In its 19th National Congress, which started on Wednesday, the Chinese Communist Party is to extend Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) term by another five years and incorporate his “Chinese dream” doctrine into the constitution of the People’s Republic of China.
China’s “New Helmsman” is an enemy of constitutional democracy, universal human rights, civil society and media freedom, but how does he see journalism’s role?
While visiting the state television broadcaster’s headquarters last year, he urged journalists to relay “the party’s propaganda” and to “love the party, protect the party and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action.”
In China — ranked 176th out of 180 nations in this year’s Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders — dozens of journalists and bloggers are in prison for resisting orders from the party central committee’s propaganda department. A digital censorship system dubbed the “Great Firewall” keeps China’s 750 million Internet users apart from the rest of the world. Article 35 of the constitution vainly proclaims “freedom of expression and the press.”
After he demanded these freedoms, Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) paid with his life as the result of a lack of medical care in prison.
The party’s goal is not just controlling news and information domestically. China wants to establish a “new world media order.”
Li Congjun (李從軍), who used to run the Chinese state news agency Xinhua and is now a member of the party central committee, explained the strategy in 2011.
He said the goal was to overturn an obsolete world order in which information flowed solely “from West to East, North to South, and from developed to developing countries.”
Citing a 1980 UNESCO recommendation, he called for the world’s media to become “an active force for promoting social progress” — progress with “Chinese characteristics,” obviously.
In 2009, the Chinese government created the World Media Summit, sometimes called the “Media Olympic Games,” an initiative entirely designed, organized and funded by Xinhua. In 2014, China also launched the World Internet Conference, to which thousands of businessmen from hundreds of nations flock every year. China even canvassed this year for the post of director-general of UNESCO.
Beijing is succeeding in influencing the media world beyond its borders. The Communication University of China is working with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government to open a “journalism university” in India.
China spends a lot of money on inviting journalists from Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region to come to “develop their critical spirit” in Beijing.
Economic pressure forces content providers worldwide to censor themselves to access the Chinese market. Even the Cambridge University Press got sucked in when it purged its China catalog of about 100 articles that would offend Beijing. It backtracked after an outcry, but other less prestigious publishers are not in a position to do this.
China is stingy with the press visas it issues to foreign reporters, but Xinhua plans to have opened 200 international bureaus by 2020.
Xinhua is much appreciated by the world’s autocrats, because of its policy of “non-interference” in the domestic policies of the countries it covers. Such leading international broadcast media as TV5, VOA and the BBC are unavailable in China outside of luxury hotels, but the English, Spanish, French, Arabic and Russian-language broadcasts of China Global Television Network reach 85 million viewers in more than 100 nations.
Finally, China exports its censorship and surveillance tools. A Portuguese-language version of China’s leading search engine, Baidu, was launched in Brazil under the name of Busca. Content regarded by Beijing as “sensitive” was clearly blocked by Busca although, after protests, this censorship was apparently lifted. China is also trying to promote international adoption of its unencrypted instant messaging service, in which it can access all the data, including conversation details.
If the democracies do not resist, China will not only never be able to enjoy press freedom, but will also gradually extend its own lid on free speech to the rest of the world. This is why it is important to change China before it changes us.
Christophe Deloire is secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders and Cedric Alviani is the head of the group’s East Asia bureau.
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