BEIJING - After a decade as a reporter and producer for China Central Television, Wang Qinglei grew tired of the increasingly “stifling environment” for this country’s journalists, and took to social media to say so.
Fired as a result, Wang then penned an extraordinary farewell letter. He lamented that journalists at the state broadcaster had been slowly turned from watchdogs into “manipulated clowns.” While CCTV has rapidly expanded, opening 70 bureaus around the globe, its domestic channel had gone from being respected to being mocked, Wang said.
“Having a brand new building and new equipment, having nationwide and worldwide correspondent posts, does not mean we have everything,” he wrote. “What we have slowly lost is credibility and influence.”
In the past decade, China’s Communist government has gradually tightened the screws on the media. Now, under President Xi Jinping, the campaign to control journalists has intensified sharply. While there has been a lot of focus in U.S. media on the difficulties of foreign correspondents in getting their visas renewed, local journalists risk getting fired and even jailed for their work.
Journalists complain that more of their stories are being censored than in the past, while new restrictions have been imposed in recent months requiring them to seek permission before meeting foreign reporters and business people.
In the final quarter of 2013, reporters across China were forced to attend ideological training meant to impart the “Marxist view” of journalism and to pass a multiple-choice examination on their knowledge of the Communist Party’s myriad slogans.
At the same time, the main Chinese journalism schools have been told that a provincial propaganda official will be placed in a leading management role at the institutions, professors said, curtailing whatever academic freedom they now enjoy under university and Education Ministry control.
“After so many years of reform and opening up, they still use methods from the 18th century; it is ridiculous,” complained one professor, who requested anonymity to avoid problems with the authorities. “Most of the academics in different schools don’t want to obey such a decision.”
The government, experts say, is deeply alarmed about the growing impact of social media and the Internet, and the way that critical stories, whether written by local reporters or foreign journalists, can spread around the country in an instant. At the same time, a rising tide of protests at home, and the experience of the Arab Spring abroad, have the government determined to do whatever it takes to ensure its own survival.
The latest crackdown may also reflect Xi’s authoritarian style, which has become more evident as he has consolidated power since taking control of the party more than a year ago, experts say. He is tightening control of the media even as he is undertaking a series of reforms meant to stimulate the economy, clean up the party and address some areas of popular discontent.
“We must adhere to the Marxist view of journalism,” he said in a major speech on ideology in August. “We must communicate positive energy. We have to make sure the front of the Internet is firmly controlled by people who are loyal to Marxism, loyal to the party and loyal to the people.”
China consistently scores among the most repressive nations in global press freedom reports, less draconian than Iran and North Korea but more so than Cuba and Vietnam. Yet some decent investigative journalism is practiced here, even if only a fraction of such articles sees the light of day. Chinese journalists frequently report on social injustice, corruption involving local officials and environmental degradation, and have helped uncover health crises from SARS to AIDS.
“From the mid- to late-1990s until 2002-2003, we saw a renaissance, on a Chinese scale, of harder-hitting reporting, even investigative reporting of a quality we would see in freer countries,” said David Bandurski of the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. “But in the past 10 years, we have seen a consistent ratcheting up of the pressure.”
Media in China range from government-funded, state-run organizations such as the Xinhua news agency or People’s Daily newspaper, which function as mouthpieces of the party, to more commercial and liberal papers and magazines such as Southern Weekly. Often owned by provincial party committees, the latter publications are expected to raise their revenue through circulation and advertisements. That means journalists there try to win credibility with readers through more critical reporting.
Journalists sometimes talk of their profession as “dancing with shackles.” The shackles are provided by the propaganda ministry, through directives to editors about what can and cannot be covered. Reporters at the Southern Weekly newspaper say they received more than 1,000 such messages last year. Some subjects, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations or criticism of the president, are clearly off-limits, and there is no room for independent reporting on Tibet, the military or religious issues. But elsewhere, lines are more blurred.
Reporting on a neighboring province tends to be easier than exposing corruption closer to home. Often reporters can break news - on a protest or scandal - before the censor swings into action. “If you are quick, you can get stories out,” one senior reporter said. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game.”
But authorities are getting savvier, too, installing compliant editors to carry out pre-censorship of stories.
When reporters at Southern Weekly staged a rare protest last January about a particularly crude piece of censorship, the authorities responded by intensifying controls.
A few reporters have been made examples of, to scare their colleagues into submission. In November, investigative reporter Luo Changping was transferred out of his job at a leading economics magazine shortly after receiving an award from global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. The 33-year-old Luo may have overstepped the line when he used his acceptance speech to criticize the “political smog” hanging over Beijing.
Others face worse fates: the Committee to Protect Journalists says 32 reporters, editors and bloggers are behind bars in China, the third-highest total of any country in the world.
A financial journalist, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to foreign reporters, said many of her stories ended up being deleted, especially negative ones about state-owned enterprises, or pieces on companies owned by high-ranking Communist Party families. Many powerful companies increasingly either bribe local propaganda officials or use their political influence to shut down negative reporting, journalists say.
“If China can’t have good, reliable reports on business people and companies, that can have a potentially damaging effect on anyone looking to do business in China or with Chinese companies,” Bandurski said.
Ideological training is not new - courses have been conducted roughly every decade since 1978 - but it is striking that it still occurs even as China continues to liberalize its economy.
“It’s about saying: ‘Don’t forget who you are working for. We can take your job away,’ “ Bandurski said. “It’s spreading fear.”
As cynicism pervades the system, corruption has become endemic, with journalists and media houses accepting bribes either to withdraw critical stories or to plant negative news about someone’s political or commercial rival, experts say.
Yu Chen was a leading investigative journalist until he was fired in 2012, for suggesting on social media that the army ought to answer to the nation rather than to the Communist Party. He says the party’s efforts to remove people like him have taken their toll.
“Nobody wants to push the envelope like before; there are not as many risk-takers,” he said.
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Washington Post correspondents Liu Liu and Guo Chen contributed to this report.