Journalists Reflect on the “Total Censorship Era”
On September 9, Hong Kong-based Initium Media published a lengthy article by freelancer Jiang Yannan which included several oral accounts from journalists and media employees working in various publications and websites in China. In their interviews, they discuss the current state of journalism in China and how the increasing restrictions on the media under Xi Jinping are impacting their day-to-day work. These accounts provide valuable firsthand details about dealing with propaganda directives, sensitive words on internet platforms, and other forms of censorship that they face as a matter of routine. One interviewee asks, “Right now, the scariest thing is that we don’t know where the ‘bottom line’ is. In the end, how low will it go?”
The Total Censorship Era: What are Chinese News Media People Currently Experiencing?
This article is a collection of oral histories from current Chinese news media professionals. In the Total Censorship Era, freedom to practice their vocation is decreasing. They are all enduring this, without exception.
By Initium special contributor: Jiang Yannan. Sent from Hong Kong on Sep. 9, 2018
An Era of Total Censorship for the Chinese News Media Industry
When the Southern Weekend New Year editorial incident happened in 2013, everything began to change in a striking way. The Chinese government announced initiatives like “The Public Opinion Struggle,” “Dare to Draw the Sword”, “Occupation of the Online Public Opinion Shangganling” [a Korean war reference], and “Victory in the New Thirty-Year Ideological Counterattack.” These sorts of “proposals” were very new, and unusual. At the same time, an attack was launched on old Big-V Weibo accounts, while new Big-Vs were supported. Business leaders were incorporated into the ranks. This was a new series of internet governance measures, the establishment of a new Party medium 2.0, a whole new way of thinking about media and internet governance, a rapid change behind the scenes in governance logic and methods.
On August 7, 2014, the Ten WeChat Provisions (“Interim Provisions on the Administration of the Development of Public Information Services Provided through Instant Messaging Tools”) were put into effect. On February 4, 2015, the Ten Online Account Provisions (“Provisions on the Administration of Account Names of Internet Users“) were implemented. On April 28, 2015, the Ten Interview Provisions (“Provisions on the Interview of Entities Providing Internet News Information Services”) were implemented. This series of regulations was called “The Three Sets of Ten Provisions” by government media.
According to government media reports, the Ten WeChat Provisions were “for regulating the public information services of instant messaging tools, as represented by WeChat”; the Ten Online Account Provisions were “standards of use, conduct, and behavior for internet users and businesses, including account name, profile picture, summary and so on”; and the Ten Interview Provisions promoted “another step forward in standardization of procedures for interview work.”
More importantly, in a new revision of China’s National Security Law, internet security became an important component of national security. In July of 2015, for the first time, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress enacted via the new National Security Law the clear-cut concept of “cybersovereignty.”
At the same time, this new internet security now included special legal controls. On November 8, 2016, the National People’s Congress deliberated on and passed its Cybersecurity Law, and on June 1, 2017, formal implementation began. On May 8, 2017, a new edition of the Provisions for Administration of Internet News Information Services appeared, and was also implemented on June 1. Soon enough, many recreational accounts were shut down in accordance with the new laws.
As of 2018, according to a World Press Freedom Index published by the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), out of 180 countries and regions surveyed, mainland China stayed put at 176, fifth worst in the world.
All of this is public knowledge, and beyond dispute. The terrible ranking and the proliferation of new laws are clear indications of the severity of China’s news controls, and China’s place in the world. But in this kind of news and media environment, numbers and laws don’t paint a picture of the everyday experiences of most of China’s media practitioners.
This source material includes more than twenty interviews with Chinese media professionals. Some are in traditional media, and some work in new media. Some handle “sensitive” reporting like current politics and economics, while others cover definitively non-sensitive topics like entertainment. For the interviewees’ protection, their names and the media organizations that employ them will not be listed.
These are oral accounts from news media employees in modern China. In the Total Censorship Era, they are less and less free to practice their trade, without exception and regardless of what part of the country they’re in. They are censored day to day. Some of the public might be quite familiar with this, but more of the details might well rouse a sense of the unknown.
Part One – From Prohibitions to Laws, the Continuous Evolution of Censorship
- Starting From Prohibitions
It used to be that you’d go to the news scene, and the story might get banned two or three days later. Later on, you’d receive the censorship order en route to the scene, but you’d still do interviews, in case you could publish later. But now you don’t even bother going to the scene, because publishing is totally out of the question.
(Interviewee 1) Comprehensive news network media editor, work experience: 6 years.
I have a clear sense of things based on my work over the past six years. It used to be that you’d go to the news scene, and the story might get banned two or three days later. Later on, you’d receive the censorship order en route to the scene, but you’d still do interviews, in case you could publish later. But now you don’t even bother going to the scene, because publishing is totally out of the question.
Now, when the Propaganda Department issues a notice, it applies to everyone across the network. Before online media became prominent, we used to be managed by relevant local departments. But with the internet, media went national, and we could receive prohibitions from the Party, as well as local bans, bans from propaganda departments in other parts of the country, and from the Cyberspace Administration of China.
