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Is China Losing Its Grip on the Media? – By Victoria Herczegh for Geopolitical Futures – 05.10.22

There are foreboding signs ahead of the National Party Congress. Over the past few weeks, there have been unusual signs of discontent in China, none stranger than an article written in a party mouthpiece by President Xi Jinping himself.

It’s not so extraordinary for a president to publish something like this, especially ahead of the all-important National Party Congress, but the occasion is usually reserved for introducing positive catchphrases for next term’s agenda and praising the country’s recent growth. Instead, Xi focused on terms such as “struggle,” “peril” and “challenge,” hardly the picture Chinese media normally portrays of a faultless, all-powerful leadership.

For Chinese society, receiving information about public dissent is new, and it’s no surprise that it comes amid months of economic and financial distress, disappointment and frustration. Now is the time for Chinese leaders to keep the media under firm control, but it appears that they are losing their ability to do so. And if this is indeed the case, then they are losing one of their most powerful tools in maintaining power – a particularly foreboding prospect for a country that is historically prone to fragmentation.

Organs of Control

It’s well-known that China censors its media. Choosing what the people see and read is essential in maintaining faith in the government. It became more pressing, of course, with the widespread use of the internet and social media platforms. According to the first white paper on internet sovereignty issued in 2010 under President Hu Jintao, strict controls were meant to prevent sensitive state secrets from getting out and hurting the country. But over the next few years, it became clear that the measures were being used to censor people’s thoughts regarding the party, the government and especially the president.

Under Xi, the government went one step further, using internet-based media as a tool to promote Communist Party propaganda. The danger to Xi, of course, was that improved access and communication would educate the people and bring his house of cards down, but the benefits – tightened control over all forms of state media, turning them into a powerful voice, a kind of foundation for the party’s unity and the government’s stability – outweighed the risks.

As with most everything else in China, media censorship is centralized, managed mainly from above. The most powerful monitoring body is the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department, which coordinates with the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television to make sure all media content promotes official party doctrine.

The CPD was founded almost 100 years ago and has been operating ever since, suspended only once, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). The CPD is no less powerful than the police. It was designed to have the authority to take away all financing from media outlets that don’t fully comply with its official guidelines. In case of open defiance, media outlets risk restructuring or complete closure.

There are, of course, other organs of control. Since 2012, the central government and several private companies connected to the government have employed millions of civilians to review internet search keywords, forums, blog posts, news articles – basically all sectors of media. They receive detailed guidelines from the government on how to conduct monitoring and directives to restrict coverage of a range of politically sensitive topics.

Some of them are paid by the CPD, but most get their salaries from the private companies that hired them. Some are true believers, and some are threatened or coerced into the job, which is to spot any sort of event or news that sheds negative light on the leadership or could undermine its power. They remove it from the web immediately, even censoring keywords that would lead to internet users potentially finding any clues related to the event.

Those located outside China monitor websites like Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia that are banned in China and have the means to take down compromising news that appear on domestic news websites, blogs or forums. Foreign websites must contend with the “Great Firewall,” the rules and measures employed to regulate domestic internet use, which prevents Chinese citizens from accessing particular websites with sensitive content by blocking the IP addresses of these websites.

There are some foreign websites that are not blocked, but the CPD usually significantly extends the loading time for these websites. VPNs are illegal, but it’s impossible for the government to thoroughly monitor them.

The key for Chinese media censorship is speed, precision and efficiency, and the government has generally achieved all three under Xi. It employs a ton of people, and it has given authority to CPD officials to rewrite articles before they are published and, failing that, shut down websites and investigate their publishers.

Even so, the government’s ability to control and censor politically sensitive media content started to show signs of decline around late 2021, when the first reports on panic buying, food shortages, supply chain issues and other quarantine-related problems appeared prominently and frequently in Chinese media.

Most of the information originated from small provincial branches of larger media outlets, which are generally not directly monitored by the CPD. This indicates that some of its subsidiary employees have been unable or unwilling to censor information. After all, it’s difficult to keep endemic food, inflation and supply chain issues completely under wraps.

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Is China Losing Its Grip on the Media – By Victoria Herczegh for Geopolitical Futures – 05
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Viktória Herczegh is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. She is also a PhD candidate at the Political Science and International Relations Doctoral School of Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary. Her PhD research topic is "Double Standards projected by Great Powers". Ms. Herczegh holds a bachelor's degree of Chinese Language and Culture and a master's degree of East Asian Studies. She also spent one semester at Shanghai International Studies University studying Mandarin Chinese. Ms. Herczegh is a native Hungarian fluent in English, Spanish, French and Mandarin.

Xi Jinping at the United Nations

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