From the Return of Media Monopoly to the Use of Force Against Critics

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Okstartnow/WikiCommons/CC

Brute Force Tactics Against Voices Critical of China

WITH CRITICS of wrongdoing in China increasingly disappearing, who is it that will dare speak out against China in the future? No one, nowhere seems off limits anymore.

Present events trace back to the disappearance of five booksellers from Hong Kong, who worked in a bookstore that sold books banned in China. The bookstore the five worked at also published books critical of the Chinese government, the most recent planned book being an expose of Xi Jinping’s love life. Though they disappeared over the course of a year, this did not raise public alarm, because they disappeared outside of Hong Kong. 

The first three booksellers disappeared while in China and the fourth, bookstore owner Gui Minghai, disappeared while in Thailand. The case of Gui probably indicates collusion between the Thai government and the Chinese government to extradite him, as for China to kidnap Gui in Thailand without the cooperation of the Thai government would be to court diplomatic crisis.

But it was only the most recent disappearance which provoked widespread alarm. Lee Bo disappeared while still in Hong Kong, without taking his return permit to China, needed to enter China by Hong Kong residents. This likely indicates that Lee was probably kidnapped in Hong Kong itself.

The strange circumstances surrounding the kidnapping of the five booksellers have grown more convoluted. Though Lee Bo’s wife reported that Lee had disappeared without taking his return permit to China, suggesting a kidnapping, she later withdrew her request and claimed to have contacted her husband.  

A letter purported to be written by Lee would later materialize, claiming that Lee had voluntarily gone to China in order to help with an investigation. Gui Minhai, too, would later appear on television, confessing to a hit and run incident in the past for which he had voluntarily submitted to authorities in China in order to repent for his sins. Obviously, forced coercion is suspected in both cases. It is now stated that the three other missing booksellers are “under investigation”. For his part, Hong Kong executive and pro-Beijing stooge C.Y. Leung has claimed that it would be unacceptable for Chinese agencies to intervene in Hong Kong, against the Basic Law, but there has been no evidence that China is involved.

The televised confession of Gui Minhai was followed by the televised confession of Peter Dahlin, a Swedish national who ran a human rights NGO in China. In the confession, Dahlin admitted that he has harmed the Chinese government, broken Chinese law, and apologized for hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.

PhotoCreditCCTVPeter Dahlin appearing on state-run CCTV. Photo credit: CCTV

Apart from the obvious fact that Dahlin is Swedish, Gui himself is a naturalized Swedish citizen and Lee Bo may have British citizenship. So it would seem that nobody is off limits anymore, not even Chinese with naturalized foreign citizenships or foreign nationals. Borders would not be an obstacle to the Chinese government seeking to crack down on Chinese dissidents either, as we see in the case of the kidnapping of Gui in Thailand and Lee from within Hong Kong. 

And the Chinese government stages public spectacles in order to humiliate perceived critics, as we see with the televised confessions of Gui and Dahlin. Since Xi Jinping’s presidency began, China has been using televised confessions to make critics openly admit their misconduct in Cultural Revolution-style. Critics targeted by the Chinese government include journalists, Internet commentators, and public intellectuals. Televised confessions have also been used as a way to pin blame for events onto parties who are made to admit their guilt, as we see in stock market disruptions in late July 2015 being blamed on the journalist Wang Xiaolu for false reporting.

The Return of Media Monopoly

YET WE MIGHT note that the disappearances and coercions are not the only weapons in China’s arsenal to silence critics. China also has more subtle ways to quiet dissent. We see this, for example, in the economic acquisition of media outlets critical of China by private enterprises with close ties to the Chinese government. 

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post was recently acquired by Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, for example. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) is Hong Kong’s flagship English-language newspaper. Ma promised on the one hand that he would preserve SCMP’s editorial independence but has also stated quite directly that the reason for his acquisition of SCMP is in order to change the negative perceptions that the English-speaking world has about China. 

Indeed, Ma’s rise as the founder of the Alibaba e-commerce empire was aided by close connections to the Chinese government, although it is also true that Ma has run up into trouble with government regulators in the past because of the scale of his business empire. Ma may be hoping that, in acting on behalf of the Chinese government, he can create more amenable relations with the Chinese government. Concerns have also been raised recently about Alibaba’s cooperation with the Chinese government’s attempt to establish a social credit system in which political views would influence one’s credit score through its Sesame Credit system.

In Taiwan, we have also seen the attempted acquisition of Eastern Broadcasting Company, Taiwan’s largest broadcasting network, by film distribution company DMG Entertainment, which began as a distributor for foreign films in China. Through ostensibly an American company, as fronted by chief executive Dan Mintz, the company was involved in producing Chinese nationalist epic films The Founding of a Republic and The Founding of a Party and co-producing film productions between America and China such as Iron Man 3 and Looper. Certainly, DMG’s American-Chinese film co-productions was pioneering of the big-budget film co-productions between America and China we have seen in recent years as Dragon Blade and The Great Wall.

The deal still needs to be approved by Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, but the concern is that DMG is being used as a front for China to encroach upon the freedom of Taiwanese media. There are also allegations against Mintz of ties to Chinese military officials, which may have aided in the rise of DMG Entertainment, although DMG has denied such ties. 

It is feared in Taiwan that the acquisition of Eastern Broadcasting may represent the return of “Media Monopoly,” the term used for a previous series of events in which the pro-China Want Want China Times media group sought to acquire China Network Systems, the second largest cable provider in Taiwan. The Want Want China Times media group was seen as acting as a proxy for China in this case, although the acquisition was blocked by regulators after significant protest by the “Anti-Media Monopoly Movement” which was a predecessor of the Sunflower Movement.

Will China’s Attempt to Crack Down on Press Freedoms Backfire?

CHINESE DISSIDENTS face the very direct threat of arrest or coercion. Likewise, foreign media has inherent limits placed upon its ability to report on China, for fear that if they cross the line, China would not renew the visas that foreign journalists require to operate in China. This leads to a large degree of self-censorship. Indeed, past years have seen foreign journalists not have their visas renewed by the Chinese government, effectively ending their ability to report within China, as we see in the recent case of French journalist Ursula Gauthier and the high profile case of Austin Ramzy in early 2014. But China is getting more and more brazen in extending its treatment of Chinese dissidents to foreigners, as we see in the televised confession of Peter Dahlin after Gui Minhai’s televised confession.  

As for media in countries and territories which resist Chinese encroachment, but which China has claims unto, acquiring media companies may be a more subtle way to curb criticism when it is unable to directly intervene. In the future, we will see as to whether Chinese companies become powerful enough to buy up western media. In such a case, we will see as to whether the effects of “Media Monopoly” extend beyond just Asia. Jack Ma has expressed interest in acquiring Yahoo, for example. Certainly, “Media Monopoly” is a more subtle strategy than the brute force tactics that China has employed in certain arenas and may prove a more successful one.

Nevertheless, we might note that China quite often has the need to make a public spectacle where more careful stratagems might prove better. Although foreign media already practices a great deal of self-censorship, something as blatantly public and extreme as the televised confession of Gui Minhai or Peter Dahlin cannot but be reported on. The actions of the Chinese state can seem quite irrational in this respect, as perhaps driven by the compulsion to prove that criticisms made against China are objectively incorrect—instead of merely seeking to quiet criticism. And, in this respect, we will see if the Chinese government trips itself up in attempting to crack down on press freedom.

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