I once did a World War II piece and invited a scholar to talk about Hitler. The scholar spoke from an academic point-of-view about Hitler’s negative and positive aspects. But the draft reviewer deemed this unsuitable. The reason given was that we “may not render different views or verdicts on World War II.” We either had to withdraw the scholar’s contribution or remove the piece from the website.
A year ago, I still chose which topics were reported on. Now I perform self-censorship. Some topics get axed at first glance, and cannot become reports.
(Interviewee 2) Finance and economics reporter for a daily paper, work experience: 3 years.
I’m in charge of copying ban notices. Bans happen every day and are conveyed to the newspaper industry’s reception offices. I see them every day. Some are finance and economics related. If they need to be passed on, they must be copied by hand with a pen and then taken to on-duty leadership. They must be copied by hand because these notices cannot be distributed online.
Some journalists touch upon banned content, and the leaders find out, and make the journalists edit to the best of their ability, and avoid an exercise in futility. At the morning topics meeting, the editor already knows if any journalists have touched on a ban.
Bans have titles. Most are notices to thoroughly do this or that, and they have degrees of classification. I don’t actually understand the levels of classification. The bans come from the Central Propaganda Department, units at all levels, or managing departments. Group leaders can register in systems and see all the classified content.
One ban file will have multiple copies. At most there will be four or five people crammed in a reception office making copies. Besides prohibitions, there are also encouragements. For example, X city recently had some conference, and it is hoped that websites and papers will disseminate the news. I remember two encouragements concerned the documentaries “Amazing China” and “Forge Ahead, Don’t Forget the Original Purpose.” We had to copy these notices too.
Copying these confidential documents by hand required your signature. If the newspaper office didn’t comply with the ban, responsibility had to be ascertained, and the transcribers could be traced. When I first started, I complained a lot. Why make an editor do this kind of thing? I felt anyone could do it. Why not give it to interns? Later I understood how important and politically significant the work was.
The shorter the confidential document, the more important the matter. So-and-so happened at such-and-such location. All reporting on this is forbidden, without exception. Like that, the shorter it was, the more important.
When paper media is published, it’s physical. The leadership feels this is dangerous, so drafts are often held, postponed, and don’t get published. Newspaper leaders are very cautious.
(Interviewee 3) National comprehensive internet media culture reporter, work experience: 2 years.
Modern censorship is not about something you can’t report. It has become a ban on any type of “fire.” It’s not simply about ideology. This is not the emphasis. Anything that might get a big reaction from the public, or influence social stability, any societal hot topic, will be restricted. Not only that, censorship isn’t just what you can’t report, but what you should report, and how you report it. It’s meant to guide you in a positive direction. And with mainstream political orientation grasped, anyone can do self-censorship.
For example, the report on the end-of-the-year Beijing removals [of migrant workers]. The media did stories on the misery of marginal people, rather than the the rise and fall of the terrain, the full sequence of events. This censorship was not done by notification. The media did it on its own. We could not directly criticize the government, but we felt what was happening was inappropriate. So, we hit the ball on the sideline, coming at the issue as obliquely as possible.
- Internalizing Self-censorship
I was in Hong Kong for two years. A year ago, I returned to the mainland to work in news media. Regarding the red line, and what constituted sensitive news, that perception was quite automatic… Self-censorship seemed to have become a kind of instinct.
(Interviewee 4) Veteran editor for a current politics periodical, work experience: 18 years.
Right now, the scariest thing is that we don’t know where the “bottom line” is. In the end, how low will it go?
Mainland governance of internet news media comes in two types: news and non-news. Non-news media has no power to interview. That is, they can’t create original news content, but only aggregate news content. They can only reprint news from sources that can originate it. This so-called aptitude to create news means having a “whitelist.” But actually, a lot of WeChat public accounts and web portals do news. They’re all hitting the ball at the sideline, operating quasi-legally, and no one’s catching the ball. But if they want to catch you, they have a “legal basis” for doing so. And over the past two years, the more traffic a newsperson gets, the tighter are the reins.
(Interviewee 5) WeChat public account editor, 6 million subscribers, work experience: 6 years.
The automatic government system for censoring your draft has a function, a “sensitive word trigger.” No one knows how big the sensitive word lexicon is. We frequently run into a situation where you’re told “triggered by a sensitive word” over and over as you edit and delete, until finally the draft can go out. This is a process wholly reliant on self-censorship.
I once had a draft touching upon “multi-level marketing” or “pyramid selling.” I thought about the wording for a long time, and finally went with “swindle.” This was self-castration, self-censoring on a non-existent problem.
Regarding content, our self-censorship is all about everyone’s “self-cultivated political attainment.” For instance, we avoid anything liberal—points-of-view, vocabulary, personages, all of it.
Anything remotely erotic is out of bounds. I once interviewed a writer whose automatic self-censorship facility was second to none. There was a passage about a below-the-waist transformative surgery. “I can replace some of the words,” he said. “For example, testicle and penis could be replaced with such-and-such.”
(Interviewee 6) International news reporter for a weekly periodical, work experience: 3 years.
I was in Hong Kong for two years. A year ago, I returned to the mainland to work in news media. Regarding the red line, and what constituted sensitive news, that perception was quite automatic. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been gone, or if you’ve spent time in Hong Kong media. Your “political consciousness” will have degenerated. Self-censorship seemed to have become a kind of instinct.
