China's freedom test

Isabel Hilton
8 September 2005

Chinese journalists are braving censorship and repression, but the complicity of companies like Yahoo and Google makes their stand harder, reports Isabel Hilton.

The sentencing of the Chinese journalist Shi Tao to ten years in prison for “leaking state secrets” has two disturbing aspects. First, that Chinese citizens continue to be harassed and imprisoned for dealing in information that does not threaten state security and which, in any less authoritarian country, would be considered part of the normal currency of information exchange; second, that the Yahoo company assisted the Chinese government to track Shi Tao down, an identification that led to his arrest in November 2004 and conviction in April 2005.

Any government has the right to look after national security. But in China, national security is used as a catchall category that allows the authorities to imprison people whom they perceive as a threat less to the national interest but to the interests of the Chinese Communist Party. For the party, these are the same thing. By any reasonable measure, they are not.

Also on China – its politics, media, and foreign relations – in openDemocracy:

Weigui Fang, “Reflections on China’s internet boom” (July 2003)

Isabel Hilton, “China and Japan: a textbook argument” (April 2005)

Andreas Lorenz, “China’s environmental suicide: a government minister speaks” (April 2005)

Becky Hogge, “The great firewall of China” (May 2005)

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A healthy open society demands the free flow of information within and across its national boundaries. When internet use began to take off in China, it became a cliché in the west to announce that it would prove the catalyst for real political and social change: the internet, the argument went, could not be policed and would offer the Chinese user unprecedented access to information and a public space to organise and exchange ideas.

While the internet does, indeed, offer unprecedented access to information, the assistance of western companies such as Google and Yahoo helps ensure that the information available to Chinese users is filtered and censored. Worse, as the Shi Tao case illustrates, far from offering a safe public space to Chinese users, the technology of the internet offers a tool to Chinese cyberpolice that is more reliable and far-reaching even than China’s traditional networks of human informers and secret police.

The hopes for free exchange of information in China, then, rest not on technology alone but where they always did – on the political will of the Chinese leadership. The signs there are not encouraging.

Against the current

When Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao became China’s leaders in March 2003, many commentators expressed the hope that they would continue along the path of liberalisation that China, in some respects, has taken. The sentiment may have arisen for no better reason than that the rigidity of China’s politics leave little scope for change beyond the periodic renewal of the leadership: if it is unrealistic to hope for elections, you hope for what you can – in this case that each succeeding leader will build on the success of the limited reforms of his predecessor.

But there has been little cause for optimism recently in China. There has been a steady tightening of regulation and a trickle of worrying cases that signal a renewed suppression of information and of those who deal in it – journalists and internet users.

It is still forbidden to criticise the rule of the Communist Party; according to Amnesty International at least twenty-three journalists and some fifty cyber-dissidents are in prison, many of them serving long sentences for having called for democracy or denounced government abuses. In 2003, around a dozen other journalists received lesser punishments and the editorial leaders of the weekly Nanfang Zhoumo (“Southern Weekly”), one of China’s bolder publications, were removed by the government.

The Shi Tao case is a poignant illustration of Beijing’s attitudes to independent journalism. He was a journalist with the Dangdai Shang Bao (“Contemporary Business News”), a daily newspaper in Hunan province. The email that he sent which constituted his “crime” revealed the pressure that government was putting on journalists over the fifteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen square massacre in 2004. Shi Tao admitted sending the email but disputed its status as a state secret.

Yahoo is not the only western company that has been assisting the Chinese government in its mission to restrict access to information. The French company Thalès has supplied Beijing with equipment that has improved China’s capacity to jam radio broadcasts from the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia.

In print media, there have been a number of notorious cases. Ching Cheong, the Hong Kong-based correspondent of the (Singapore) Straits Times, has languished in jail since his arrest in April. The charge against him, spying for Taiwan, could earn him a life sentence. He has been denied access to a lawyer.

Zhao Yan, researcher for the New York Times bureau in Beijing, has been in detention for eleven months, denied contact with his family or his former employers and is now charged with leaking state secrets.

Journalists and editors from Chinese newspapers that have tested the limits of their freedoms have felt the heavy hand of the state. Yu Huafeng, the former editor of the daily Nanfang Dushi Bao (“Southern Metropolis News”) is in prison as is Li Minying from the same newspaper. Both, their colleagues believe, are being punished for their role in exposing government incompetence during the Sars epidemic. 2,356 Chinese journalists have signed a petition calling for their release.

A comradely free press

In addition to repression, the government has adopted more subtle means of manipulation. In May 2005, the journal Southern Weekend revealed that the municipal authorities in Suqian, Jiangsu province, had hired twenty-six undercover internet users who, disguised as ordinary members of the public, would guide the discussion along the lines the authorities want.

There was a rare inside look at such a system recently with the leaking of a letter written by Li Datong, a senior journalist at China Youth Daily, to Li Erliang, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. Li Datong edits an influential section of the paper that runs investigative stories every Wednesday. His letter was a protest against the newspaper’s proposed new pay structure, which would peg journalists’ pay to the amount of praise their stories harvested from party and government leaders.

In the letter, Li Datong points out that the top three most frequently read articles will earn their authors 50 points, but praise from party officials earns many more; warm words from the Chinese Youth Communist Party central committee wins 80 points, from the Central Propaganda Bureau receives 120 points, and commendation from the Central Propaganda Bureau's "news commentary" garners 100 points; praise from the central leadership (members of the politburo or higher) earns the author a dazzling 300 points.

There is a catch, however. If the same authorities criticise an article, an equal number of points will be deducted. The number of points he or she receives will determine the size of a journalist’s monthly bonus.

Li Datong was appalled. As he wrote:

“This means that no matter how much effort was put into your report, no matter how difficult your investigation was, no matter how well written your report was, and even if your life had been threatened during the process (and enough reporters have been beaten up for trying to report the truth), and no matter how much the readers praised the report, as long as some official is unhappy and makes a few "critical" comments, then all your work is worth zero, you have added zero to the reputation of the newspaper and your readers' opinions are worth less than a fart – in fact, you will be penalised as much as this month's wages!”

For journalists such as Li, the role of the press in China, as elsewhere, is “to act as the conscience of society and to seek justice for the socially vulnerable groups…” The price that Chinese journalists pay to fulfill such a role can be high.

An indivisible freedom

What should western citizens and leaders be doing to support Chinese journalists like Li Datong? The civil-liberties group Privacy International has called for a boycott of Yahoo. Two more immediate political opportunities also present themselves. The British prime minister Tony Blair was visiting China as the sentence on Shi Tao was being drawn up; and on 10 September, the former US president Bill Clinton is addressing an internet summit in Hangzhou, China, hosted by www.Alibaba.com, Yahoo’s strategic partner in China.

Tony Blair appears to have spared little time from his business agenda to address issues of free speech. Will Bill Clinton deviate from the summit’s list of concerns – the development of e-commerce and the future of online gambling – to raise fundamental questions of censorship and basic freedoms of speech and opinion?

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