The policy is making headway although the Chinese government prefers to be discreet about it.
“The fight for freedom of information and media freedom in China is no longer limited to defending journalists and bloggers who are censored, harassed or detained,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk.
“China is increasingly waging an international war against freedom of information. Its successful ‘exportation’ of this fight is due above all to the passivity of western countries preoccupied with trying to trade with this economic giant. In the past, the international community tried to make China change. Now it is the opposite. Now we must resist in order to prevent China from gagging us and from imposing its propaganda beyond its borders. An urgent response is needed.”
For years China has resolutely pursued a not entirely official goal of establishing a new media and information world order in which it would occupy a central position and would be able to shape opinion as it wished.
This goal and the strategy for achieving it were described in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal in 2011 by Li Congjun, who headed the Chinese news agency Xinhua until 2014 and who is now a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s central committee. The op-ed piece was headlined “Toward a New World Media Order.”
President Xi, who also happens to head a central committee offshoot called the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatization, signalled his desire to be assertive on the new information technology front by beginning his US visit with a stopover in Seattle, where he met with the CEOs of such tech industry giants as Microsoft, Apple and Amazon.
China has pursued this strategy in various ways in the past five years. It is responsible for the World Media Summit, which brings together international media executives and which has been dubbed the “Media Olympics” in allusion to China’s close relationship with the International Olympic Committee. Begun in 2009, these meetings have been entirely organized and funded by Xinhua.
The same goes for the World Internet Conference, launched last year and hosted by China, which focuses on Internet business. The first one, held in Wuzhen from 19 to 21 November, drew a thousand businessmen from more than 100 countries including ICT world leaders. Even Facebook was represented although it cannot be accessed from within China.
Unfazed by the obvious contradiction, the authorities suspended Internet censorship in Wuzhen during the conference so that the visitors could connect to social networks and post videos on YouTube. Clearly nothing was said about the hundred or so journalists and bloggers who continue to languish in Chinese prisons for trying to circumvent the regime’s online censorship.
By infiltrating the emerging media and information world order by economic means – purchasing shares in media organizations or forming partnerships – China establishes a presence and legitimacy that will later allow it to filter sensitive information and criticism about itself, its leaders and the party much more effectively.
It is using the lure of its market size to seduce international Internet companies, which – in their desire to be part of this new El Dorado – will not hesitate to release China from certain “obligations” regarding freedom of information.
New examples of the considerable efforts deployed by China to export its model and shape media coverage beyond its borders are emerging with increasing frequency.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced in March that it intends to create a school of journalism based on the Communication University of China, which inculcates the party line into young aspiring journalists and which is run by former members of the Propaganda Department.
In September 2014, German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle announced its intention to establish a partnership with CCTV, one of the pillars of the Chinese state’s propaganda system. The partnership included a content-sharing agreement that would extend DW’s reach in China.
A few months prior to the announcement, Su Yutong, a Chinese blogger and journalist living in Germany who had worked for DW since 2010, was fired on the official grounds that she had illegally divulged information for internal use although her comments about the Chinese regime may have been the real reason.
Su claimed that DW had begun censoring its China coverage following Peter Limbourg’s appointment as its director-general. DW finally backtracked a few months later and terminated its cooperation with CCTV.
Baidu, a Chinese Internet services giant and spearhead of Chinese online censorship, penetrated the Brazilian market in July 2014, launching a Portuguese-language search engine called Busca. Brazil thereby became the second foreign country to “benefit” from its search engine services, after Japan.
However it quickly emerged that searches for “Tiananmen Square,” “Tankman” or “Falun Gong” were being purged of all “sensitive” content and were instead providing lots of links to People’s Daily content. This international censorship reportedly ended after protests by many Internet users in Brazil and the rest of the world.
Baidu’s victory in 2014 in a class-action suit – Zhang et al v. Baidu.com Inc – that a group of pro-democracy activists brought against it in New York was a watershed for Chinese censorship’s international progress.
The suit accused Baidu of illegally suppressing content about democracy in China so that it is inaccessible to Internet users in the United States. The court’s ruling on 28 March 2014 that Baidu has a right to use “editorial judgment” reinforced the Chinese company’s immunity.
The Chinese government may also be making its influence felt in US academic circles. The well-known Chinese dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng claims that New York University, which had been housing him and his family since they fled China in May 2012, forced them to leave the campus after pressure from China.
Some media outlets have linked Chen’s eviction to the opening of an NYU campus in Shanghai in 2013 under the Global Network University programme.
The world’s democracies cannot remain passive in the face of this offensive. Their principles oblige them to defend freedom of information, combat censorship and resist China’s growing influence, especially when it tries to export its authoritarian practices to the rest of the world.