Sixty years of news media and censorship

In an affirmation of its authority, the Chinese government is today celebrating the 60th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic of China with fireworks and military parades but there is also a need to evaluate the past 60 years from the Chinese media’s viewpoint and in the name of the Chinese people’s right to be informed. Reporters Without Borders would like to participate in this anniversary in its own way, by highlighting some dates that shed light on the media’s evolution in China. The past 60 years have been difficult for journalists as the Maoist regime wanted to turn the media into nothing more than propaganda tools. Journalists and bloggers nowadays are no longer locked in a totalitarian grip but the censorship has never stopped. The Communist Party continues to exercise direct control over the news agency Xinhua, newspapers such as People’s Daily, and the national broadcaster CCTV. The Chinese media enjoyed a degree of freedom before the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed on 1 October 1949 but diversity of views and privately-owned media were swept away when Mao Zedong seized power. Although China’s journalists had been censored by political parties, above all the Kuomintang, and by Japanese occupiers, there had been a nascent press freedom that was crushed by the Communist Party. Editorial freedom came to a complete end in 1949. Intellectuals, including journalists, lived in permanent fear of arbitrary repression orchestrated by the regime until Mao’s death in 1976. The toll in human lives was appalling. Many journalists were killed or “committed suicide” and for decades the public had to endure mind-numbing propaganda. Some journalists abandoned professional ethics and participated actively in the all-out promotion of the party’s interests. The record has been more varied since China embarked on its economic reforms and, overall, the situation of journalists has improved. But the increase in freedom has not so much been bestowed by a generous regime as won by journalists who have risked being fired or jailed in the process. The Internet has offered new vistas to journalists and bloggers since the end of the 1990s. On the one hand, this new technology is a revolutionary tool for putting pressure on national and local authorities but it has also become a formidable propaganda tool for the government. Before 1 October – emerging space for media Modern media on the western model did not appear in China until the 1890s. The first Chinese newspapers were run by foreigners, mainly missionaries or businessmen. Progressively-minded young Chinese students who had been initiated into journalism abroad also introduced reporting techniques. In wake of the 4 May 1919 movement, in which Chinese intellectuals called for the young republic’s democratisation and modernisation, publications appeared that were critical of the ruling nationalist party, the Kuomintang (KMT). Journalists dared to tackle a range of subjects including human rights, the criminal code, the death penalty and administrative reforms. But the Kuomintang’s hostility to newspaper independence gave rise to much tension in the 1930s. Although there was censorship in the first half of the 20th century, the Chinese media unquestionably enjoyed a degree of freedom that was due to the weakness of the state combined with the influence of western nations that had a presence in the territorial concessions. Dagongbao, a newspaper run by Zhang Jiluan until 1941, was an example of this modern, independent press that was critical of certain Kuomintang decisions without being a mouthpiece of the communists or the Japanese. 1949 – propaganda apparatus created “The role and power of newspapers consist in their ability to present the Party’s line, its specific policies, goals and work methods, to the masses in the most effective and rapid of ways.” This is how Chairman Mao Zedong, in 1961, explained why journalists and intellectuals had to take their orders from the Communist Party. After creating propaganda media during the years of resistance, Mao introduced the Leninist press model in Beijing and the rest of China. As the French academic Alain Peyraube wrote: “The political and ideological role (…) of the main mass media (print media, radio, TV, posters, cinema) is primordial.” From the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949 onwards, the media are seen “not only as a collective propagandist and political agitator but also as an organiser” of society. Sixty years later, the Communist Party of China (CPC) continues to be attached to Mao’s theory of the “mass line.” The CPC’s leaders rule the masses. As they are not elected by the people, they are accountable not to the people but to the Party. When the theory is applied to journalism, the press becomes the means of communicating from top to bottom, the Party’s tool for “educating” the masses and mobilising popular will in support of socialism. The mass media are therefore not allowed to cover the internal processes by which policies are developed and, in particular, the debates within the CPC. The official Chinese press is the CPC’s “mouth and tongue” but also its eyes and ears. Many of the reports written by Xinhua’s journalists are never published but they are sent to the Party’s leaders. Under the CPC’s leadership, there have been four phases in the development of Chinese journalism. The first began with the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949 and ended with the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. During this period, private ownership of the press was suppressed and the party eliminated media diversity, establishing strong propaganda mouthpieces such as Xinhua. Centralised control of the media was stepped up with the Great Leap Forward, with stress being placed on class struggle. Grave misrepresentations of reality occurred, with millions of Chinese peasants dying of hunger because of one-sided press reports designed to ensure that industrial development was put first. 2 May 1956 – “Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend” A speech by Mao in May 1956 launched the Hundred Flowers, a movement of openness that was followed by a crackdown on intellectuals. It was a notable example of Mao’s use of the press. Both movements, the Hundred Flowers and its ensuing corollary, the Anti-Right Movement, were launched through the media. His first speech seemed to partially lift the threat that had been hanging over journalists until then. Mao himself encouraged intellectuals to criticise the party with the aim of improving it. People’s Daily announced shortly afterwards that it would cover both socialist and capitalist countries, and all subjects, “agreeable or not.” In another sign of openness, the head of Xinhua went to London and Paris to seek inspiration from the way European news agencies worked. A People’s Daily editorial went to so far as to criticise the haste of political leaders “to do everything overnight.” The first “dazibao” – calling for the creation of a “democratic garden” – was posted on a wall at the prestigious University of Beijing on 17 May 1957. The poster, in which the author expressed his views in large characters, would soon be adopted by the Party as a recurrent tool for encouraging the masses and later civil society to express their grievances. This period of openness did not last. The counter-movement, an Anti-Right campaign, was launched in June 1957. An editorial in People’s Daily on 8 June denounced those who were trying to use the rectification campaign (the Hundred Flowers) to wage class struggle. In the end, around 400,000 “rightists,” including many journalists and intellectuals, would be sent to reeducation camps. 