The Ministry of Truth’s Top Topics of 2016

Over the past three years, researchers at Freedom House have analyzed hundreds of propaganda directives, published by CDT as part of our Directives from the Ministry of Truth series, to determine what topics are considered most sensitive by China’s leaders. Their research has found that the list of topics shifts year to year according to other political considerations. Writing in Foreign Policy, Freedom House’s Sarah Cook notes: “In 2016, protecting official reputations and influencing coverage of foreign affairs outranked economics, reversing their relative positions in 2015 and illustrating how Chinese Communist Party leaders deploy suppressive tools to meet the needs of their evolving political sensitivities.” She continues by listing the topics that were most frequently the subject of directives over the past year:

The most commonly targeted categories of emerging news in 2016 were as follows:

* Party and official reputation: A total of 19 directives restricted circulation of content or news that would undermine the public image of individual officials or the party’s activities, including four directives designed to curb disrespectful or humorous references to Chinese president Xi Jinping. An additional four directives ordered positive actions related to Xi’s image, including one from July instructing all websites to promote an article describing how Xi’s speech on the party’s 95th anniversary evoked a “strong response” among listeners.

* Health and safety:A total of 18 directives restricted coverage of man-made accidents, environmental pollution, or food and drug safety. Even investigations by favored commercial news outlets were not spared. “Do not reprint or hype [digital outlet] The Paper’s article, ‘Hundreds of Millions of Yuan in Unrefrigerated Vaccines Flow into 18 Provinces: Possibly Affect Human Life,’” reads one order from March. Other directives barred coverage on the anniversary of fatal chemical explosions in the northeastern city of Tianjin and stymied reporting on a medical advertising scandal that was widely blamed for the death of a young cancer patient.

* Foreign affairs: In a year that included presidential elections in the United States and Taiwan, nuclear provocations by North Korea, and rising tensions in the South China Sea, 15 directives sought to curtail Chinese audiences’ access to news about events occurring outside of mainland China. Elections and referendums — which might draw attention to the party’s lack of democratic credentials — emerged as particularly touchy topics. Nine directives restricted coverage of developments such as the U.S. presidential debates, the election of opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen as president of Taiwan, and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

* Official wrongdoing: A total of 13 directives restricted coverage of official wrongdoing, including news of Chinese elites’ control of overseas entities as revealed in the Panama Papers, incidents of embezzlement, and high-level corruption cases like the sentencing of former security czar Zhou Yongkang in June. This indicates that even as party leaders engage in a high-profile effort to curb graft, they remain aware that extensive reporting on the details of corruption cases could lead to more public awareness of the problem, undermining party credibility. Five directives restricted coverage of police misconduct, including one wrongful execution and one suspicious death in custody.

* Media and censorship:Eleven directives restricted circulation of content from less tightly controlled media sources (like the commercial outlet Caixin or a popular Korean drama) or to reporting on information controls themselves, such as the prosecution of a journalist or the dissolution of journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, run by party members who tackled sensitive political debates.

* Civil society: Six directives restricted coverage of civil society, including an ongoing crackdown on human rights lawyers that was part of a broader assault on China’s “rights defense” movement during the year. [Source]

Censorship directives are one part of a larger government strategy for controlling the media and setting the narrative of breaking news. According to the most recent statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists, China holds the second highest number of journalists in prison, after Turkey. The list includes Huang Qi and Liu Feiyue, who both run human rights-focused news websites and were detained last month.

Veteran journalist , a former editor with the Southern Group who is now based in Germany, recently won the International Press Freedom Award from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. He spoke with China Change’s Yaxue Cao about changes he has witnessed in the Chinese media in recent years and the importance of :

Many years ago we were very optimistic. At that time I believed that every step made in the news field would promote progress in Chinese society, and that every word we wrote contained power — even if it could only be measured in milligrams. Looking back now, I often feel quite dejected. China is going backwards in so many areas. But I have never doubted the value of fighting for freedom of expression. Even if there’s no tomorrow, we still need justice today. It’s just as I put it in my acceptance speech for this award in Toronto: freedom of expression is not merely necessary for all other freedoms, but speech itself is freedom. [Source]