China is increasing its censorship efforts both domestically, and internationally by targeting overseas critics and invoking internet sovereignty.
As Xi Jinping continues consolidating power, China’s media is facing increasing censorship. While this statement is not a novel one in itself, the manner and severity of recent censorship is. Behold China’s most censored photo of 2015, one that shows Xi Jinping during a parade and a children’s toy car sporting Winnie the Pooh.
This picture was widely shared on Chinese social media before the powers that be moved swiftly to block it. The friendly yellow bear elicited a decidedly unfriendly response; indeed the Chinese government went so far as to add ‘Winnie the Pooh’ to its internet search blacklist.
Making Winnie a persona non grata is the government’s response to a playful trend among Chinese netizens who often compare the Chinese leader to the famous bear.
The government’s reaction is disproportionate and puzzling for two reasons. Firstly, where some see harmless fun, Beijing sees a serious effort to undermine the dignity of the presidential office and Xi himself. Authoritarian regimes are often touchy, yet the backlash is confusing since the government is effectively squashing an potential positive, and organic, public image campaign for Xi.
Beijing’s reaction is doubly odd given the fact that Xi has made substantial efforts to create a cult of personality showing him as a benevolent ruler; going so far as to promote the moniker ‘Xi Dada’, or ‘Uncle Xi.’
Beijing’s attack on Winnie the Pooh may be farcical, but it is also an indication of more serious trends in China’s media. In recent months, Chinese media outlets have seen an outpouring of (even by China’s standards) supportive coverage of the government and Xi in particular.
Such focused messaging by the government does not tolerate any slip-ups, with Xi stating that the media must ‘bear the surname of the party’, in other words show filial loyalty to the party. Consequently, the government has come down hard on what it sees as subversion in the media.
In December, four journalists were suspended after the China News Service released a headline with a typo misspelling Xi’s speech (zhi ci) as Xi’s resignation (ci zhi). A similar instance occurred in mid-March when Xinhua had to correct a headline which falsely referred to Xi Jinping as China’s ‘last leader,’ as opposed to ‘top leader’.
On March 15th, Jia Jia, columnist for the state-backed Wujie News, was taken away by police after posting a letter calling on Xi to resign. A further 20 people were detained in connection to the letter, in a heavy-handed response from Beijing.
Content of the letter aside, the government’s response can be attributed to the fact that Jia’s letter emerged at the same time as the aforementioned resignation typo.
The government did not want two news stories independently feeding the same argument and reacted with overwhelming force. The fact that the outlet is partly owned by the Xinjiang government – a restive autonomous region with a large minority Uyghur population – is likely another factor in the government’s response. Wujie News is also partially owned by Alibaba, raising concerns about the internet giant’s foray into media – notably its acquisition of the South China Morning Post in January.
In February the front-page editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily was fired after two adjacent headlines (in red box below), when read as one, stated ‘media bears Party’s surname, their soul returns to the sea.’
This was seen as criticism of Xi’s aforementioned statement on media loyalty. On March 29th, another editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily, Yu Shaolei resigned citing government censorship. In his resignation letter Yu regretted his inability to bear the party’s surname, and humorously wished the anonymous official responsible for censoring his social media accounts the best of luck.
Alongside its clampdown on the mainland, the central government is also stifling dissent in Hong Kong, as witnessed by the recent arrest of five staff members of Causeway Books; a store specializing in books banned on the mainland. This event shocked Hong Kongers and the international community, with UK foreign Secretary Philip Hammond stating that “it would not be acceptable for somebody to be spirited out of Hong Kong in order to face charges in a different jurisdiction.” What is concerning is that two of the five employees arrested are EU citizens.
William Nao of Amnesty International states that, “coming after two Chinese democracy activists were returned from Thailand, it looks like the creeping internationalization of China’s crackdown on dissent.” Conversely, the state backed Global Times argued that Beijing’s actions were not only reasonable but also in conformity with Chinese law.
China’s internet sovereignty
In late 2014, Xi Jinping introduced the notion of internet sovereignty; sovereignty which rests in the hands of individual states who may censor content as they please. Xi has personally led China’s drive for internet sovereignty, resulting in the Cyberspace Administration of China calling for the government to have the strongest online voice. Furthermore, China’s ‘Great Firewall’ – the world’s largest and most sophisticated censorship program has been augmented. As of January 2016, it will not only block but also attack internet services deemed unsavoury by the government.
China’s promotion of internet sovereignty touts a state-centric approach to the Internet, one that adopts the zero sum language of Westphalian sovereignty. Consequently, actions by outside forces that impact China’s domestic internet are to be considered interference in domestic affairs and a breach of national sovereignty.
This line of reasoning has seen China indirectly target dissidents in foreign countries who publish anti-China material. For instance, U.S based dissident Wen Yunchao believes his parents and brother were arrested to pressure him to reveal sensitive information. Similarly, Zhang Ping – a writer based in Germany – states that three of his siblings have been detained in an effort to stop him criticizing China in the German media.
While Beijing has long sought to silence dissidents, the government’s concerted effort on the matter is raising concerns. Perhaps most troubling is China’s insistence that foreign nationals fall under Chinese law when interacting with Chinese internet services.
German writer and online satirist Christoph Rehage has come under fire by government backed online commentators for his video claiming that Chinese communist hero Lei Feng and Mulan would make great kids. Rehage, who speaks fluent Mandarin, had his Weibo account closed, cutting him off from his 100,000 followers. When Rehage compared Mao and Hitler in another video, he received numerous death threats, hate mail and abuse via social media and phone from pro-government netizens in China.
Furthermore, an influential government backed website called for him to be punished under Chinese law for libel against Mao, refuting CCP stances, and spreading vile opinions. According to China’s new internet sovereignty framework, the so called Seven Bottom Lines, Rehage could be bound by Chinese law, despite residing in Germany.
Zhu Wei, deputy director of the communication law center at the China University for Political Science and Law explains the government’s reasoning vis-a-vis Rehage: “We have to look at his intention. If he meant the video just as a commentary on something, without it being disseminated in China, then it has nothing to do with Chinese law. But if he made the video in order to have it disseminated on websites in China, or have other people repost it in China, then he comes under Chinese law.”
In imperial China the punishment for teaching a foreigner Mandarin was death. China’s imperial rulers did not want foreigners interacting with the Chinese people except through official interpreters. While Rehage and Beijing’s other foreign critics are not in mortal danger, China’s current rulers are seeking to ensure that the country’s digital reality is immune to alternate interpretation.