By Annabelle Lee
Xi Jinping came into power as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China in November 2012 and has since made a concerted effort to extend government control over both news media and the internet. More Chinese people now have access to the internet than ever before. By sheer number, China has over 721 million internet users, the largest number anywhere in the world yet representing just half the total Chinese population. This number is also a fast-growing one, between 2012 and 2015 China registered a 10% growth of 150 million new internet users (Internet Live Stats 2016). As the internet grows in China, many Chinese netizens have chosen to bypass state-controlled media in favour of microblogs, or “weibo” (a platform similar to Twitter) for information, news and entertainment. This is the China that was handed to Xi Jinping. In 2013, Xi, as the newly installed president of the People’s Republic of China, announced his aggressive plans to “purify cyberspace” and enforce ideological conformity across China. This essay argues the Xi Jinping regime increased censorship using three approaches; technically, technologically and corporately. By issuing strict media directives to media organisations, by designing a sophisticated system of filtering and blocking online content and by making commercial internet businesses responsible for censoring their own platforms. This essay also argues while the rise of weibo platforms in China has seen citizen journalism grow among Chinese netizens, the effectiveness of such journalism is severely undermined by censorship as well as the intimidation and victimisation of citizen journalists. This essay will first lay out the three-pronged media and Internet policies enforced by the Xi administration. This essay will then discuss the weibo platform and the effectiveness of citizen journalism in an environment of increasing regulation.
Even before 2012, China consistently ranked among the lowest in the world for press freedom (Reporters Without Borders 2016). However the potential effects of having extremely high growth in Chinese internet users coupled with a growing penchant of Chinese netizens to rant about the government online worried the Xi administration. Similar to the media, the internet needed to be reformed to reflect support for the Communist Party of China and its leaders. In 2013 Xi launched a campaign to “purify” the Chinese internet from what he termed “internet rumours” (Yang 2014). The overarching goal of this campaign was to enforce ideological conformity across China and to “ensure high-quality content with positive voices creating a healthy, positive culture that is a force for good” (Xinhua as reported in China Business Review 2016). Aware of the internet being a highly participatory, diffused and anonymous space, the Xi administration adopted a multi-pronged strategy to censoring it. He approached it from technical, technological, and corporate angles.
Through the technical approach, the Xi administration frequently releases restrictive directives to tighten control over media companies. In 2016 alone, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) issued three separate directives. The first one concerned the management of media companies. It held editors-in-chief personally responsible for “the direction of content and the creation, production and dissemination of news” (Choi 2016). In accordance to Xi’s “purifying” campaign, all content had to reflect support and praise for the state. Editors were also instructed to employ staff to monitor their publications around-the-clock, in particular online publications so that nothing undesirable would be published. In a separate directive, the CAC ordered that online news publications were only supposed to publish verbatim articles obtained from official news sources (Henochowicz 2016). Therefore not only were online publications required to monitor themselves every hour of the day, they were also not allowed to publish any independently written articles regardless of their content. In addition, the CAC issued the new set of Online Publishing Service Administrative Rules to regulate online publications (Shira 2016). Some of the banned topics include anything that divulges state secrets, advocates feudal superstition, disseminates rumours and disturbs social order and stability. However, there is no specific definition for “internet publication” in the rules. A combination of these three directives reduce media organisations to mere government mouthpieces whose job is to reproduce press releases as dictated by the state. A violation of these directives not only caused finance news organisation Caixin Online to be banned, but the ban also prohibited other Chinese news sites from republishing any Caixin content (Reporters Without Borders 2016). This extensive ban was used to discipline the organisation for its “problematic orientations” because it published articles that were considered negative by government censors. In addition to directives and punishments, Xi himself made a highly publicised visit to three state media organisations in February 2016. He famously declared that the media must “reflect total loyalty to the party” and “bear the Party surname” (Henochowicz 2016). Xi clearly stated his intention for the Chinese media to function as obedient spokespersons of the Party, always reflecting and supporting government action and campaigns.
