In what could very well turn out to be one of China’s most significant developments this year, editors at the Southern Weekly have put down their pens in protest against media censorship.
The extraordinary move from one of China’s harder-hitting newspapers highlights the incompatibility of one-party rule with the emerging political freedoms demanded by China’s rapidly growing and highly educated middle class. Undeterred by fears of reprisal, pictures from micro-blogging site Weibo show students and supporters holding signs that call for media freedom and an end to censorship.
Such action gives credit to the Chinese people. Imagine the courage it takes for someone to walk out of their job or a student to take to the streets with their entire future ahead of them, in protest. This is in a country that arrested human rights lawyer Chen Guangchen (陳光誠), detained activist Feng Zhenghu and imprisoned artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未).
One picture on Weibo shows a man holding up a sign saying: “Support Southern Weekly’ and the End to Press Censorship.” Opposite him were numerous cameras; including those of the police.
In the past year, outcries over press censorship have been a recurring issue in the Mandarin-speaking world. In Hong Kong in June, the South China Morning Post limited coverage of the suspicious death of a Chinese dissident prior to a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
The decision was apparently made by the newspaper’s newly installed editor-in-chief, Wang Xiangwei (王向偉), a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress. A subsequent poll revealed that the vast majority of journalists believe press freedoms have waned in the territory. Seven in 10 pointed to the prevalence of self-censorship in the media.
Self-censorship is a familiar term for journalists in Taiwan. The integrity of the country’s once robust media industry has been in rapid decline since 2008.
Since its purchase by Tsai Eng-ming (蔡衍明), a pro-Beijing businessman with extensive ties to China, the China Times has been best noted for publishing glowing tributes to visits from Chinese provincial leaders. Tsai also controls the Commercial Times, Want Daily, CTi News and CTV, and has other extensive media interests. The widely influential Apple Daily and Next TV appear to be on track to join his stable.
Taiwanese have not stood idly by as this has happened.
Thousands have taken to the streets in protest against the proposed buyout of Next Media Group’s print and television business, censorship and China’s growing influence in the industry in Taiwan.
However, the modest aims of full disclosure and better regulation by the National Communications Commission have, so far, fallen on the deaf ears of a mostly indifferent government.
It is a victory for Beijing, who has a vested interest in a silent media, towing the party line on unification. Tsai, for example, told the Washington Post last year that he could not wait for the deal to be finalized.
The protests taking place in Guangzhou, should be a wake-up call for Taiwan. China’s dreams of censorship are a symbol of ignorance, incompatible with ideals of human rights and civil liberties.
In China, an increasingly modern, educated and tech-savvy population is slowly waking up.
In Taiwan, where media freedom is taken for granted, even more is at stake. Already, the dots are connecting between Tsai’s media acquisitions and Chinese interests. Waking up to this is the only way to ensure that China’s influence does not prevail.
Vincent Chao is a former reporter at the Taipei Times and currently a masters of law candidate at the University of London.