What amazed me was the bizarre perception of what was politically sensitive by younger colleagues born after 1995. Many of them had even studied abroad. In February this year, the British prime minister Theresa May visited China. I sorted out when the Chinese and British leaders had visited each other’s countries before. Reacting to the mere mention of Xi Jinping visiting the UK, a young colleague said, “Isn’t mentioning Xi too sensitive?” This was fundamentally absurd. I don’t understand their judgment of “what is sensitive.”
- Most Fundamental is Legislative Control
News control legislation is very detailed. Looking into it, there is no media organization innocent of “violating regulations”. This makes every news practitioner guilty of “original sin”. We all break the law. Look at which public accounts are banned. Do any of them dare to sue and go to court?
(Interviewee 7) Reporter for a national business weekly publication, work experience: 4 years.
Speaking plainly, the discussion of broad changes in business news is all about society news. The trend in reporting now is “in business, talk business”. You can’t stray and talk about society’s problems. The companies I encounter are getting very “clever”, their PR tactics refined. They have excellent response mechanisms for negative topics. So, sometimes we don’t even need to self-censor. Information from the source is already self-castrated, many truths removed.
Most of the content on UGC [user-generated content] platforms is not supervised enough, but how to manage this? Storytelling with implications, rage comics. Qiu Shaoyun and Huang Jiguang’s work can be gotten rid of on the pretext that it brings dishonor to heroic martyrs. The “heroic martyr law” suffices here. It’s evident that these seemingly useless laws can be used as pretexts to attack large companies.
And then there’s the “Tou Teng War” (the battle between Jinri Toutiao and Tencent Holdings [a play on Tencent’s Chinese name and the word for headache]). Due to their competitive relationship, the two companies are fighting fiercely, but they proceed under supervision. They accuse each other of violating relevant laws. Ostensibly for the sake of law and order, they attack each other.
(Interviewee 8) Veteran editor at a current politics periodical, work experience: 19 years.
News control legislation is very detailed. Looking into it, there is no media organization innocent of “violating regulations.” This makes every news practitioner guilty of “original sin.” We all break the law. Look at which public accounts are banned. Do any of them dare to sue and go to court? Also, this matter of illegality becomes unfathomable. You often don’t know which laws you’ve violated.
Doing news these days, you might know something “absolutely” or know its essential nature, but you can’t write about it. You must feign ignorance that there is a big shot watching you from behind, and only write about superficial things.
Much of the time it’s self-censorship. Before putting pen to paper you think a while: can this be published? Things have progressed over the past few years. First you couldn’t do current politics. Then you couldn’t do finance and economics. Now you can’t even do entertainment, because you’ll get hit with the “three vulgarities,” transgressions of our core system of values. Experts don’t dare speak publicly. The media is quiet as a cicada in cold weather. I really have given up all hope.
Part Two – Content Censorship: From Current Politics to Entertainment, a Comprehensive Censorship System.
- Current Politics are Always the Most Sensitive
Last year at an annual newspaper meeting, our venerable leader said, “Thank you everyone for the drop in quality. It has made us safe and helped us survive another year. We don’t have to stop publishing.”
(Interviewee 9) Veteran editor at a current politics periodical, work experience: 18 years.
In the past, media sought “hot sensational news items.” Now we see these and take a wide detour around them. Some time ago I got my hands on material concerning the army and real estate and involving billions. My superior felt we couldn’t touch the topic. He said leave it for Caixin, the mainland’s only media entity that still dares to speak out. Half a year later, and the material still hasn’t come out.
There is mainland media that dares to speak, but previously they were beating dead tigers (original editor’s note: officials already fallen from power or confirmed problematic by government announcement). Now they don’t even dare to beat dead tigers. Reporting on leadership above the ministerial level is banned. Last year at an annual newspaper meeting, our venerable leader said, “Thank you everyone for the drop in quality. It has made us safe and helped us survive another year. We don’t have to stop publishing.” How could this have been said with sincerity? I despair of the times.
- Nowadays, Economics and Business News are Not to be Outdone
In the past we always boasted about China’s Artificial Intelligence and “Made in China 2025.” We haven’t even accomplished it, but we still began to boast. The key now is everybody must “keep a low profile”… Staff quitting is a serious problem. Our weekly publication has gone from thirty or forty people to about a dozen. One reason people are leaving is that they take things too hard. Another reason is that people have accepted the situation and simply moved on.
(Interviewee 10) Economy page reporter for central authority-level paper media, work experience: 2 years.
One or two months ago, the Zhengzhou, Henan DiDi affair (original editor’s note: a sexual assault and murder committed by a DiDi rideshare driver) shocked the whole country. We planned a series of in-depth reports, and cooperation with correspondent station colleagues in Henan. Here in Beijing, my colleague and I spent two days writing a piece about ride-sharing safety. The reporters in Henan also got a lot of material.
The night before we were set to publish, I was in the newspaper office late into the night, waiting for the assistant chief editor’s signature. Then I went home. I got up early the next day and checked the website on my cell phone. The story was gone. Eventually I learned that the chief editor took it down, but I don’t know why.
