"Change China before it changes us"
By Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
In a congress beginning on 18 October, the Chinese Communist Party will extend President Xi Jinping’s term by another five years and will incorporate his “Chinese dream” doctrine into the constitution of the People’s Republic. China’s “New Helmsman” is an enemy of constitutional democracy, universal human rights, civil society and media freedom. And how does he see journalism’s role? While visiting the state TV broadcaster’s headquarters in 2016, he urged journalists to relay “the party’s propaganda” and to “love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action."
In China – ranked 176th out of 180 countries in the 2017 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) – dozens of journalists and bloggers are in prison for resisting orders from the party central committee’s propaganda department. A digital censorship system dubbed the “Great Firewall" keeps China’s 750 million Internet users apart from the rest of the world. Article 35 of the constitution vainly proclaims “freedom of expression and the press.” After demanding these freedoms, Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo paid with his life as result of a lack of medical care in prison.
The party’s goal is not just controlling news and information domestically. China wants to establish a “new world media order.” Li Congjun, who used to run the Chinese state news agency Xinhua and is now a member of the party central committee, explained the strategy in 2011. He said the goal was to overturn an obsolete world order in which information flowed solely “from West to East, North to South, and from developed to developing countries.” Citing a 1980 UNESCO recommendation, he called for the world’s media to become “an active force for promoting social progress.” Progress with “Chinese characteristics,” obviously.
In 2009, the Chinese government created the World Media Summit, sometimes dubbed the “Media Olympic Games,” an initiative entirely designed, organized and funded by Xinhua. In 2014, China also launched the World Internet Conference, to which thousands of businessmen from hundreds of countries flock every year. China even canvassed this year for the post of director-general of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), which is the UN agency responsible for media issues.
Beijing is succeeding in influencing the media world beyond its borders. The Communication University of China is working with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government to open a “journalism university” in India. China spends a lot of money on inviting journalists from Africa, Latin America and the Asia-Pacific region to come to “develop their critical spirit” in Beijing. Economic pressure forces content providers all over the world to censor themselves in order to access the Chinese market. Even the Cambridge University Press almost got sucked in when it recently purged its China catalogue of around 100 articles that would offend Beijing. It backtracked after an outcry but other less prestigious publishers are not in position to do this.
China is stingy with the press visas it issues to foreign reporters but Xinhua plans to have opened 200 international bureaux by 2020. Xinhua is much appreciated by the world’s autocrats because of its policy of “non-interference” in the domestic policies of the countries it covers. Such leading international broadcast media as TV5, VOA and the BBC are unavailable in China outside of luxury hotels but the English, Spanish, French, Arabic and Russian-language broadcasts of China Global Television Network (the former CCTV) currently reach 85 million viewers in more than 100 countries.
Finally, China exports its censorship and surveillance tools. A Portuguese-language version of China’s leading search engine, Baidu, was launched in Brazil under the name of Busca. Content regarded by Beijing as “sensitive” was clearly blocked by Busca although, after protests, this censorship was apparently lifted. China is also trying to promote international adoption of its unencrypted instant messaging service, in which it can access all the data, including conversation detail. If the democracies do not resist, China will not only never be able to enjoy press freedom but will also gradually extend its own lid on free speech to the rest of the world. This is why it is important to change China before it changes us.
This column was published in the following media: