03/12/2013 12:51 pm ET Updated May 11, 2013

China's new leaders face challenges to censorship

By CPJ Staff

As Xi Jinping takes office as president of China, the citizenry he governs is more sophisticated, informed, and interconnected than any before, posing unprecedented challenges to Beijing’s policy of media control. At the same time, journalists who endeavor to test the system still do so at great personal risk.

The Internet has played a huge role in China’s changes. During Hu Jintao’s 10 years in power--dubbed the “golden decade” by Chinese state media because of the period’s extraordinary economic growth--the rate of Internet use rose from 4.6% to 42.1%, according to China’s own figures.

But Chinese access to the Internet is not unfettered. Beijing’s online censorship system, known as the Great Firewall, is a mix of filters by website and by keyword; requirements for hosting companies and platform operators to monitor and delete a wide range of material; and pressure on users, who know--thanks to dropped connections and other warnings--that their every click may be observed.

Digital censorship is combined with a more traditional approach. All Chinese media remain, to varying degrees, under state control. Most official outlets, beset by propaganda directives, temper their reporting. Those journalists who are determined to ask tough questions risk censorship, professional censure, prosecution, and extrajudicial measures. China is one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, according to CPJ research, and vague legal language means one never knows when one might cross a forbidden line. In some cases, published material has been marshaled as many as 10 years later to sentence a writer to jail. International journalists are stonewalled by officials, restricted from traveling to sensitive areas, and occasionally expelled, while international publications are censored.

But this system of control is increasingly endangered. One of the most powerful weapons in the fight for freer expression is weibo, the homegrown, Twitter-like microblog platforms. Although weibo posts are censored and accounts can be closed down for content deemed unacceptable, discussions on weibo are much more freewheeling and open than elsewhere in the Chinese public sphere, and give citizens a place to air grievances. Debates on weibo have had a demonstrable effect on public policy, such as helping to engender tighter safety regulations after the government’s poor handling of a deadly high-speed rail crash in 2011. Weibo also give journalists an unprecedented platform to publish information that they cannot report in traditional media, including censorship orders.

Even as such tools increasingly empower Chinese Internet users to counter official propaganda, repressive regimes worldwide are nonetheless looking to Beijing as a model and a leader for keeping free expression in check. Nations such as Pakistan and Iran have stated outright their wish to establish digital controls like China’s, while Beijing has led efforts within the United Nations to more tightly regulate the Internet. Chinese state media are increasing their global footprint, while the country uses its economic power to bend other countries’ media to its orbit through journalist training seminars and dominance over Chinese-language media outlets catering to the diaspora.

The risk of China’s growing engagement is that a filtered Internet and self-censoring media spreads as a norm. At the same time, however, other nations’ discovery of the benefits of a free press and a free Internet may serve to accelerate change within China.

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