Command and Control

By Mooney, Paul | Nieman Reports, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Command and Control


Mooney, Paul, Nieman Reports


On the afternoon of December 24, popular Chinese author Hao Qun, writing under the pen name Murong Xuecun, blogged that the average lifespan of a microblog account in China is now just about 10 hours. Exactly 26 minutes and 17 seconds later, censors had already wiped the posting from the Internet.

The speed with which posts are deleted is just one indicator of the Chinese government's ability to muzzle freedom of expression, a trend that has sharply worsened in the year since President Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012. Xi took office at a time when people were becoming dissatisfied with the state of society and hopeful for political reform. Instead, the opposite has happened, with crackdowns on Chinese and foreign journalists becoming more frequent and online censorship increasing. People need to be on guard against "Western anti-China forces," Xi warned in a speech in August, that "constantly strive in vain to use the Internet to overwhelm China" "The new administration thinks the Internet is especially a threat to the regime," says Michael Anti, a Chinese journalist and blogger. "That's the reason they've cracked down more than ever before."

Journalists at Southern Weekly, one of China's most daring newspapers, went on strike in 2013 after state censors spiked a New Year's editorial calling for China to respect constitutional rights, replacing it with platitudes about the Communist Party's unique role in "the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation." In December, some two dozen journalists from The New York Times and Bloomberg News waited anxiously to see if their journalist visas would be renewed while their news organizations scrambled to draw up contingency plans to cover China from Taiwan and Hong Kong. The journalist cards needed to obtain visas came in the final days of the year, but the message was clear: China is willing to deal harshly with any foreign reporters who cross it.

The Communist Party has long striven to control freedom of speech in China. Hundreds of thousands of websites from around the world are blocked inside China. Major social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, and LinkedIn, cannot be accessed, and advanced software is used to search and destroy "sensitive" words on the Internet. "The authorities rely on secret security police to threaten individual citizens, to unceasingly harass and arrest citizens who express their freedom of expression through microblogs," says Hu Jia, a prominent rights activist in Beijing, "and to create fear among bloggers and netizens to make everyone feel insecure and to self-censor and remain silent."

The domestic media, more easily controlled, have fared even worse. Domestic journalists who step over the invisible line of what's permissible face possible punishment, being fired or even arrested. Frequent orders are issued telling news organizations what they can and can't publish, a system that has been dubbed "Directives from the Ministry of Truth:' Although the international media can't be censored, foreign journalists face various forms of government intimidation, harassment, surveillance, a barrage of malware attacks that are believed to be the work of government agents, restrictions on their reporting, and in recent years visa intimidation aimed at encouraging self-censorship. The situation worsened considerably in 2013, as the new government tightened its grip.

Murong Xuecun, who had more than 8.5 million followers before his accounts were deleted, talks of his growing frustration, constantly having to wait long periods to see items appear online or then suddenly seeing them disappear. He is also afraid, though this has not stopped him from being outspoken or from writing a blog for The New York Times's Chinese-language website. "I have no work unit, my parents have already passed away, and I have no children, and these are the biggest concerns that dissidents have when they express their opinions," he says. …

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