A weekly update of press freedom and censorship news related to the People's Republic of China
Issue No. 22: May 12, 2011
BROADCAST / PRINT MEDIA NEWS
Victims' relatives threatened ahead of '08 quake anniversary
On May 12, China marked the third anniversary of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed at least 80,000 people. While popular web portals such as Sina and Tencent created special pages that praise the government's relief efforts, harassment of victims' family members in the worst-hit town of Dujiangyan has reportedly increased. At least 5,300 schoolchildren were either killed or remain missing as a result of the quake, and many of their parents have blamed shoddy school construction, while activists have used online platforms like microblogs to share information and call for government action. Among other recent incidents, one victim's mother, surnamed Zhou, said she was accused by police of having frequent contact with foreign journalists, and was threatened with two years in prison if she continued to speak to them. Another victim's father, the owner of a tea shop where bereaved parents have been known to socialize, was reportedly attacked by government-hired thugs who poured boiling water on his shoulders. A number of activists involved in the quake issue have been punished by the Chinese authorities. Sichuan-based writer Tan Zuoren, who published an independent report entitled 5.12 Student Archive online in 2009, was sentenced to five years in prison in February 2010 for subversion. Acclaimed artist and blogger Ai Weiwei, who has been detained incommunicado since April 3, used his Twitter microblog to raise awareness of the identities of the deceased children.
One writer released, another likely to face extended prison term
On May 8, Sichuan-based writer Chen Daojun was released in Nanchong City after serving three years in prison. He was convicted of "inciting subversion of state power" in May 2008, two months after he published articles that criticized the Chinese government's crackdown on protesters during that year's uprising in Tibet. His imprisonment also appeared to be related to his commentaries on the construction of a petrochemical plant near Chengdu, which led to a demonstration against the project by 200 people in May 2008. Chen's wife, Zeng Qirong, said his prison manuscripts were confiscated by authorities upon his release, adding that he is not allowed to speak to reporters. In a separate case, Qi Chonghuai, a reporter set to be released on June 25 after four years in prison, was informed by the Shangdong authorities that he will face another prosecution, which will likely keep him behind bars. Qi, a former Shandong bureau chief for the state-run Legal Morning Post, was convicted for "extortion and blackmail" in May 2008 after he reported on government corruption linked to a construction project in the city of Tengzhou in 2007. In a series of letters that were smuggled out of prison in 2009, Qi said he had been tortured, beaten, and forced to perform hard labor.
Chinese TV to carry 'wholesome' content as party anniversary nears
China's television broadcasters have entered a "propaganda period" ahead of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in July. They are being encouraged to focus on more "wholesome programming," and to praise China's development under the CCP's leadership, according to the State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT). To make room for such programming, the SARFT has issued an order not to air detective shows, spy thrillers, or time-travel dramas. Oriental TV in Shanghai was instructed to replace its spy drama Qing Mang, which was scheduled to air on May 16, with a family comedy series. Staff at Oriental TV said they are "always ready to rearrange things," as they frequently receive directives from SARFT at short notice. Among other recent SARFT orders related to entertainment programming, a March 31 directive warned against fantasy dramas that involve "superstitious" and "frivolous" storylines, and a 2010 action suspended a popular Jiangsu TV dating show called If You Are the One because its content was deemed "vulgar" and "immoral."
Well-known author again denied permission to travel abroad
Liao Yiwu, a prominent Sichuan-based writer and a board member of the literary rights group Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), has been denied permission to attend another literary event abroad. Having already been barred by the Chinese authorities from leaving China to attend the PEN World Voices Festival in New York on April 25, the writer confirmed on May 10 that he will be unable to appear at the Sydney Writers' Festival on May 15. He had been invited to the Sydney event to discuss his nonfiction book, The Corpse Walker, which Beijing perceives as politically sensitive. British philosopher A. C. Grayling, with whom Liao was scheduled to speak on a panel in Sydney, remarked that the Chinese government was "too insecure to allow a poet to travel abroad," while other observers cited the ban as an example of the Chinese authorities' efforts to control free expression outside China, in addition to their domestic censorship. According to the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), at least 49 writers are currently jailed, detained, or under house arrest in China. Seven of the ICPC's members are in prison, including 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo.
