BEIJING- Under the Chinese Constitution, citizens enjoy freedom of speech and press. The de facto situation is much murkier, however. As Chinese officials direct the rise of China onto the world stage and as the country grows economically, officials need to be evermore receptive to citizens’ desire for more freedoms while maintaining a tight grip on the reins to avoid a toppling of the regime.
Despite nominally enjoying freedoms of speech and press that the constitution sets forth, Chinese officials may use certain rules and regulations to persecute reporters and news outlets that release information that is deemed subversive by the Central Committee. Chinese officials can claim that information is sensitive if it “exposes state secrets” that endanger the country.
Such regulations force journalists into censuring what they would otherwise report on, an effect known as “self-censorship.” Reporters who write politically charged material face dismissal, demotion, lawsuit, fines, and even arrest. As such, the organization Reporters Without Borders has ranked China 173rd out of 179 countries in its 2013 Press Freedom Index. Now more than ever, Chinese media has become a shared private-public venture, with the government sending out weekly updates regarding what information can be published.
China has also extended its strict regulation to the Internet. By establishing “Internet Sovereignty,” Internet users must now follow rules and regulations set out by the Chinese government, where censors attempt to filter what can and cannot be discussed on Internet forums and on social media platforms.
The famous “Golden Shield Program,” also known as the “Great Firewall of China,” restricts or entirely blocks access to certain websites or key searches, especially on important dates like the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. The monitors completely block even seemingly odd referential phrases that are used by citizens to try to circumvent the censors.
Furthermore, incentives to block mention of divisive issues like political corruption and ethnic violence grow even higher when allegations reach the top echelons of Chinese politics. For instance, after pieces by Bloomberg News and The New York Times ran on the enormous wealth of former premier Wen Jiabao and current General Secretary Xi Jinping, their websites experienced a period of entire blackout.
The largest censorship body is headed by the Central Propaganda Department, which oversees lesser bodies to ensure that media content matches the official stance of the Chinese Communist Party. In one extreme case involving the Guangdong liberal newspaper Southern Weekly, a story was entirely rewritten by the department from a call for reform to praise for the Communist regime.
In the case of foreign media, correspondents are required to attain permission from the government prior to reporting in the country as a means of reducing discussion of contentious topics. One notable correspondent for Time Magazine, Austin Ramzy, was denied entry into China in early 2014 and has since been stuck in Taiwan.
Internet users in China have found ways to evade the government censors, and the role of the Internet in allowing everyday citizens to hold the government accountable for corruption and to uphold the rule of law is growing increasingly important. The Chinese government is walking a tightrope in trying to open freedoms up just enough to placate the people of China when in fact regulations are growing more restrictive. As long as China continues its policy of media censorship, the Chinese people will grow weary of such constrictions on their personal freedom and demand change.
– Jeff Meyer