The second approach to censorship is by expanding the technology used to filter and block online content. Often hailed as the “Great Firewall”, the Xi administration invests significant resources in building a network of sophisticated and efficient systems to review and take down undesirable content on the internet. As analysed in detail in King, Pan and Roberts (2014), the Great Firewall operates on two levels. The first is a fully automated filtering system that analyses all content posted online and designates what posts qualify for review. There is no standardised system and King et al (2014) argue this is to stir innovation among Chinese technology companies in designing censorship technology. The second level is selective censorship where posts flagged by the filters are analysed for any harmful or negative expressions before censors take action. Fu et al (2013) argues that this level censorship occurs in a more targeted way where individuals with significant online following are monitored more closely than others. However, the exact rules and conditions for censorship are vague and often inconsistent, scholars argue this vagueness is intended to encourage self-censorship among netizens (King et al 2014). Under Xi, 25 per cent of the internet is blocked compared to 14 per cent under previous president Hu Jintao (Shira 2016). Beyond the technology, the Xi administration has built a complex organisation around censorship and made it a profitable industry. It created the new occupation of “internet opinion analyst” where it hired many people to perform the second level of censorship as mentioned above (Yang 2014, p. 112). The Chinese government also set up many internet surveillance centres and even engaged private companies to perform censorship on their behalf. This move to mobilise civilians to participate in internet censorship helps legitimise, normalise and grow the “largest selective suppression of human communication in the recorded history of any country” (King et al 2014, p. 891).
In addition to technical directives and a sophisticated censorship mechanism, the Xi administration started holding commercial internet companies responsible for enforcing censorship. As discussed in the Online Publishing Service Administrative Rules above, all forms of content online is eligible to be considered “online publishing” and need to follow these CAC-issued rules. Chinese social media companies are expected to develop technologies and strategies to counter the dissemination of sensitive information. For example, weibo companies are now required by the government to establish in-house censorship departments or else be ineligible for their operating licenses. Furthermore, the Xi administration demanded weibo companies enforce “Real name registration” (or “RnR”). All users were now required to register for their accounts, disclosing their real identities, addresses and contact details (Fu et al 2013). Previously citizens were more willing to discuss sensitive topics and even challenge censorship by appearing anonymous but but this new directive revoked this feature, chilling political comment and critique. Also, internet service providers are required to actively censor undesirable content posted by their customers (Fu et al 2013). This severe crackdown on commercial internet companies was effective in causing many like Sina and Tencent to comply with government censors or risk losing their business licenses. Yang (2014) reports that Sina Weibo even set up “community committees” to monitor and censor online sentiment on its hugely popular weibo platform. This helps fortify the “Great Firewall”, expanding the censorship network to involve not just government agencies but also commercial and private companies.
Weibo and Citizen Journalism
These approaches show that Xi’s government is extremely well-informed on both the technical aspects of the internet and how Chinese people use it. Right from the start of his tenure as president, Xi recognised the prominence of weibo and quickly extended censorship to governing it. Blogging and microblogging platforms first appeared in Chinese cyberspace in 2002. By 2012 alone more than half the total Chinese internet user population had a weibo, registering more than 274 million accounts on either Sina Weibo or Tencent Weibo (China Internet Network Information Centre quoted in Fu et al 2013). The widespread popularity of weibo was significant because it enabled user participation in an environment where there was very little press freedom to discuss political or social issues. “They (weibos) ushered in new experiences and patterns of social networking, community building and engagement with the Chinese polity.” argues Yu (2011, p. 379). Branigan (2012) echoes Yu, arguing weibo remains the only Web 2.0 platform where citizens can create, disseminate and engage with information. They fundamentally shaped how Chinese internet users engaged with the internet, empowering individual citizens to voice their opinions and personally negotiate internet censorship. Weibos were already extremely popular before the Xi administration severely cracked down on it. A key indication of the influence of weibo is when Chinese netizens started favouring discussions on weibo over content produced by state-controlled media. Many of these discussions were on contentious topics like corruption by state officials, criticisms of Xi and his policies, demands for political reform, social injustices and social conflict. In addition to discussing and commenting on politically-sensitive issues on weibos, Chinese netizens started experimenting with various forms of citizen journalism. Citizen journalism is the collection, dissemination and analysis of news by the general public (Xin 2010). Citizen journalism on weibo was further fueled by the presence of a large receptive audience plus a widespread dissatisfaction over the lack of information on state media.