I was shocked. When I entered media two years ago, the environment was already substandard, but I generally believed the economy page would do better than the rest, and that self-censorship was unlikely to get so serious.
If “public power” supervision of reporting is taken away, I’ve anticipated it. But from past experience, business reporting, especially security business reporting, we will certainly continue to report on it. For almost two years, newspapers have been staying in the safe zone, rather than reporting on public opinion’s supervision of public power. These days, business reporting, especially with a social angle, is censored more and more.
At the beginning of this Sino-American trade war in April or May, we were ordered to “set the pitch a bit higher.” Later, after a Sino-American negotiation, we were told to go “softer.” Reports couldn’t use the term “trade war.” We switched to “trade friction,” and reports couldn’t be too detailed.
Now (original editor’s note: the interview was at the beginning of July), the “pitch” has been raised again, and we’re required to report on the economic friction between America and Canada. These requirements are all about being explicit or obscure. More and more, I feel economic reporting is being controlled.
(Interviewee 11) Reporter for a finance and economics radio station, work experience: 6 years.
The most invariable red line is that “singing of the decline of China” is unacceptable.
Our rule is that local media follows central media. We only have “compulsory exercises,” not “optional exercises.” We follow Xinhua News Agency thought and CCTV thought. In the day-to-day reporting of finance and economic news, if stocks plummet, we must use the word “fall.” We mustn’t create a market panic. The most invariable red line is that a “singing of the decline of China” is unacceptable.
At the beginning of the trade war, the ZTE issue sparked interest. But did ZTE make a mistake? This question couldn’t be raised, because we had to avoid unfavorable content about China. In the past we always boasted about China’s Artificial Intelligence and “Made in China 2025.” We haven’t accomplished it, but we still began to boast. The key now is everybody must “keep a low profile.”
(Interviewee 12) Business reporter for a national business weekly publication, work experience: 4 years.
Sometimes we receive bans by fax, and our editor-in-chief will tell us, either hurry and publish, or stop. My impression is that the stories about the expulsion of the “low-end population,” and the ones about Red Yellow Blue Kindergarten in Beijing, vanished from the website very quickly. A report on the Ctrip Kindergarten in Shanghai was online about an hour before removal. We took it down from both the website and WeChat on our own initiative. We’re relatively obedient.
There was that film “Dying to Survive.” For three days there was no issue. On the fourth day came the ban, and we couldn’t write about it. We’d gotten an exclusive interview with the director, but we couldn’t put it out, because it might be considered an indictment of the government. Media put out in the future will be at a comparative disadvantage. Firstly, certain points-of-view will be written off. Secondly, and most important, points worth making will be regulated into oblivion.
In business reporting, the prevailing logic should be this: seek business angles in societal hot topics. To avoid sensitive issues in society, and to avoid risking our drafts, we do self-censorship. We opt for the safe middle way. We drop logic. We seek societal angles in business hot topics.
Staff quitting is also a serious problem. Our weekly publication has gone from thirty or forty people to about a dozen. One reason people are leaving is that they take things too hard. Another reason is that people have accepted the situation and simply moved on.
Every month we go to group training. People from the Cyberspace Administration of China come every month to train us, mostly concerning ideological content. The trainees are people who check content. For example, the person in charge of the WeChat department.
Sometimes our work just vanishes. For example, an article sent from our WeChat public account might just disappear, like it never happened. Our chief editor advises us to quickly take screenshots. If a page dies, it really does cease to exist.
- International News Must Not Insinuate
When doing a Belt and Road Initiative report, I do my best not to touch on politics. I stick to economic and cultural content. If I’m writing about a foreign country’s politics, I just report on their own politics, not theirs in relation to China’s.
(Interviewee 13) International reporter for a nationwide weekly periodical, work experience: 3 years.
In international reporting, politics and revolution are both taboo topics. When that section of the constitution was amended, we couldn’t mention Putin or other dictators. The authorities would consider this an insinuation.
I remember when Forbes Magazine published its most powerful people of 2018 list. Xi Jinping came in first place. In our piece we didn’t mention this. But after it went out, the Cyberspace Administration of China called to criticize us, and the draft was immediately “harmonized.”
Newspapers have experienced proofreaders to keep an eye on wording, and they’re not just looking for writing or character errors.
Doing a Belt and Road Initiative report, I do my best not to touch on politics. I stick to economic and cultural content. If I’m writing about a foreign country’s politics, I just report on their own politics, not theirs in relation to China’s.
As I do international news, another unusual practice is having to breach the Great Firewall every day. I haven’t been back a year and have already changed VPNs four times. Each time, the VPN is shut down in short order, but many are one-year subscriptions. It’s quite a waste, and there isn’t even a place to get refunds. The two news organizations I work for don’t provide company VPNs. We’re expected to find out own solutions. Possibly they don’t want to undertake the risks of setting up a VPN.
