It’s no secret that China bans foreign news portals that offend its oh-so delicate sensibilities, swiftly and without mercy or explanation. This week has seen The Wall Street Journal and Reuters‘ Chinese websites blocked. There is, so far, no explanation for China’s blocking of these sites — could be anything from the Tiananmen attack reporting to Paul Mooney’s rejected visa — but signs point to a bleak future for foreign media in the Middle Kingdom.
This news comes as Bloomberg is under scrutiny for allegedly censoring sensitive stories to be able to report in China; their site has been blocked since July 2012 for running a story on Xi Jinping’s family wealth. This is not totally dissimilar to the censor’s axe that is still chopping on The New York Times‘ neck (Chinese and English language websites) for a story about Wen Jiabao’s family wealth. The message from China’s censorship czars is clear: get in line, or get out.
Annoying as it is that none of the above hyperlinks — online portals for some of the most widely-respected news organizations in the world — can be accessed in China without a VPN, everyone, from publishers to Hollywood, is struggling to keep up with China’s censorship whims. But the outside media — often the boogeyman in the Chinese government’s eyes — is under increasing pressure to keep the CCP’s propaganda gods happy.
However, not everyone is taking this new round of blocks lying down. Yesterday, it was announced that a group of activists behind GreatFire launched a mirror site to make sure the website is still accessible in China. Charlie Smith (a pseudonym) told Mashable: “We were really upset by the news on Friday of these two blocks.” The activists entreated in a blog post, “Mr. Xi Jinping, we hope you are listening. Just let this episode slide. Pretend it did not happen. Do nothing to stop this.”
But this sort of half measure provides for a dreary future for foreign journalism in China. NPR quoted Orville Schell, a journalist who runs the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York, as saying, “Every media outlet must cover China to be in the big top…If they get precluded, and this is true of individual journalists as well, whole careers can be completely destroyed if you can’t get access.” This is just as true for Paul Mooney as it was for Melissa Chan from Al Jazeera who got the boot for her excellent reporting back in 2012.
However, China is fast running out of things to block; the age-old method of censoring websites that offend is simply not enough because there’s not enough left to block — what with every major news organization trying keep the dragon at bay. But for organizations like Bloomberg that are already blocked in China, how much worse could it possibly get? A lot worse. Though China’s famous, paranoid online censorship grabs headlines, there is a lot more it can do to punish and bully news organizations and their journalists. Gady Epstein reports for the Economist: “They instead use forms of pressure that attract little attention, such as delaying visa requests interminably, while making clear that the media outlet’s future coverage should be ‘more objective.'”
When asked by The Diplomat what the greatest threat facing Chinese journalism is, Veteran Chinese journalist Wen Tao — who himself spent time in detainment for his relationship with famous artist and dissident Ai Weiwei — said: “It’s not self-discipline; it’s censorship.” However, as shocking as China being severed from the rest of the world is, it’s not the journalism conversation that’s being had on the ground. Right now, China is openly talking about the supposed blackmail journalism of Chen Yongzhou who was taken in by police, urged free by his newspaper and then confessed to his crimes via television. While this is a problem, it amounts to navel-gazing about the state of journalism in China while the elephant in the room eats state-censored newspapers from the coffee table.
Chinese leaders are showing that they’re not afraid to completely shut China off from the rest of the world (again) in their latest bid to control perception of current events — largely because the news organizations have a lot more to lose. With that in mind, and the knowledge that there is almost no way to effectively fight back against such blanket censorship, there could be darker days ahead.