China caused an uproar in Western media this month when it announced new press restrictions, dictating that foreign news agencies must distribute their stories through the state-controlled Xinhua news agency. The move targets wire services like Reuters and Bloomberg that provide financial information directly to clients (Asia Times), and is part of a recent surge in protectionist provisions (TIME) limiting international companies in China from doing business ranging from real estate investment to mergers acquisitions. Chinese officials responded to Western criticism by defending the new regulations (NYT), saying they are a means to standardize the news and not a way for Xinhua to get a cut of the wires’ profits. Premier Wen Jiaobao backtracked on the measures (BBC) during a visit to London when he said Beijing “will ensure the freedom and rights of the foreign news media.”
The controversy over new media restrictions highlights Chinese media censorship, discussed in this new Backgrounder, which watchdog organizations say Beijing has stepped up under President Hu Jintao. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports the regulations tighten a 1996 agreement allowing direct distribution of financial news to clients. CPJ also says there are more than thirty journalists currently jailed in China, including reporters and researchers employed by The New York Times and The Straits Times of Singapore. In their 2006 report on the state of the media in China, Reporters Without Borders says “nothing escapes the censors who stoke up a climate of fear within editorial offices.” The organization ranked China 159th out of 167 countries in its 2005 index on press freedom worldwide.
Beijing exerts media controls through systematic restrictions as well as through financial incentives for journalists to exercise self-censorship, explains Ashley Esarey, an expert on East Asian media, in a Freedom House report (PDF). The Congressional-Executive Commission on China outlines the government agencies that institutionalize censorship. U.S. companies such as Yahoo! and Google are complicit in building the “Great Firewall of China,” reports Human Rights Watch, summarizing how the government blocks information moving from the global Internet to China’s Internet. In the International Herald Tribune, Howard W. French writes about a Chinese web portal editor who was fired after the site posted a survey asking respondents if they would choose to be Chinese in a future life and 64 percent answered “No.” He suggests Beijing could dub September “Thought Control Month” if this and other recent moves to control freedom of speech weren’t so troubling.
Despite Beijing’s attempts to step up media control, it may only be a matter of time before the censorship wall comes down. An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor says that as China becomes a thriving participant in the global economy, even if its leaders believe they can keep bolstering repressive press censorship measures, “The tide of history and the inexorable flow of news is against them.” Experts say the determination of young Chinese—including more than 100 million internet users—to gain free access to news means “Beijing will ultimately lose the information war (LAT).” The blogosphere has proven a difficult space to grasp for China’s censoring bodies. Despite official pronouncements in July that blog and chat room supervision would be tightened (South China Morning Post), Beijing can’t control leaks about domestic unrest, as shown by the recent case of a reappearing riot video (GlobalVoices.org).