- Personage Reporting Wholly Taboo
“The tone of the whole article is murky. The cover must not feature that kind of article.”… The magazine completely changed direction, becoming entertainment media. The WeChat public account names also changed, becoming purely entertainment accounts, featuring hot celebrities. We appeared to be abandoning ourselves to despair, willing to fall behind. So this year, the higher-ups criticized us for being too entertainment-heavy. Abandoning ourselves to despair is also not allowed.
(Interviewee 14) Veteran reporter at a personage reporting magazine, work experience: 8 years.
On many drafts, the boss will encourage caution. I once wrote about someone and the article seemed, superficially, to be about an elegant, well-spoken person’s rise to success, but the underlying meaning was his degeneration, and the draft revealed his actual problems. After handing this draft over to the department, the assessment was: “The tone of the whole article is murky. The cover must not feature this kind of article.” To get the article published, I made many concessions later on.
You used to be able to write about controversial people. Now that’s no longer possible. This is the result of inside leadership’s self-censorship. For instance, there are some negative personages we can’t write about, like Edison Chen, PG One, and Yin San Er (original editor’s note: an underground hip-hop group from Beijing). They aren’t banned explicitly by government writ, but everyone seems to know they’re untouchables.
To be honest, our scope is small. I can’t complain about my boss. On the contrary, I’m very grateful to him. He is, in the final analysis, relatively tolerant of us.
(Interviewee 15) Photojournalist for a current political figures magazine, work experience: 5 years.
In 2014 and ’15 I photographed many people who would now be deemed sensitive, including Ai Weiwei, He Weifang, Xu Youyu, Pu Zhiqiang, Zhang Sizhi, and so on. Back then these people were all viable subjects. At that time, the magazine’s orientation was political and big business publishing. We did hard reporting on current politics, sometimes hiding long reports, not advertised on the cover, in our content. Hou Dejian was one of these. Others included environmental pollution investigations, sent out in these sorts of regular columns.
In 2015, our magazine still quoted that time’s popular catchphrase: “As the world sinks down, we are partying.” This was because at that time, paper media was on death’s door, but our magazine felt we could stick it out. We had this slogan on a poster at the hotel entrance to our annual meeting. But this time, at the end of the meeting, media suffered a sudden, devastating decline, and our magazine’s lot took a sudden bad turn.
In 2016, we did an issue with Hu Yaobang on the over, and were almost shut down as a result. Later, the magazine was criticized, and we pledged not to touch these political topics.
Halfway through 2016, the magazine completely changed direction, becoming entertainment media. The WeChat public account names also changed, becoming purely entertainment accounts, featuring hot celebrities. We appeared to be abandoning ourselves to despair, willing to fall behind. So this year, the higher-ups criticized us for being too entertainment-heavy. Abandoning ourselves to despair is also not allowed. “The Rap of China” and other such programs were also banned and dropped, because entertainment can also bring you freedom.
I watched this media company go from flourishing to enfeebled, a flash in the pan. Before, cultural figures and entertainers were at about fifty-fifty. Now it’s not the case. We’ve had no choice but to abandon news publishing and become a fashion magazine, covering more and more celebrities, like Wu Yifan, TF Boys, and some internet celebrities.
This is an era of submerging the power of discourse. In 2013, when I’d just entered the profession, at least it was still an era of elite media. There was power of discourse, and cultural figures decided what the masses saw. But now everyone wants entertainment and celebrities. The masses decide what media professionals write.
I have seen quite a few batches of journalists. When I was starting out, they’d all been born before 1985. Later on came the after-85s. Now all the journalists around me were born after ’90. Journalists are quitting at too fast a rate. The talk in work group these days is all about “production 101” and hot TV shows. People born before ’85 have all gone away to earn money. Some went to Xin Shi Xiang, 36 Kr, or Jinri Toutiao. I guess it’s because there’s more money in new science and technology media. I guess that’s because some media people are unwilling to do PR, and science and technology media has more to give, there’s no political screening pressure, and this industry seems to be doing useful things.
Those born after ’85 are relatively dazed and confused. The before-85s possess the power of discourse—once they understood, they changed direction. The after-85s still don’t understand that this industry is done for. They haven’t accumulated much in the way of resources, and they don’t know what they can do. And the after-95 journalists, they just accept this era of trending toward entertainment. The after-85s suffer the most. They are very confused.
I myself am a fan of elite culture. I can’t be elite myself, but I like the appearance. I think this era is boring and pointless, and the funny bits are few and far between.
- Culture and Entertainment News Requires Walking a Tightrope
Over the past two years, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television has often appeared in entertainment news. My deepest sense is that the number of entertainment restrictions have increased. These days, entertainment control is all about seizing the fountainhead. Regarding the general tightening of restrictions across the whole culture industry, reporting restrictions are just a small aspect of those things influenced by this radiation… Weibo Hot Search has added a “New Era” column to explain socialism’s core system of values.
(Interviewee 16) History reporter for a news website, work experience: 3 years.
The history channel we do is a bit slanted toward the academic. We invite specialist teachers and students, and even some archaeology specialist teachers.
Even in our reporting on “the dead,” restrictions are tightening. For example, three years ago, one could still write Mao Zedong-related content, including discussion forums, lectures, and articles. Now that’s impossible. Anything related to the Cultural Revolution or the Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement is out of the question. To summarize, anything after the 1949 founding of the PRC is off limits. The focus is on late Qing Dynasty content.