NEW MEDIA / TECHNOLOGY NEWS
An insider's account of the '50 Cent Party'
The full transcript of a March 22 conversation between prominent artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who has been held incommunicado by the Chinese authorities since April 3, and a web commentator hired by the government was published online by Ai's assistant on May 5. Its authenticity has been confirmed by the China Media Project in Hong Kong. The interview provides a rare and fascinating glimpse at the internal workings of one of the Chinese government's most important propaganda and censorship tools: the large-scale recruitment of users to turn online discussions in a progovernment direction. Such mercenaries are known collectively as the 50 Cent Party for their supposed per-comment fees. The interviewee, who works in the new media industry, told Ai that this convenient "part-time gig" is no secret, as hiring announcements can be found on the career forums of school and government websites. He and his fellow commentators receive directives every morning via Google's Gmail service, which "protects confidentiality." The interviewee said he frequently creates multiple identities and essentially converses with himself to guide public opinion in the requested direction. He claims that most Chinese netizens are easily manipulated, but admitted that they have become more shrewd of late. Estimates from 2008 placed the number of such hired web commentators at over 250,000.
U.S. senator questions Baidu over censorship policies
On May 4, Dick Durbin, a U.S. senator from Illinois, published a letter he sent to Baidu chief executive Robin Li in which he raised concerns over the Chinese search engine's censorship and privacy policies. Durbin said he was disappointed at Baidu's heavy censorship, having conducted test searches during a recent trip to China. He explained that he was especially concerned because of the company's extensive business dealings in the United States, including a stock listing on the NASDAQ exchange and investment by several American institutions. Durbin also noted recent reports that Baidu and the U.S.-based social-networking site Facebook may enter into a partnership to launch a social-networking tool for Chinese users; Facebook is currently blocked in China. Durbin added that he is drafting an internet freedom bill that aims to make Baidu and other U.S.-listed technology firms more accountable for protecting human rights. Separately, in a sign that both Baidu and the Chinese government are more willing to respond to trade-related complaints than those related to free expression, on May 3 the search-engine giant launched a test of Baidu Ting, a licensed-music version of an earlier music site that had drawn repeated complaints within China and abroad over copyright infringement.
'Jasmine' ban extends well beyond internet
The New York Times reported on May 10 that the word "jasmine"-whether it is referring to the flower, the subject of a Chinese folk song, or the so-called Jasmine Revolution that unseated the authoritarian president of Tunisia in January-has been targeted by Chinese authorities in virtually all contexts, and not just on the internet. Since anonymous messages calling for a protest-driven, Tunisia-style "Jasmine Revolution" in China circulated among netizens in mid-February, searches for the word "jasmine" have been censored on China's Sina Weibo microblogging service as well as on the search engines Baidu and Panguso (see CMB No. 12). In addition, video clips of President Hu Jintao singing the folk song "Molihua" (Jasmine) at public events have been removed from the web, and mobile-telephone users have been unable to send text messages that include "molihua" in Chinese characters. In a bizarre turn, the ban has even extended to the flower industry. The upcoming China International Jasmine Cultural Festival has been cancelled, according to a manager at a Guangxi-based flower investment company. Jasmine flower vendors in Daxing, on the outskirts of Beijing, said prices have collapsed since police issued a jasmine ban at a number of local flower markets in March. As most Chinese have never heard of the Tunisian revolution or the proposed Chinese protests due to the government's censorship efforts, various rumors have spread regarding the underlying cause for the flower ban, including claims that the blossoms contain radioactive or poisonous substances.
