s resignation remains unknown, but the the letter claims to be written by “loyal party members.” The letter singles out Xi’s growing personality cult in China for criticism and the public terror and distrust of the government sowed by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Xi was also criticized for failures of foreign policy, with One Belt, One Road being criticized for large expenditure with little return, and for the renewed tensions with South Korea and Japan having led to the return of the US to the Asia-Pacific as well as for allowing independence ideology to spread in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Some have questioned whether the letter was in fact written within China, much less by a party member, based on the writing style of the letter and the contents of the letter. Nevertheless, the letter took on the style of loyally remonstrating the party from within.
A subsequent letter would appear, written by Xinhua editor Zhou Fang. Zhou, an employee of the state-run Xinhua News agency which serves as one of China’s major propaganda organs, posted an open letter denouncing the restrictions upon media crackdown on freedom of criticism within China. Zhou posted the letter on Weibo, not shying away from listing his name and occupation on it. The letter was quickly removed.
Chang Ping. Photo credit: EPD
However, it is that the press atmosphere within China has been tense for recent months. Recent events are preceded by the shutting down of the Weibo account of business magnate Ren Zhiqiang after he wrote on social media: “When did the people’s government turn into the party’s government? Is it party dues that they’re spending? Are things so divided into two camps? When all the media have a surname, when they don’t represent the people’s interests, the people will be cast into a forgotten corner!”
Subsequently, after business magazine Caixin published an interview by CPCC official Jiang Hong calling for freedom of criticism within the party, the article would be deleted. A second article would later be published calling attention to the deletion of the first article and reinterviewing Jiang, before this article, too, was deleted.
Chinese Media in Revolt?
WHAT IS GOING on within China, then? China most certainly has been trying to crack down on media as of late, with everything from the disappearance of Hong Kong book publishers and the televised confessions of their wrongdoings regarding publishing tabloid books about the private lives of CCP officials to “media monopoly” attempts to buy up media in Taiwan and Hong Kong critical of the Chinese government. China also recently announced a ban on foreign media publishing electronically within China, in order to control what news about China circulates to the outside world.
Xi Jinping would signal the concerted attempt to control Chinese media through a high profile series of visits to state-run media outlets People’s Daily, CCTV, and Xinhua on February 19th. Xi declared then that “all news media run by the party and the government must bear the surname of ‘party’.”
Xi Jinping visiting state media in February. Photo credit: CCTV
But is Chinese media in revolt? It is hard to say. Certainly, some elements of media are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs in China. Recent years we have seen many Chinese journalists become discouraged or even leave the profession because of the inability to report on important matters in the context of increasingly restrictive censorship. Perhaps presaging recent events, editor Liu Yuxia of Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily was fired for seeming to juxtapose the announcement of Xi’s comments with an article of a sea burial so that the text from the two articles could be read as “Media following the surname of the party have their souls returned to the sea.” This may have been an early reaction against Xi’s crackdown on media.
Backlash against Xi’s crackdown against media has come initially from the pro-business, pro-westernization politically “Liberal” elements but may lead to the possibility of uniting disparate political tendencies comprised of those who have been targeted or disenfranchised under Xi’s rule. If it is the “Neo-Maoists” and “New Left” which is seen as currently in power right now under Xi Jinping, media is sometimes perceived as more frequently siding with the “Liberals”. Nevertheless, reactions against government censorship policies from state media employees as Zhou Fang are surprising.
The cover of Southern Metropolis Daily, with the juxtaposed text in a box. Photo credit: Hong Kong Free Press
Likewise, it remains to be seen how successful the Chinese government will be in curbing dissent. If China has not seen a campaign of censorship as it does now under Xi Jinping since the Cultural Revolution, the rise of the Internet has made it more difficult to prevent access to the materials that the Chinese government would like banned. We see this in that despite the rapid removal of the initial letter calling for Xi’s resignation, Weibo posts, or articles on Caixin, this did not prevent such removals from becoming known.
It is possible that banning critical letters or articles may not be as effective as the government hopes. Media crackdowns may even backfire if bans on criticism lead to more publicity , and result in more media actors becoming willing to take the risk of publicly criticizing the actions of the government. It also to be seen if Panama Papers revelations concerning China also lead to any reactions from Chinese media. We will see, then, as to the future of the press in China.