Sometimes history content can involve a foreign country’s student movements, but this stuff also won’t fly. Anything like the 1968 May Crisis in France is off limits.
(Interviewee 17) Culture reporter for a national weekly publication, work experience: 10 years or more.
Documentaries touching upon the Cultural Revolution or China’s negative side can’t be covered. For instance, we couldn’t write about Wang Bing’s eight-hour film “Dead Souls” screening at Cannes; we also couldn’t cover Liu Jian’s animated film “Have a Nice Day,” which allegedly involved demolition and resettlement, at Annecy International Animated Film Festival. But these weren’t pre-set prohibitions. Both were after-the-fact. Recently there was that yin-yang contract scandal reported by Cui Yongyuan. Our superiors said “absolutely not” to that one.
(Interviewee 18) Entertainment news editor for a web portal, work experience: 10 years.
Our management is not the most immediate issue. Mostly it’s from the source, the whole entertainment industry reorganizing and consolidating. For instance, performing artists with dyed hair can’t appear onscreen. Red-haired Li Dan and Da Zhangwei both had to dye their hair back, and Dou Jingtong’s tattoos had to be pixelated.
Over the past two years, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television has often appeared in entertainment news. My deepest sense is that the number of entertainment restrictions has increased. These days, entertainment control is all about seizing the fountainhead. Regarding the general tightening of restrictions across the whole culture industry, reporting restrictions are just a small aspect of those things influenced by this radiation.
I’d say entertainment news control began with Wang Baoqiang’s divorce. We hadn’t seen specific, concrete bans before, just some that were verbally conveyed. The negative energy surrounding Wang Baoqiang’s divorce case was too intense. This kind of celebrity derailment, with adultery polluting society’s positive energy news, could not be wantonly reported, or recommended on the front screen.
With entertainment news more and more tightly controlled, and every media organization doing self-censorship, I’d certainly rather be a bit stricter, and not make a mistake.
After Weibo’s trending news incident (original editor’s note: in May of 2018, Weibo released a public notice pertaining to “trying harder to manage their Hot Search List and Hot Topic List click farming issue”), it made some changes. For example, content with extremely high site traffic had its circulation limited. Some Hot Searches had their rankings lowered. Some that had originally been tens, perhaps, were moved toward the back of the row. Now Weibo Hot Search has added a “New Era” column to explain socialism’s core system of values.
You can still post some hot issues. After comments have accumulated beyond some set limit, only you will see them, no one else can.
During the Korean content ban, satellite TV, websites, and traditional media weren’t allowed to report Korean entertainment news. If they did, they had to try their best to put the stuff below the regular segments instead of with the first page recommendations.
Entertainment news touching on politics is expressly forbidden. There was the Cui Yongyuan story, which involved taxation issues; last year’s hot anti-corruption TV show “In the Name of the People,” during the latter half of its broadcast, was causing undue public focus on corruption, and reporting on it was required to cool down. “Dying to Survive” had the same problem. Any public attention drawn towards the government won’t fly.
For almost ten years, entertainment news gave priority to celebrity gossip, but for the past two years, it’s off-limits. The famous paparazzi Zhuo Wei’s studio was closed. A large batch of entertainment public accounts were suddenly shut down.
There are many sensitive figures in the entertainment sphere, such as the government-banned PG One. Poor quality artists can’t be promoted, i.e. Huang Haibo, Ke Zhendong, drug-taking prostitute-frequenting type criminal cases, and so on. Also problematic are some artists associated with Hong Kong. These kinds of circumstances were not much seen before. The only thing I can think of was the banning of images of Tang Wei, of “Lust, Caution” fame.
Restrictions on TV content creation come in many forms and names. This is policy, planned stage by stage. The earliest were bans on time travel stories, Qing Palace content, anti-Japanese stuff, proclaimed homosexuality, flaunting of wealth, and so on. Even an excessive gossip reporting style could increase policy-related risks. But entertainment is inseparable from gossip. I don’t know when exactly doing entertainment news became a tightrope act.
Our management is not the most immediate issue. Mostly it’s from the source, the whole entertainment industry reorganizing and consolidating. For instance, performing artists with dyed hair can’t appear onscreen. Red-haired Li Dan and Da Zhangwei both had to dye their hair back, and Dou Jingtong’s tattoos had to be pixelated.
The TV show “Infinite Challenge” was postponed quite a few times, because of one instance of problematic content, a stratagem of sowing distrust among enemies, which was believed to be hazardous to the people’s harmony. In “Who’s the Murderer?” they couldn’t use the word “murderer,” and had to go with “mystery figure K,” while replacing “dead person,” a bad influence on young people, with “coma.” For summer vacation, there’s another “restrict entertainment order” (original editor’s note: a new round of entertainment restrictions launched by the Propaganda Department to protect young people, resulting in many variety shows getting shelved). Restrictions on TV content creation come in many forms and names. This is policy, planned stage by stage. The earliest were bans on time travel stories, Qing Palace content, anti-Japanese stuff, proclaimed homosexuality, flaunting of wealth, and so on.
