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How China censors its masses

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This is first of a two-part feature on media censorship and abuse in the Peoples Republic of China

The unexpected detention of 10 South African nationals by authorities in China last month has seemingly rekindled public interest in the oppressive censorship policies of the Far Eastern communist state. The case left many baffled as to the nature of the alleged “propaganda videos” the tour group were accused of viewing, in a country notorious for its harsh clampdown on media freedom. Confusion was further stoked upon their release, when reports began to emerge that suggested the supposed “banned content” may simply have been a BBC documentary on the life of Genghis Khan, founder of a Mongol Empire that ruled over much of Chinese territory between the 13th and 14th centuries.

That form of autocratic state control has been a constant fixture throughout Chinese history and is still very much evident today; although without the privilege of being labelled an empire or dynasty. Since the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by Mao Zedong, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has maintained a strict iron-rule on information filtered to the it’s masses, as well as what is allowed out of the country.

This form of censorship has earned China a certain degree of infamy; in an index by Reporters without Borders focusing on global press freedom the country is currently listed 176th amongst 180 countries. This puts it behind notoriously media strict states like Egypt, Iran and Sudan, and just above North Korea, Syria and Eritrea (the worst for media freedom).

A map of global censorship levels [Al Jazeera]
A map of global censorship levels [Al Jazeera]
This authoritarian control on topics deemed politically sensitive by the government is widely viewed as a means for the CPC to maintain full control of the state and the ideologies of its citizens. The ultimate goal is to limit, or rather stifle any ideas that may fuel separatist or ‘counter-revolutionist’ views, and potentially stoke some form of rebellion.

The impact of this is two-pronged; not only does it limit Chinese access to outside information not in line with the ruling party’s narrative, but it also prevents citizens from discovering “alternate systems of governance”. Of course this has yielded a reasonable amount of success, but locals have also found ways to work around this, at least where information on the internet is concerned. In the public sphere however, few dare speak out, and those with the knowledge simply feign ignorance.

A video on Chinese nationals afraid to speak out on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre

How is it enforced?

Much of China’s media monitoring is based on internet content, with the country considered the strictest and most pervasive in terms of online restrictions. This is to the extent that that it’s earned itself the less than endearing moniker of “The Great Firewall of China”.

Through a process of targeting keywords, authorities are able to completely shutout topics it deems not fit for public viewing. Terms like ‘democracy’, ‘revolution’, ‘human rights’, ‘anti-communism’ and many others that may lead to information to fuel anti-government sentiments are completely off limits. Popular international search engines have been allowed to operate in the country, on condition of establishing localised restricted versions of their sites. In addition, China also places much emphasis in the way of promoting local websites, all of which are heavily censored. Content on these sites are constantly scrutinised to ensure they do not bypass these restrictions.

In addition to the block on democracy-orientated info, religious content not approved by the government (often based on minority religions), information on ethnic independence movements, pornography, and violent films or video content are also clamped down on. While some contentions issues have been allowed, it is usually altered to fit the regimes narrative. Despite this, many have been able to flout such restrictions through the use of VPNs, which effectively help mask their internet usage.

Outside of the internet-sphere, print publications have also come under fire as far as the media landscape is concerned. The CPC effectively seeks to ensure that all news is good news, or at least not harmful to its reputation amongst the population. To guarantee positive and uncritical reporting, journalists are legally restricted in what they are allowed to cover, and how said information can be put across to the public.

Negative incidents within mainland China rarely get more than a few sentences coverage, and any controversies involving high ranking officials are given none at all. Journalists who fail to abide by these restrictions face arrest and detention, and in some cases even torture at the hands of authorities. There are even financial incentives offered to companies and agencies that adhere to self-censorship, making the practice beneficial on both sides.

This form of censorship is also evident in schools and universities, where controversial topics and historic events have been completely eradicated from textbooks, and information is filtered to be extremely pro-communism and pro-government.

Sites that are banned

The country’s online ban extends to several websites and social media platforms, pretty much part of the daily routine of internet users the world over. These include services such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google’s Gmail service amongst others. This has not been all detrimental however, as it has led to the emergence and promotion of local upstarts, which has ultimately provided a boost to the country’s economy.

For example, YouTube has been replaced by a number of video sharing sights, the most Popular being Tudou. The void left by the absence of Facebook and Twitter has also been filled by sites like RenRen and Weibo amongst others.

Weibo, a Twitter alternative
Weibo, a Twitter alternative

Also barred are the websites of several U.S. and western based universities, most of which contain free and open discussion on topics like ‘human rights, ‘democracy’ and others not favoured by China’s communist regime. In a similar vein, several foreign news agencies with a history of addressing ‘politically sensitive matters’ have also faced the wrath of the country’s media restrictions.

Potentially giving light to the case of those who were detained is that the BBC are listed amongst these ‘banned media sources’, meaning that if reports of the group viewing the Genghis Khan documentary are true, it could very well have constituted a violation of the country’s censorship policies. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)

Next: Content and key historical events targeted for censorship.

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