With a Constant Stream of Media Directives, China’s Leaders Micromanage the News

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May 30, 2014

written by
Sarah CookSenior Research Analyst for East Asia
written by
Natalie SykesResearcher, Freedom of the Press


Credit: China Digital Times, Ministry of Truth

As the 25th anniversary of the deadly crackdown on prodemocracy protests at Tiananmen Square approaches, the Chinese government has escalated efforts to suppress any form of commemoration or discussion of the event. Amnesty International and Chinese Human Rights Defenders are maintaining lists of activists who have been detained, arrested, questioned, or placed under house arrest, or who have suspiciously disappeared in advance of June 4.

A similar sweep is under way on the internet. The Telegraph reported last week that there are no traces of the 1989 protests and crackdown on Baidu Baike, China’s Wikipedia. Even the most creative and oblique efforts to represent the June 4 date are quickly censored and scrubbed from blog posts, news articles, and search engines.

This sort of censorship is not unique to the Tiananmen massacre, or to other topics that are generally understood to be taboo. A key facet of China’s media and internet controls that distinguishes it from other authoritarian states is the regular issuance of directives to news outlets and websites by party and government bodies on whether and how to cover breaking news events. While the existence of this system is widely recognized, the specific content of the directives is less commonly known. Until several years ago, it was nearly impossible to obtain copies of such instructions. But in an example of the ruling Communist Party’s challenges in the internet age, a growing number of the directives are being published online.

China Digital Times (CDT) is a website based in California that obtains, translates, and publishes leaked media directives. Although it is difficult to verify their authenticity beyond the efforts of CDT staff, the documents often match visible shifts in coverage and are generally considered credible by observers of Chinese media.

As part of a larger research project to be published in the fall, Freedom House has analyzed over 300 censorship directives that were issued by the central authorities and posted on CDT between November 2012 and May 2014—the first year and a half under the new party leadership headed by President Xi Jinping. Although the sample is by no means exhaustive, it is sufficiently robust and detailed to provide valuable insight into areas of particular sensitivity and insecurity for the regime.

A preliminary analysis of these directives has shed light not only on the breadth of censored topics, but also on the variety of strategies employed to amplify or manipulate coverage of sensitive issues. Rather than merely blocking news of protest movements or critical opinions, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) operates a finely tuned propaganda machine that seeks to guide coverage, delivering the news on its own terms.

Here are five key findings from the initial analysis that illustrate the CCP’s dynamic censorship and propaganda methods:

A focus on news over commentary. Most instructions aim to direct, manage, or stifle reporting of “ordinary” news. Of the 318 directives analyzed, 280 concerned what Freedom House has labeled “news,” meaning events and stories one would expect to find on a Reuters ticker. Directives concerning editorials or web-based commentary were far less common: 103 directives targeted outlet-produced news commentary, and only 34 targeted user-generated commentary. A 2013 Harvard study of deletions on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo highlighted the degree to which the service’s censors focus on comments tending toward “collective action” by Chinese citizens, rather than simple criticism of the government by isolated individuals. But controlling facts about emerging events—and how mainstream media report on them—is apparently a higher priority for the CCP than any form of commentary.
Unlikely targets: government activity, public health and safety. The content of targeted articles, posts, and commentary offers a unique window into the concerns of the CCP. Surprisingly, censors often seized on coverage of government activity that had no implication of impropriety or wrongdoing. Of the 141 directives concerning the government, 71 predictably involved some form of misbehavior, such as corruption or sex scandals. However, 56 concerned comparatively innocuous topics ranging from policy initiatives to official appearances, suggesting a large degree of reticence among officials about any sort of publicity, with its potential for mockery and debate outside their control. The second most frequently targeted topic is information related to public health and safety, comprising 51 directives. This included news or commentary about environmental pollution, natural disasters, manmade accidents, violent attacks, or food and drug safety. All of these issues have triggered public anger and protests in the past, but suppressing such information is clearly harmful to citizens’ vital interests.
Varied tactics: amplification and manipulation of coverage. Of the directives analyzed, 294 ordered some form of negative action, such as deletion of content or refraining from independent investigations. However, 101 also required some form of corresponding positive action, primarily using official news sources as the sole basis for any coverage. Another 24 directives required only positive action, demanding that media outlets or online portals publish, post, or promote a particular article. These directives make it clear that the CCP does not merely suppress unfavorable facts and viewpoints, but also amplifies its own take on events through state-controlled outlets and reporting.
Hidden media monopolies. China boasts a dazzling variety of local, provincial, and national news outlets, but on matters of importance to the central leadership, the flagship CCP mouthpieces still hold a de facto monopoly. Of the directives analyzed, 74 declared that only copy from the official Xinhua news agency could be used when reporting on an event. This directive, issued on January 16, 2013, is typical: “Regarding the discovery that new recruits were beaten by … the Inner Mongolia Fire Department, the media must report the news only according to Xinhua News Agency wire copy. Do not independently investigate or comment on the matter.” Another aspect of this strategy seeks to establish Xinhua and the national broadcaster China Central Television as reputable news sources by controlling criticism or negative stories about them. Of the 25 directives that concerned the media, 9 censored criticism or damaging stories on state outlets.
Censorship ad absurdum. From an outsider’s perspective, some of the directives border on the absurd and suggest overzealous party censors. On April 10, 2014, the following directive was issued: “At 0:49 in the music video for Deserts Chang’s song ‘Rose-Colored You,’ the person in the ambulance is holding a ‘Free Tibet’ kerchief.… Please delete this video.” The kerchief, which appears only briefly, is upside down, written in English, and mostly obscured. While Tibet is certainly a sensitive issue for the CCP, the specificity of this order hints at the incredible scope and penetration of the party’s censorship apparatus.
These initial findings reflect only a small part of the overall censorship landscape, but they provide evidence of the CCP’s heightened sense of insecurity and the growing range of content that it perceives as threatening. Such fears have undoubtedly informed the strict and all-encompassing crackdown ahead of the 25th anniversary of June 4.

The fact that the directives analyzed by Freedom House are even available is a sign of the challenges the party confronts in its meticulous, continuous efforts to control the news. More than half of China’s population is now accessing the internet, and many are becoming adept at circumventing the so-called Great Firewall. All of this raises questions about how much longer the CCP can suppress the collective memory of the Tiananmen massacre, and how much further it will go in its attempts to do so.