PARIS – Since the Tiananmen Square massacre 30 years ago, China has achieved extraordinary economic development. Yet, contrary to the expectations of many Western leaders and analysts, the country has not gradually embraced press freedom or respect for civil rights. On the contrary: as a recent Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report shows, China today is actively working to build a repressive “new world media order” – an initiative that poses a clear and present danger to the world’s democracies.
Press freedom, one of the main demands of the Tiananmen demonstrators, is officially guaranteed by Article 35 of the Chinese constitution. Yet the Communist Party of China (CPC) and its state apparatus still routinely flout this provision.
In fact, China is one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, and ranks 177th of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index. The “Great Firewall of China,” an ultra-sophisticated Internet-filtering system, limits the access of most of China’s 830 million Internet users, and the CPC has no qualms about pressuring publishers and social-media platforms to censor themselves. China now openly rejects the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with rhetoric about “social harmony” and the “relativity of values.”
Self-confidence has replaced the self-consciousness that some Chinese leaders felt in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre. Today, the regime is proudly promoting its authoritarian model around the world. The new world media order that it is attempting to build is less well-known than the Belt and Road Initiative, but just as ambitious.
With its media-repression campaign, China is capitalizing on divisions within the world’s democracies. It is finding the cracks in societies’ commitment to democratic values, such as tolerance and openness, and attempting to rend them open with propaganda promoting its own political tenets. Its leaders know that, when journalists are silenced, the alternatives to authoritarianism are gradually extinguished. After all, it is impossible to foster constructive political debate when questioning the official view is a punishable offense.
Already, the CPC has begun exporting its repressive methods by means of major international conferences, such as the World Media Summit and the World Internet Conference. In Southeast Asia, legislative reforms aimed at restricting press freedom are patterned on Chinese laws, and many journalists are being invited to learn “journalism with Chinese characteristics.”
Even in places where press freedom remains legally protected, China is interfering with its citizens’ ability to make informed choices about public policy. From Sweden to Australia, Chinese embassies are pressuring Western media outlets to censor their own reporting. Meanwhile, the authorities are buying sponsored content in leading Western publications, and continuing to invest in their global propaganda apparatus.
The world’s democracies must move beyond their myopic competition for China’s favor and come together to resist its alternative authoritarian vision. This means mounting an ambitious, persistent, and coordinated response that defends the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We must not hesitate to fight back against those who attack press freedom. We must raise our voices to condemn the abuses that strike at our values. And we must do it now.
On July 10 and 11, leading defenders of press freedom from around the world will meet at the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London. They must take this opportunity not just to reaffirm core principles, but also to rally together to build barriers to China’s media influence, and to end impunity for press-freedom violations.
Such concerted resistance would honor those who have paid the ultimate price for defending freedom of information in China, such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, whom the Chinese government left to die in detention. It would also honor the more than 100 journalists detained today in life-threatening conditions, including RSF award-winner Huang Qi and the photographer Lu Guang, who received numerous prizes for his work on social and environmental issues in China.
Thirty years ago this month, thousands of peaceful demonstrators were massacred in Beijing and across China for courageously standing up to an authoritarian regime. The world’s democracies owe it to these individuals to show similar courage today, as they defend press freedom – and democracy itself – worldwide.
This op-ed has been written and published in collaboration with the Project Syndicate.