By Madeline Earp/CPJ Senior Asia Research Associate
China didn't make the cut for our 10 most censored countries. While the Chinese Communist Party's censorship apparatus is notorious, journalists and Internet users work hard to overcome the restrictions. Nations like Eritrea and North Korea lack that dynamism.
But China is not off the hook. In fact, CPJ's report reads like a list of China's favorite allies. China loves these nations, judging by its state media reports on Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Burma, Belarus and more. And they love China back: Iranian Deputy Minister for Economic Affairs Ali Agha Mohammadi, announcing plans for Internet censorship in 2011, openly cited China's information controls as a model, according to Fast Company magazine.
What's more, international news reports indicate that China is nurturing these regimes with technological and economic support, although the extent of its involvement is difficult to track. China, while not the world's most censored, may be on the way to becoming the world's censor.
Two Chinese telecom giants have been accused of facilitating censorship in Iran, the fourth most-censored nation on CPJ's list. Huawei sold equipment allowing Iranian police to track cellphone users in 2009 during a crackdown on anti-government demonstrators, according to The Wall Street Journal. "Huawei representatives emphasized that, being from China, they had expertise censoring the news," the Journal reported. Huawei denied wrongdoing and said it would limit operations in Iran. Reuters revealed a 2010 deal between Iran and China-based ZTE for surveillance apparatus, though ZTE said the equipment it provided was "standard." ZTE also declined to comment on a 2011 Journalarticle saying it, along with some Western companies, provided technology for Muammar Qaddafi's agents to spy on emails and chat messages.
These reports are the more concerning because the companies involved are huge global players. Both Huawei and ZTE are active in Africa. They have operated in Central Asia for more than a decade, according to the Open Society Institute's New York-based EurasiaNetwebsite. And Sri Lankan media expert Sanjana Hattotuwa, on his citizen journalism website Groundviews, notes that "major telecoms providers in Sri Lanka have multimillion dollar contracts with ZTE and Huawei," citing local media reports and a Wikileaks U.S. diplomatic cable from Colombo in 2009.
The U.S., the U.K., and Australia have all expressed concerns over the companies' possible ties to the Chinese government, and the cyber-security implications of their global presence. A British security official told The Australiannewspaper he had "no doubt" Huawei partnered with China's espionage services. Yet "allegations against Huawei and ZTE are almost impossible to prove," EurasiaNet said.
Here are some other examples of how China's repressive attitude is creeping beyond its borders:
In China, this media push is known as "soft power." While many media analysts believe editorial restrictions will prevent Chinese media from competing on a world stage, it already reaches a wide audience. Over 2.5 million copies of state newspaper China Daily's China Watch advertising supplement have been distributed in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the U.K. Daily Telegraph, according to the Guardian.
Why worry about something as low-impact as an advertising supplement? First, it's packaged as news. Second, because the news outlets which carry it might compromise their standards. Earlier this year, the Post admitted in a correction that "the Chinese government modified, deleted, and added questions" to an interview it published with Vice President Xi Jinping.
Modifying, deleting, and adding? That's exactly how propaganda officials manage news reports domestically. If Chinese leaders have their way, it's what they will soon be doing all over the world.
Madeline Earp is senior researcher for CPJ's Asia Program. She has studied Mandarin in China and Taiwan, and graduated with a master's in East Asian studies from Harvard.
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