Activists detained over Ai Weiwei graffiti
On May 8, two members of Hong Kong's League of Social Democrats (LSD), a pro-democracy party, were taken into police custody over street art calling for the release of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has been detained incommunicado by Chinese authorities since April 3. The two were detained on criminal damage charges after they spray-painted Ai's face along with slogans like "Who's Afraid of Ai Weiwei" at a rally of some two dozen LSD supporters. Authorities said the two party members were released on bail but are required to report back on June 8. LSD vice president Avery Ng called the arrests "selective persecution," and said they effectively helped the mainland government suppress dissent. Numerous other examples of pro-Ai graffiti had appeared on Hong Kong's streets over the past month. But according to the newspaper Ming Pao, among 20 cases reported since April, this was the first in which the accused were formally detained. On April 31, the Hong Kong garrison of the People's Liberation Army issued an unprecedented warning after activists beamed images of Ai's face and related slogans onto the walls of its buildings (see CMB No. 21).
Hong Kong media weakened by low wages, high turnover
A survey conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) between February 24 and March 14 and released on May 1 shows that the territory's media industry suffers from low salaries and a high staff turnover rate. More than 30 percent of the 725 media workers polled admitted to looking for a job in other industries within the last 12 months. The same share of respondents said they would leave journalism within a year or two, with low income and long working hours cited as the main reasons. According to the survey, a journalist in Hong Kong earns about HK$15,000 (US$1,900) per month and works almost six days a week. Such conditions raise concerns about a general decline in the quality of journalism and news products, but they also leave individual editors and reporters highly vulnerable to pressure from owners, who may have an interest in curbing critical coverage of the Hong Kong or Beijing governments.
TIBET & INNER MONGOLIA
Crackdown in Tibetan region isolates students confined at school
According to the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), a Washington-based Tibetan rights group, Chinese security forces have escalated a crackdown in Ngaba prefecture, Sichuan province, that began after a monk from the local Kirti monastery set himself on fire on March 16 to commemorate the third anniversary of a 2008 Tibetan uprising. Local residents had turned out to support the monastery as authorities carried out large-scale arrests there. Among other, ongoing repressive actions in the area, the authorities have reportedly targeted Tibetan students at a local school who went on hunger strike on March 17. They have been confined to the school for an indefinite period, and had their mobile telephones confiscated and internet access cut off. In late April, the authorities also searched their books and belongings and destroyed copies of banned publications, including Shar Dungri, a Tibetan-language magazine featuring articles that are perceived as a threat to state security.
Mongolian activist's wife and son charged
The sister-in-law of Hada, an ethnic Mongolian journalist and human rights activist who has been detained incommunicado since December, has reported that his wife, Xinna, and his son, Uiles, were formally charged on January 17 in Inner Mongolia's capital, Hohhot. As co-owners of Hada's family-run bookstore, the two were charged for "illegal business activities" and alleged drug possession. Hada, founder of the pro-Mongol newspaper Voice of Southern Mongolia, has not been seen in public since he completed a 15-year prison term for charges of "separatism" on December 10. According to the New York–based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, Hada has engaged in regular hunger strikes while in detention. The authorities had reportedly asked him and his wife and son to sign a pledge that they would no longer conduct advocacy activities, and sent them to prison after they refused.
Taiwan satellite owner to drop Falun Gong–linked TV station
On April 11, Chunghwa Telecom (CHT), a telecommunications company that is partly owned by Taiwan's Ministry of Transportation and Communications, announced that it will not renew a contract expiring in August with New Tang Dynasty Television (NTDTV), a nonprofit station run by Falun Gong practitioners. NTDTV uses CHT's satellite services to broadcast uncensored news on China, often including reports of human rights abuses and citizen activism, to both Taiwan and large parts of the mainland. CHT claimed that its decision to drop the station was the result of reduced bandwidth on its new satellite. However, there are several reasons to suspect that the move was meant to appease the Chinese government, including a 2009 incident in which the NTDTV signal was suspiciously jammed as the Chinese Communist Party marked its 60th year in power; the fact that CHT owns a subsidiary in Shanghai and has joint ventures with the state-owned China Telecom Corporation; and a precedent in which the French company Eutelsat apparent bowed to pressure from Beijing to cut off NTDTV broadcasts (see CMB No. 16). On May 3, U.S. congressman Dana Rohrabacher sent a letter to Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou to request an official explanation.