In addition to announcing his “purifying internet” campaign in 2013, Xi Jinping declared he would be cracking down on corruption within the Communist Party of China. Chinese netizens thus took it upon themselves to investigate public officials and report their findings on weibo. The Guardian reported multiple instances where citizen journalists were successful in reporting corruption happening in their local districts (Pedroletti 2013). Citizen journalist Zhou Lubao stumbled upon photographs of his town mayor wearing multiple luxurious watches and decided to investigate him for corruption. He posted his findings on his weibo account, generating lots of discussion on government corruption. Chinese netizens even started emulating his style of investigation on their own district party officials. Zhu Reifeng is another citizen journalist who managed to expose a corruption and sex scandal involving the party secretary of his district. Not only were his weibo reports picked up by local state media, they also resulted in the party secretary being sacked from his position. Gao Qinrong’s reports on a fake irrigation project in his town of Yuncheng circulated online before they were also picked up by mainstream Chinese media. Besides corruption, Chinese citizen journalists have been successful in bringing environmental issues and police violence to light. In 2012 citizen journalist Liu Futang wrote almost 40 articles on his weibo account exposing a property developer for illegally clearing one of the world’s last coconut groves to build a yacht marina (Watts 2012). His reports generated lots of anger among Chinese netizens towards the issue but also the widespread environmental destruction caused by China’s rapid development. Not only was his work covered by mainstream newspapers and television stations, Liu was later awarded “Citizen Journalist of The Year” by the China Environmental Press Awards. Meanwhile in the city of Shifang, mass protests broke out over the building of a copper alloy plant. Citizen journalists online were the first to report on it before any mainstream media outlets did (Al Jazeera 2012). Pictures and videos of the brutal police violence directed at protesters circulated on weibo before city officials announced the project would not go ahead due to “public concern” (Al Jazeera 2012). The effectiveness of citizen journalists in reporting corruption, environment and police violence issues caused mainstream media to use weibo as a compelling news source (Pedroletti 2013). Realising the potential of online discussion platform, many professional journalists even started using weibo as an alternative avenue to publish their work (Xin 2010). Citizen journalism on weibo was thus able to influence both Chinese netizens and mainstream media outlets, opening up discussion within a heavily censored media environment.
The online environment shaped by citizen journalism greatly challenged the Communist Party’s monopoly on information flows. The Xi administration first cracked down on weibos by enforcing the “RnR” system as discussed above. Technical directives, sophisticated censorship technology and new rules for commercial internet companies were also used to rein in the freedom of discussion previously allowed on weibos. In August 2013, the State Internet Information Office issued a “Seven bottom lines policy” to regulate public opinion among all Chinese netizens (Li 2015). The Office also held a “Conference of Online Public Opinion Leaders” where it specifically invited 300 Chinese internet celebrities and reminded them to comply to its new policy when posting online. This conference marked the extension of government censorship to a more targeted, personal approaches. Li (2015) argues Xi’s entire package of internet policies was intended to purify the Chinese internet of critical discussion and independent citizen journalism in favour of strict ideological conformity. Most concerning of all are foreign media reports on the harassment, arbitrary arrest and kidnapping of prominent Chinese citizen journalists by Chinese police. Just seven months after winning his award, Liu Futang was detained and accused by local authorities for “conducting illegal businesses” (Branigan 2012). Branigan reports the real intention behind the arrest was as revenge against his articles on weibo. In September 2016 five citizen journalists were kidnapped by Chinese police to stop them from reporting on the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China (Reporter Without Borders). In October 2016 Reporters Without Borders again reported the arbitrary arrest of two citizen journalists, Huang Qi and Liu Feiyue by Chinese police. Therefore while weibo previously allowed for citizen journalism to flourish among Chinese netizens, this inroad was abruptly reversed under Xi Jinping’s reign. His pursuit for ideological conformity has threatened the essential qualities that foster and propagate citizen journalism online.
In conclusion, China under Xi Jinping’s reign has seen a rollback of the previous inroads made by Chinese netizens towards freedom of expression. This is driven by the overarching goal of Xi’s policies to implement the same level of ideological conformity across Chinese internet as Chinese news media. The Xi administration increased news media and internet censorship through three major approaches; technically, technologically and corporately. By issuing strict media directives to media organisations, by designing a sophisticated filtering and blocking system and by making commercial internet businesses responsible for censoring their own platforms. In a similar vein, the Xi administration responded to the successes of Chinese citizen journalism of the early 2010s by increasing censorship plus intimidating and victimising citizen journalists. This has undermined not just the effectiveness of citizen journalism but also the very possibility for it. However the question remains whether such rampant fortification of The Great Firewall has lead to increased feelings of dissatisfaction and protest among the Chinese people. Chinese internet users are projected to grow by the tens of millions and an extremely regulated access to the internet could either spell total ideological conformity or an increasingly rocky negotiation with Xi’s great censors.