10 November 1966 – People’s Daily article starts Cultural Revolution A People’s Daily article entitled “On historical revisionism,” denouncing the 1961 play “Hai Rui” by historian Wu Han as heretical, is regarded as the start of the Cultural Revolution. The article’s author, none other than Propaganda Department chief Yao Wenyuan, accused Wu of implicitly criticising Maoism. Wu was arrested and executed three years later. His wife was driven to commit suicide. Their daughter ended up in a psychiatric hospital, where she also killed herself in 1976. It was this article criticising a work of literature that launched the Cultural Revolution, which the dictator and his followers would use to eliminate all debate in the press for more than a decade. The totalitarian madness drove journalists to practice a personality cult of Mao, while writers and journalists suspected of nostalgia for the “Old China” were persecuted, humiliated, jailed or murdered. Winter 1988 – “River Elegy” documentary subtly criticises Party A liberalising wind was blowing over China in the 1980s and some journalists took advantage of it. An example of the new relative freedom was the broadcasting of the six-part documentary Heshang (“River Elegy”) on the state-owned national television station CCTV in the winter of 1988 “River Elegy” ( drew an analogy between the Yellow River, the cradle of China’s ancient civilisation, now all silted up, and China’s current stagnation as a result of isolation and the conservatism of its leaders. The solution, according to the authors, was to open up to the blue ocean, the symbol of Japan and the West. Just as the documentary was becoming very popular, the government decided to suspend its broadcasting. The “River Elegy” episode was a precursor of both the boldness that students would show a few months later in Tiananmen Square and the Party’s realisation that too much free expression could threaten its legitimacy. After the Tiananmen Square events, the documentary’s scriptwriter, Su Xiaokang (, had to flee to Hong Kong while some of the other people who had worked on the documentary were arrested. 26 April 1989 – People’s Daily editorial mocking demonstrators backfires When former General Secretary Hu Yaobang died on 15 April 1989, several thousand students staged a series of peaceful demonstrations in Beijing in support of this Chinese-style moderniser, who had been ousted in 1987 for being too much of a reformer. Seeking to play down and even mock the student demos, People’s Daily ran an editorial on 26 April 1989 denouncing their “abnormal character” ( “The aim of this small handful of people is to sow confusion within the Chinese people and disorder in the country, and thereby put an end to China’s stability and unity,” the editorial said. Far from silencing the protests, the humiliating and condescending statement just fanned the flames. The party’s reformists tried in vain to have the editorial retracted and to start a dialogue with the students. They included General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted just after the 4 June massacre and placed under house arrest until the end of his life. Backed by Deng Xiaoping, then aged 83, the CPC old guard stuck to its original firmness. The dialogue between state media and the young demonstrators was quickly exhausted. Press freedom was one of the student demands and there were journalists who joined the movement. The result was a major purge in which several journalists, including Wang Juntao, ended up in prison. Several Chinese journalists based abroad defected after the 4 June massacre, showing the degree of support within the media for the pro-democracy movement. Since then, several journalists such as Shi Tao have been arrested for referring to the June 1989 protests. 1 September 1997 – outspoken daily’s launch Government pressure is slightly more relaxed in the southern city of Guangzhou, where the daily Nanfang Dushibao was launched in September 1997. Hailed for its outspoken style, contrasting with the tiresome rhetoric in the official media, it was able to fulfil the watchdog role that media are supposed to play, exposing some of the scandals that have accompanied China’s hasty development. Frequently “purged” by the authorities, the newspaper made a speciality of denouncing officials in neighbouring provinces. Its success showed that the Chinese public was hungry for newspaper reporting that was more lively and aggressive. More newspapers were launched in its wake. Nanfang Dushibao’s finest demonstration of the crucial role the media can play in China was in 2003, when Sun Zhigang, a young graphic designer, was arrested by the Guangzhou police for lacking a residence permit and was found dead three days later. The local authorities tried to cover up his death but, under pressure from Nanfang Dushibao and Internet users, the policemen responsible were arrested and the residence permit law was amended. Nonetheless, the newspaper’s daring editor was later jailed. March 2003 – Internet makes cover-ups more difficult Still hesitant at the start of the decade, the Internet began to emerge in 2003 as a major tool for exposing corruption and abuses, and for putting pressure on the central and provincial governments. The central government’s censorship of the media’s coverage of the SARS pandemic in March 2003 was seen to be anachronistic. Imposed after local newspaper articles about unexplained deaths, the censorship just increased the dangers. Despite the WHO’s alerts and the Hong Kong media’s coverage, the government continued to censor the Chinese media while the entire world became more and more concerned about the pandemic. The Internet has demonstrated thousands of times since then that the flow of news and information is of vital important for the development of democracy and for the improvement of living standards in China. After 60 years of censorship, the Chinese press deserves independence. We call for an end to the control exercised over the media by the Propaganda Department, by the General Administration of Press and Publications and by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.
Published on
Updated on 20.01.2016