Su Yutong: Chinese Journalists Still Retain Their Ideals
November 8, 2016
China Clamps Down on Freedom of Expression
Today is Chinese Journalists’ Day. Journalists’ Day was set aside in 2000 as a way to honor journalists for their contributions to society. In recent years however, workers in the news media, defenders of human rights, and human rights defending lawyers and activists have suffered harassment, threats, arbitrary detention and other forms of violence at the hands of the Chinese government. We interviewed Su Yutong, a freelance journalist and writer now living in Germany. Ms. Su used to work at a broadcasting station in mainland China. In 2010, after she made public Li Peng’s diary, the police searched her home and she fled China. Since moving to Germany Ms. Su has stayed in touch with colleagues. We asked her to talk with us about the challenges that Chinese journalists face, changes in the Chinese media environment, and the way ahead for Chinese journalists.
Chinese Journalists: No Longer Dancing with Handcuffs
Controls on the Chinese media have clearly strengthened every since Xi Jinping took became the leader. When I was a journalist in China several years ago, the controls on us were more subtle. The Propaganda Department would make phone calls ordering us about what we could and couldn’t report. For example, we were not allowed to report on some sensitive issues like people visiting government offices to petition for redress of wrongs, national minorities policy and sensitive public events. For all that, only rarely were there many instances large scale arrests or imprisonment of journalists.
Since 2013 – 2014, media controls have become clearer. Many journalists such as Liu Yongzhou of the Xin Kuaibao [New Express Daily] were sent to prison after being accused of economic crimes or for trouble making. The methods the authorities used to repress journalists became clearer. If journalists in the course of their duties had contact with the people they interviewed or as they tried to find out the truth they might be framed with crimes such as trouble making or economic crimes.
“In 2010 shortly after my arrival in Germany, I told Amnesty International in an interview that Chinese journalists were a group that “danced in handcuffs”. I think today that they are not a group that dances in handcuffs but a group that cannot dance because they are in handcuffs.”
Journalists lose platform on which they can speak in their own voices
Although platforms for Chinese journalists are now rapidly disappearing, China once had many very good newspapers. Many were forced to change their reporting and change their direction such as the Southern Metropolitan Daily, the Xinjing Bao, the Jinghua Shibao. Many newspaper lost their purpose and direction and became merely the tongue of the Communist Party. Many journalists lost platforms for truth-telling. I knew then many very good journalists who were forced to go into the wilderness. If they had not given up journalism and had instead pressed forward, perhaps they would be in jail.
Under those circumstances, my discusssions with them were difficult because they felt a tremendous amount of pressure but had no way of changing the present situation. For example, the New Express Daily started to call on the state organs to release some prisoner but finally had to acknowledge that they had been wrong. This process, like the protests of the Southern Metropolitan group of newspapers went by very quickly like clouds wandering across the sky because scattered media protests cannot alter the overall situation. I think that the repression coming down from the Party Center is strong and effective. The weakness of journalists in the face of that kind of repression is very clear.
Official media control aims to suppress the Chinese people’s freedom of thought
Many people get information from the media. Someone said that “The Internet is God’s gift to the Chinese people. Thanks to the internet, many Chinese people have much more information than they had before. In the Internet age, there can be 100,000 mass protests in a year. This is clearly more than before. Chinese people are not so docile anymore.
If a journalists were to report the naked truth just as the Southern Metropolitan newspaper did early on, and many news reports like that, then the Chinese people would gradually come to better understand the real situation. Those in power believe that the media can make waves and threaten their political power. I believe that is the real reason that the Chinese Communist Party oppresses the media and puts controls on freedom of expression is to suppress the Chinese people’s freedom of thought.
Repression of journalists is part of official repression of civil society
The very clear change in the Chinese media environment began in 2008. Just before the Beijing Olympics, the authorities began large-scale arrests of dissidents and put tighter controls on people protests official abuses surrounding the Sichuan Earthquake. That year several hundred people signed Charter 08 and the authorities realized that the large number of mass protest incidents were disadvantageous to them. The subtle repression seen earlier became more overt.
From 2008 to 2010, the case of the three Fujian Province internet activists was a very representative case of what was happening to Chinese social movements. This was the high point of Chinese citizens taking to the streets to demonstrate. That year, Wang Lihong, Zhu Chengzhi, and Wu Gan led internet activists out on the street to demonstrate. Concerns about the case of the three internet activists spread to other public incidents. Citizens had not only gone on to the streets of Fuzhou to demonstrate, but in Beijing and in other cities, large vigils were held.
The authorities immediately adopted a policy of immediate repressing such street demonstrations including arresting many people on the eve of Liu Xiaobo being awarded the Nobel Prize and arresting Wang Lihong. Thousands of people were called in to “drink tea with the police” or harassed. Several hundred people were arrested including Ai Weiwei, Tang Jitian, Teng Biaodeng. Official violence bumped up a level and became more naked.
“Later the authorities continued repression of persistent civil society actions. Repression of the media is part of the repression of civil society. If the media does not take orders, it becomes an opponent of the authorities.”
Red Values Infiltrate Foreign Countries
Throughout the world the Chinese Communists have been buying Chinese language media outlets, publishing articles praising the Chinese Communist Party. The guidance given to public opinion serves the purposes of the Chinese Communist Party in making propaganda to the people of Chinese descent living in foreign countries. This includes the free newspapers that are distributed in hotels, restaurants and other places where Chinese people gather. This is not all. For example the media outlet purchased in Australia employees non-Chinese staff so that it appears not to be Chinese but in fact it is foreign media controlled by the Chinese government. The Australian journalist who asked questions at the press conferences held at the meetings of the Chinese National People’s Congress and of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress were actually fake ‘foreign’ media. They used up opportunities and time that had been set aside for real foreign media to ask questions and of course the questions that they asked were just songs of praise for the Chinese government. I believe that this extension of Chinese media control is a very bad thing.
Another trend is their infiltration of the personnel of foreign public broadcasting staff. They can be seen when there some problems arise in the reporting of foreign broadcast media.
The Chinese authorities on the one hand are controlling and repressing media platforms within China while with the other hand infiltrating foreign media. Many foreigners don’t understand China very well. They might think that China is a certain way but China has the intention of disseminating false propaganda abroad. This is just like the brainwashing that Chinese Central Television does to the Chinese people. China’s infiltration of foreign media is very dangerous and we should be on guard against it.
Chinese journalists repressed time and again but still retain their ideals
Chinese journalists still hold onto their ideals. People like Gu Jia, who was a journalist for the Phoenix Network and a manager at Tangxun Dajia. These media people are very resilient and make good use of the breathing space that remains and so are still able to speak out to a degree. Gu Jia in March 2016 was detained for writing an open letter calling on Xi Jinping to step down. This kind of media worker, even if they suffer from repression, retain their idealism and their fiery determination but now lack a platform to express themselves. Some speak out through personal media such as a public account on social media. For example, the former Southern Metropolitan News commentator Song Zhibiao used a public account on the Weixin QQ microblog and so kept on publishing his articles. Many famous repressed journalists are looking to reappear on another battleground or are waiting for their chance.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and the interviewee and do not reflect the official policies or positions of Amnesty International. This year Amnesty International conducted an urgent action concerning the arrests of Xing Qingxian, Li Yuyu, Li Tingyu, Qin Zhao and other citizen journalists asking for their immediate release and asking that they not be repressed for exercising their right to free expression.