Even an excessive gossip reporting style could increase policy-related risks. But entertainment is inseparable from gossip. I don’t know when exactly doing entertainment news became a tightrope walk.
Another example is celebrity Yuan Li’s sensational scoop that some female stars, for the sake of popularity and success, were practicing vegetarianism and Buddhism, and going to Thailand to buy little devils, and using corpse-derived oils as lipstick, and became the top three hot searches. You could have this kind of thing on Weibo hot searches, but in news media we couldn’t cover it, because it involved feudal superstition.
Despite all the bans, you can go to online comment areas and see that “little pinks” are in the majority. The political consciousness of netizens is particularly high. Someone said of Xu Ruoxuan: “How is a promoter of Taiwan independence getting coverage?” Someone else said of Huang Qiusheng: “No wonder a Hong Kong independence extremist can’t find close relatives!” Regarding the Korea ban, one netizen said, “We should restrict them indefinitely.”
- Readers’ Interactions With One Another Meet Layer Upon Layer of Restrictions
(Interviewee 19) Comprehensive online news, editor, work experience: 6 years
I’m responsible for regular segments, inviting newsworthy parties or relevant experts to interact with netizens. Not quite the same operation as normal news. Most news content is checked and controlled by reporters and editors, but we can’t edit or alter netizens’ comments. We can’t tell netizens what they can say or write, and what they can’t.
This was originally just an interactive segment. It was impossible to switch off the comment section. So we would investigate thoroughly. On the one hand, some sensitive word lexicons were auto filtered, removing content with sensitive words. But we still had to manually inspect the comments section.
News opportunities are getting fewer and fewer. We used to be able to do LGBT topics. Starting in 2016, that was off-limits. Many postings are about public authority, like local city government, or grass roots level police. Readers will break such news in the comments, and these sorts of controversial postings must be deleted.
Part Three – To Fully Control New Media
- Jittery WeChat Public Accounts
Previously, Tencent would first issue a warning. After several of these, they would suspend you for a week or a month. Tencent has already shut down 100,000 public accounts this year. These numbers are frightening. Of course, some of them were probably low content. But they also included some excellent media.
(Interviewee 20) Non-fiction type content editor for a WeChat public account with a million or more subscribers, work experience: 2 years.
Regarding big WeChat public accounts, there is none of traditional media’s system of staff for reading and evaluating, but everyone needs to know clearly where the boundaries are.
According to often-circulated information, the Cyberspace Administration of China, during the last half-year, has established a department to monitor these accounts. It used to delete drafts, even delete back-end material. Now it directly bans accounts. And this may not be CAC dominating Tencent. They may be cooperating in these operations.
“Poison Tongue Films” (original editor’s note: a Weixin public account that reported on entertainment, film, and gossip) was banned. Although it sought accommodations with CAC, it was useless. It had been directly named. At that time, MiMeng (original editor’s note: a big WeChat public account) was shut up in a little black room, and covertly protected.
Undergoing this wave of attacks, I think everyone clearly understood where their boundaries stood. During the peak banning period, we took the initiative and deleted a batch of drafts. The first type was anything involving politics, which were absolutely unpublishable. Those pieces that were borderline or obliquely political we also deleted early on. For instance, the expulsion of the “low-end population” from Beijing, or anything related to the environment, we deleted.
Another type that had to go was anything related to the “three vulgarities.” Of course, this material was not actually vulgar in any of the three ways (tawdry, crude, or kitsch). It was anything sexual, or LGBT-related. We’d done prison stories before, but it we felt they involved public security authorities (original editors’ note: Ministry of Public Security, investigations, courts of law), we took the initiative to delete.
In this aspect, traditional media had stricter controls than we did. They received notices. Perhaps even their negative emotions were restricted.
Internet media does not have the power to interview or gather news, but we feared the administration department would make a fuss on this issue. So even though we ourselves gathered news, we couldn’t write the two characters for “interview” or “news gathering.” It had to become “take notes.” We had no demands in writing. All of this stemmed from self-preservation.
The process these days often involves no regulations. Once upon a time, Tencent would first issue a warning. After several of these, they would suspend you for a week or a month. Tencent has already shut down 100,000 public accounts this year. These numbers are frightening. Of course, some of them were probably low-quality content. But they also included some apparently excellent media.
The pressure of undertaking a project is huge, because the cost is so high, so we value our opportunities and dare not muddle through security issues. When Poison Tongue Films was shut down it had 5,000,000 subscribers. Then it changed its name, and its subscription numbers certainly dropped. After a year of recovery, it still hasn’t recuperated fully. Moreover, the loss of the original name is a big branding loss. Accumulating brand value is difficult, and losing it is quite easy.
Investors have meetings with us, to discuss how to respond to risk. For example, Curiosity Daily was suspended for a month, and when that affair came out, we communicated a bit, trying to determine if restrictions were getting tighter again, and which way the wind was blowing.
The sense of security among new media people is not strong. The WeChat bonus period has passed, and now is the downward trending phase. No other big site-traffic platforms have emerged. Content, dissemination channels, business models, all of these are problems.
(Interviewee 21) City topics editor for a WeChat public account with over 6,000,000 subscribers, work experience: 6 years.
