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One Country, One Censor: How China undermines media freedom in Hong Kong and Taiwan (Demo)

This statement was originally published on on 16 December 2019.

Understanding how China tries to influence the media is a first step to preserve press freedom. Hong Kong and Taiwan are on the frontlines of this battle. In deeply polarized Hong Kong, journalists are under pressure as independent outlets struggle to counteract strong pro-Beijing influence. And Taiwan must navigate how to maintain its openness and press freedom while fending off Beijing’s vast resources and technological prowess. A special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

One Country, One Censor: Introduction

China has become a top global economic power, and is fast expanding its military reach beyond its borders. It is simultaneously trying to influence the global public through the media to accept and support China’s growing role in the world. The effort is far from straightforward given the many channels that China uses to make its influence felt, some open and perfectly legal, others hidden and suspect. As shown with Russian efforts to influence U.S. elections, open societies may be especially vulnerable to manipulation of information. Understanding the effort is a first step to finding ways to preserve press freedom. This report illustrates how China tries to influence media close to home.

In many respects, China’s effort is a natural result of its growing influence in world affairs. After the Second World War, the United States emerged as a global superpower, in contest for supremacy with the Soviet Union, and tried to remake the world in its image as a capitalist democracy that championed press freedom. Of course, not all that effort was successful or principled considering CIA support for the overthrow of democratically elected, left-leaning governments and U.S. support for oppressive dictatorships that took harsh measures against journalists, including in Taiwan. But the United States established credible news agencies such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, aiming to promote fact-based news as a selling point for liberal democracy. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the Department of State institutionalized the promotion of human rights, including press freedom.

China, meanwhile, is a champion of censorship and information control. China’s government has core values that are inimical to democracy and press freedom despite constitutional provisions that say otherwise. Article 35 of its constitution states: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” But plainly, Chinese people do not enjoy these rights. At the end of 2019, China had 48 journalists in prison, more than any other nation, according to CPJ research. China has faced a progressively more restrictive media environment since Xi Jinping became president in 2013.

Whatever the constitution says, Xi and China have made no secret about what’s expected from the media. Xi outlined his expectations for media standards during a visit to news establishments in February 2016, as reported by Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

All news media run by the Party must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions and protect the Party’s authority and unity, Xi said.

They should enhance their awareness to align their ideology, political thinking and deeds to those of the CPC Central Committee and help fashion the Party’s theories and policies into conscious action by the general public while providing spiritual enrichment to the people, he said.

Marxist journalistic education must be promoted among journalists, Xi added, to make them “disseminators of the Party’s policies and propositions, recorders of the time, promoters of social advancement and watchers of equality and justice.”

Journalists who step out of line in China face harsh consequences. The crackdown is especially intense in China’s far-west province of Xinjiang where CPJ has documented 23 cases of journalists imprisoned for their work, nearly half of China’s total imprisoned.

Foreign correspondents face severe restrictions when trying to report from Tibet, Xinjiang or elsewhere. And when journalists such as Chun Hang Wong of The Wall Street Journal or Megha Rajagopalan of BuzzFeed News report on sensitive topics, they risk expulsion. Since Xi came to power, investigative journalism has been nearly wiped out and journalists are talking about a “total censorship era.”

Of course, China has no power to enforce anything like “total censorship” beyond its borders. At the same time, it has every incentive to influence editorial content overseas; for example, to blunt international moves to prevent equipment sales by Chinese telecom giant Huawei; to potentially soften public opinion against its massive “Belt-and-Road” infrastructure program or the spread of Chinese military installations aimed at securing shipping routes; or simply to enhance China’s image as a matter of pride. China’s often strong reaction to criticism in the foreign press illustrates a high degree of sensitivity. China’s leadership cares about the nation’s image.

What is China’s playbook for controlling information abroad? And what is the impact on global freedom of the press?

This report looks at China’s efforts to influence media in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which are on the frontlines of the battle for press freedom. Both Taiwan and Hong Kong have been bastions of civil liberties in East Asia. While one is a special administrative region of China and the other a breakaway island over which China claims sovereignty, both have vibrant Chinese and English-language media that operate outside of China’s direct control. As China has tried gradually to ramp up pressure in both markets to influence editorial content and sometimes to manipulate public opinion, freedoms in Hong Kong and Taiwan have come under strain. These two places may also be valuable signposts for how China exports censorship elsewhere in the world – and maybe, how to resist.

In Hong Kong, Chinese interests dominate commercial media. Police have repeatedly attacked reporters covering anti-government protests, so far without consequence. Local journalists are concerned that Beijing will retaliate for their critical reporting by blocking them from entering the mainland to work, while international correspondents fear their permission to stay in Hong Kong could be taken away. Digital security and the future of internet freedom feel precarious.

“The very rights of journalists are being taken away,” Jimmy Lai, chair of Next Digital, which owns the Apple Daily, said while addressing fears of China’s increasing influence. “We were birds in the forest and now we are being taken into a cage.”

Meanwhile, Taiwan is struggling to find ways to cope with China’s use of commercial pressures to influence media and to understand and counter a deluge of disinformation apparently aimed at manipulating public opinion as Taiwan approaches general elections January 11, 2020. Some of the response could potentially undermine the press freedoms that Taiwanese have enjoyed in recent decades.

“The executive branch has raised our concerns by trying to criminalize disinformation,” said Ian Chen, former secretary general of the Association of Taiwanese Journalists.

Beijing’s range of methods include openly or surreptitiously taking ownership of media properties; exerting influence through media owners with strong, unrelated, commercial interests in China; manipulating social media; outright propaganda; economic retaliation; and intimidating journalists. Meanwhile, China selectively blocks news originating outside its borders, giving it a strong upper hand in the war to control information and ideas.

Hong Kong civil society is strongly resisting China’s increasing efforts to impose control. Taiwan may offer lessons on how democratic societies can cope.

Journalists like Tom Grundy, founder and editor of the news website Hong Kong Free Press, see China’s activities in Hong Kong as just a first step. “Our concern is, we are on the frontlines of how China is exporting its censorship, playing the role of a testing ground,” he said.


Please click on the links below for further information on the situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Future of Hong Kong’s press freedom in doubt


Taiwan’s values at stake in China disinformation fight

You can also download the full report.

The post One Country, One Censor: How China undermines media freedom in Hong Kong and Taiwan appeared first on IFEX.


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