Beware the Hidden Agendas of Media Censorship in China

Media coverage in North America and Europe of recent developments in Tibet and along the Olympic torch relay reveal long-standing blind spots in Western understanding of media censorship in China. Ironically, the latest Chinese censorship was intended to protect the West as much as the Chinese government itself. Western media’s challenge to the censorship may well set off a reaction in China that could harm the human rights agenda that many in the West seek to promote.

Chinese media have heavily censored the reporting of the Tibet and Olympic protests. Most media outlets in Canada have condemned the Chinese government for this draconian censorship. But rather than winning the hearts and minds of China’s attentive consumers of foreign media (via the Internet), the seemingly unreserved championing of the pro-Tibetan independence cause – best captured by Vancouver Sun columnist Pete McMartin’s “Go Team Tibet” sloganeering – has provoked an unprecedented Chinese backlash. Factual errors and disinformation in foreign media reporting of the anti-Chinese protests in Tibet – for example, presenting Nepalese police beating Tibetan demonstrators in Kathmandu as Chinese police on the rampage in Lhasa -- have infuriated Chinese netizens both inside and outside China. Chinese netizens – led by the Chinese Diaspora – exposed apparent violation of the proclaimed principles of North American and European media of fairness and impartiality by circulating videos on YouTube. Websites such “anti-CNN” and “anti-CBC” have popped up in Chinese cyberspace. It is Western media and the American, French and German governments, not the Chinese government and its mouthpieces, that are the target of the netizens ire.

Who benefits from Chinese censorship? Who are the real targets? The New York Times wrote in a March 30, 2003 editorial, “If a free, uncensored press ever arrives in the Arab world, many Americans will be shocked by what it says.” The same can also be said about Chinese media. It is quite possible that the end of the Chinese censorship regime may not reveal a pro-Western Chinese citizenry, let alone a pro-capitalist one.

Foreign media needs to move beyond a simplistic “people versus the party” assumption. The fundamental purpose of media censorship in China is to contain the explosive politics of Chinese nationalism and domestic social conflicts resulting from 30 years of market-driven development and global economic integration in the name of “reform and openness.” Some of these feelings are certainly anti-government. But many are anti-liberalization.

The mainstream Western view of Chinese nationalism is that it is being generated by the party’s propaganda department to sustain one-party rule. This is not totally wrong. But it is incomplete. It denigrates the Chinese people and trivializes the role their emotions play in Chinese nationalism. Whether it is Chinese sovereignty over Tibet or Chinese dignity over the Olympics, it is essential to take into account the feelings of the Chinese population, including domestic critics who have long challenged the ruling elite for having been too “soft” in its dealings with the West in the single-minded pursuit of economic gain.

The Chinese government has often suppressed news reporting of events that are unfavorable to the West, and are likely to provoke anti-Western feelings among the population. A well-known example is the government’s censorship of both news reports and Internet discussions of the “bugged plane incident” in 2002 when eavesdropping devices were found in a Boeing 767 jet delivered from the United States and due to serve as the official aircraft of then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin.

Beijing appears to have censored coverage of the disruptions of the Olympic torch relay not because these images show the Chinese how unpopular their government is abroad, but because they will show how hostile some in the West are toward China. This is not a message a government that desperately tries to maintain its policy of openness toward the West wants to convey. At a time when Chinese netizens have re-embraced Mao’s teaching of “abandoning illusions [about the West], prepare to fight,” the Chinese leadership is trying all means to present images of a friendly West, while downplaying developments that could feed into the image of a hostile West aiming to demonize and dismantle China.

Chinese censorship has been a necessary instrument for the ruling elite to sustain its promarket “reform and openness” program in the past 30 years. The censorship regime has suppressed the voices of Chinese workers who oppose the sale of state-owned enterprises to domestic and foreign investors; of Chinese workers toiling in sweatshop conditions to produce cheap consumer goods for Western consumers; and of China’s old revolutionaries and newly minted Maoists who accuse the party of “capitalist restoration” and capitulation to Western imperialism.

It has become apparent in the past five years that censorship can no longer keep a lid on the voices of domestic opposition against the ruling elite’s agenda of further market-oriented developments. A protracted debate on the future of China’s reform, known as “the third debate on the reform,” engulfed the Chinese media and cyberspace between late 2004 and late 2007. Old revolutionaries, left-leaning intellectuals, and grassroots, online critics of market-oriented reforms mounted successive waves of criticism against the further privatization of China’s stateowned sector, increasing foreign investment, the entrenchment of private property rights in the Chinese legal system, and the dominance of Western-style market economics in China. In the end, the party’s censorship regime curtailed these debates.

Liberal intellectuals and human rights activists are not the only targets of the party’s domestic censorship regime; the party and the social forces supporting the new market agenda are afraid of popular voices and a free press that would magnify their opposition to the government’s reforms.

As social polarization deepens, increasingly vocal leftist and grassroots critics of economic reforms turn to the Internet – the least controllable medium in China – to appeal to the party to heed its own professed beliefs. China’s private entrepreneurs and their intellectual supporters now realize they can no longer rely on the party to secure a “favorable public opinion environment” for further market-oriented developments. Consequently, they have mobilized themselves to contain popular expressions on the media and Internet.

For example, in late 2005, Charles Zhang, owner of the popular Internet portal Sohu, criticized Lang Xianping, a Hong Kong-based economist whose exposure of the unaccountable process of state assets privatization triggered leftist and popular criticisms of the party’s market-oriented reforms during the “third debate.” Lang was dropped by Sohu as a leading business commentator. Concurrently, Zhang Weiying, a prominent economist well-known to Chinese leftist netizens as a spokesman of China’s business strata, expressed open hostility toward Internet-based public opinion and warned the media against “abusing” their freedom by voicing popular opposition against market-oriented reforms.

These hidden dimensions of China’s censorship regime do not invalidate the West’s condemnation of it. But they do call for greater understanding of the tensions between capitalist developments and the advancement of human rights and press freedom. In light of the current Chinese backlash against the West, particularly its media, it is clear that everything foreigners say reverberates inside China. Even the Chinese government’s censorship regime can no longer control what flows into China. “China bashing” and hyperbolic support for any anti-China cause risk stoking Chinese fear of a hostile West aiming to contain China. Such unfocused tactics could well undermine the objective of promoting democratic change in China. They could also unintentionally alienate Chinese diaspora communities inside Western countries.

So far, the Canadian media and government have avoided becoming the targets of Chinese nationalistic backlashes. In the context of the current volatile situation, the Canadian media can do well by continuing to uphold the basic principles of journalistic integrity in its coverage of China while informing Canadians about the complicated nature of China’s hydra-headed problems. Instead of boycotting the Beijing Olympics or supporting Tibetan independence, the Canadian government can play a constructive role in promoting China’s democratic transformation by leveraging Canada’s status as the 2010 Winter Olympics host nation and showcasing the Canadian model in democratic governance and social welfare provision. Canadian governments at various levels can also play a useful role in helping the Chinese government to alleviate the extreme forms of social polarization and cultural dislocation resulting from reckless economic growth by collaborating with the Chinese on issues ranging from environmental management to the provision of universal health care and the protection of minority languages and cultures.

This Bulletin was contributed by Yuezhi Zhao who holds the Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy of Global Communication at Simon Fraser University and is author of the just published "Communication in China: Political Economy, Power, and Conflict." 

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