We write feeling-based pieces most of the time. There aren’t so many red lines. But we also feel the wind changing, restrictions tightening. We delete anything touching on crime, fraud, or social inequities that bring about human tragedies.
The content we write is actually quite soft and light, for example lifestyle pieces on urban youth. But in such content we might touch on the restricted, like sexual partners. We can’t interview women with multiple partners. A talented writer might deal with all manner of strange restrictions, and then after revision, still have his draft deleted.
There’s a profound feeling of being powerless amid the constant change in China.
We’re a big WeChat account, so we are the subject of more scrutiny from various parties. For instance, with subjects like taxation, retail methods, online marketing, industry and commerce, they will come to warn us not to go out of bounds. Our office location’s propaganda department also required us to join the local trade union. Our real names and numbers are inexplicably on file. They send us texts, like “Together we advance forward, and study Chairman Xi’s words.”
Generally, only big media from a government background will receive bans. Online platforms like Sina and Tencent will immediately receive notices. Later, the specifications will proliferate outward, spreading to new media and self media. If you dare to express your feelings, you’re a fool. Just see if the authorities handle you or not.
The content we write is actually quite soft and light, for example lifestyle pieces on urban youth. But in such content, we might touch on the restricted, like sexual partners. We can’t interview women with multiple partners. A talented writer might deal with all manner of strange restrictions, and then after revision, still have his draft deleted.
When it came to the Red Yellow Blue Kindergarten affair, and the expulsion of the “low-end population” from Beijing, everyone was quite indignant. Self media did a batch of stories on express delivery drivers, take-out deliverers, young marriage market customers, and other marginalized figures of Beijing, but this kind of reporting was quickly deleted. Later, Beijing leaders condescended to shake hands with such people. They said they respected common working people most. Government media is very changeable. That made me especially angry.
- New Media News Platforms: “Don’t Produce Content, Yet be Responsible for it.”
(Interviewee 22) Project manager for an internet news platform, work experience: 3 years.
Platforms also require a “system of values.” That is, although platforms don’t produce content, they shoulder responsibility and culpability for content.
We’re a big information-distributing platform. We control non-institutional creators to get news at the source. Regarding user generated content, we can’t touch anything related to politics or society news. That just leaves us entertainment and humor content. We have a content quality center, involving thousands of people both foreign and domestic. They ensure compatibility with each country’s local policies (anti-vulgar, anti-erotic, anti-rumor), and delete according to bans. And in fact, these standards are not from within. All are external demands on us.
- Short Videos That Can Only “Extol Positive Energy”
I’m not satisfied with novelty-hunting news that blindly pursues site traffic. I’m also not satisfied with the “kowtowing and kissing up to” of “government media”. Everything was feeling more and more meaningless. I finally had no choice but to retire.
(Interviewee 23) Video editor for a short video website, work experience: 3 years.
I entered the company in 2016 to do current political news. Our slogan was “The short video world is surging.” Later, because of a short news video story that was politically sensitive, we thoroughly changed direction toward entertainment. We did “intimate friend style” (original editor’s note: mainland Chinese stories meant to arouse emotions in order to sell) short videos. The biggest change was toward “government media is glorious.” In the past, government media actually had a bad reputation. Everyone ridiculed government media. Now, if it’s a video by the People’s Daily, or something from the Zi Guang Ge government Weibo account, everyone thinks it’s glorious, and they never stop crowing about it.
When I first started doing short video reporting, I could sink into a kind of traffic volume revelry. Millions of points and clicks, tens of millions, even hundreds of millions, could get me that self-satisfied reward sensation. But what does it mean in the end? It’s just a point of special interest, a gust of wind that ceases. The longer you experience it, the more it’s like that empty feeling after a night of hard partying.
When I was just starting out here, I was optimistic, forward-looking. Here was a new form of news with several hundred million invested. The other reporters were veterans from big companies. All topics were investigated then. We made short documentaries, because at that time, paper media and TV were already restricted. I thought very highly of these short videos. It was a new medium. At the very beginning I caused a bit of a sensation with a video about Lingshan orphans and underage factory workers, that kind of thing.
But that kind of investigative journalism has gone “bye-bye.” Internet news doesn’t have the power to gather news or interview. Short video sites were getting banned, so we could only do reports about society’s margins. For site traffic considerations, we covered a pregnant nine-year-old girl. Later we couldn’t do that type of thing, because it fell under the “three vulgarities.”
Later on, we could only do the youngster rescuing people from a fire, the public bus driver slamming the brakes to save people, that kind of “warm hearted” thing. But is “warm hearted” this society’s true state of affairs? And these “extolling positive energy” pieces, the most beautiful female cop stories, most beautiful city administrator stories, most beautiful government official stories, do they have any meaning?
I’m not satisfied with novelty-hunting news that blindly pursues site traffic. I’m also not satisfied with the “kowtowing and kissing up” of “government media.” Everything was feeling more and more meaningless. I finally had no choice but to retire.
(By Jiang Yannan, independent journalist, freelancer) [Chinese]
Translation by Alicia, with help from Joshua Rudolph and Lisbeth.