Minireview: 2018 in Censorship (Jan-Oct)
This series is a month-by-month recap of censorship instructions issued to the media by government authorities in 2018, this small fraction of which were then leaked and distributed online. The names of some issuing bodies have been omitted to protect sources.
2018 opened with a January 2 order to stop reporting on protests in Iran, which had captured widespread attention among Chinese social media users both inside and outside China. “Compliant” existing reports were allowed to stand, however. The potential resonance of popular protests abroad had previously unsettled Chinese authorities in 2011, when some activists called for a “Jasmine Revolution” to mirror uprisings across the Middle East. Also on January 2, censors targeted a Beijing News article on a female SOE leader’s suspended sentence for accepting bribes. On January 7, the crosshairs fell on a Caijing report, published on Christmas Day, on the impact of Beijing’s 40-day crackdown on “unsafe dwellings,” which had displaced tens of thousands of migrants following a deadly textile district fire. CDT published two other directives on the campaign in November 2017.
CDT received no directives in February.
March, however, brought a spike related to the annual Two Sessions legislative and consultative assemblies in Beijing. 2018’s meetings were even more than usually sensitive, as they formally enshrined the already anticipated abolition of presidential term limits in the national constitution. The topic was hotly discussed on the Zhihu Q&A platform, where one user implicitly compared Xi Jinping to a bus driver refusing to end his shift in spite of dangerous fatigue, and asked how his passengers should react. A directive on March 2 announced a week-long suspension of Zhihu’s mobile app “due to lax supervision and the spread of illegal information.”
Journalist Liang Xiangyi’s theatrical eyeroll at a fellow reporter’s rambling and obsequious question, which was captured in a broadcast from a Two Sessions press conference, was quickly embraced as an iconic if indirect response to developments at the assemblies. On March 13, an order went out:
Urgent notice: all media personnel are prohibited from discussing the Two Sessions blue-clothed reporter incident on social media. Anything already posted must be deleted. Without exception, websites must not hype the episode. [Source]
The previous week, four consecutive days’ telephoned instructions from provincial propaganda authorities in Henan leaked, showing detailed media guidance on a wide range of topics during the key meetings. Monday, March 5’s orders began with instructions on the term limit abolition:
Handle reporting on changes to the state president and vice-president’s terms with caution. Do not report, reprint, or comment. Strengthen management of posts and comments on a CNN reporter’s questions on the issue of term limits, and delete and block harmful information or inappropriate comments without exception. [Source]
The Monday’s instructions from Henan went on to urge further caution in handling of Party/state structural reforms and government work reports, “strengthened management” of press conferences, and a ban on hyping issues including taxes, genetic modification, Chinese culture, and the blue skies overlooking the meetings. Reporting on foreign investments firms’ withdrawal from China was also banned.
Besides “strict control” of reports on security at the Two Sessions, the Tuesday’s orders included further injunctions against comment, reporting, hype, or speculation involving “ludicrous” policy proposals by delegates; taxes; village management; the failure of a Nanjing-based investment platform; a traffic accident in Jiangxi; the anticipated signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership’s successor; the prospect of A.I.-related unemployment; and the fourth anniversary of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
On the Wednesday, the department ordered media not to report or republish on “Chinese nominees” for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize—referring to Hong Kong activists including Joshua Wong—or on “social instability and petitions,” or “critical reports by foreign media on province-led press conferences.” Media were warned not to hype issues related to dual citizenship, particularly when held by NPC representatives, and to guard against “harmful information” from “extreme leftist websites” in favor of the constitutional amendments that had caused such consternation elsewhere. Finally, media were instructed to “expand the promotion of the ‘Amazing China’ documentary,” a cinematic showcase of China’s recent technological accomplishments.
On the Thursday, the Henan censors forbade reports, republishing, or commentary on the prospect of “negative proposals involving China” from the American government; a cease-and-desist order against the New York branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China by the U.S. Federal Reserve; censorship at Southern Weekly; the death of petitioners in Beijing; and the execution of activist Xu Youchen. Hype of a possible “Three Child Policy” and stock market issues was also forbidden, while strict control was ordered of commercial exploitation of the Two Sessions.
Though representing a particularly sensitive time of the year, the Henan leaks illustrate something of the depth, range, and intensity of media guidance not only from various central bodies, but at lower levels. As occasional city-level directives illustrate, this thread continues still further down toward the local level.
Also in March, a two-part directive called mid-month for removal of “harmful information” and avoidance of “negative public sentiment regarding Tibet” surrounding the tenth anniversary of the outbreak of unrest in Lhasa, and for sites with a political or legal focus to promote consumer rights protection “in a way that’s accessible to the masses” to mark World Consumer Rights Day.
Subsequent weeks of silence were broken on April 19 by a notice calling for “strengthened management” of WeChat groups at Wuhan University. “No matter the time or the place,” it read, “no information unfavorable to the country or the Party, nor any illegal information about the country, Party, or society may be posted on WeChat. WeChat groups or individual users who are unfavorable to the Party, country, or society or who otherwise violate the law will be dealt with severely under the ‘sweep black and eliminate wicked’ campaign.”
On April 24, the Central Propaganda Department’s order to “all commercial video sites, [to] immediately stop showing ‘Amazing China'” marked an abrupt reversal of previously heavy official promotion for the documentary. The U-turn was the apparent result of the U.S. Commerce Department’s seven-year export ban against Shenzhen-based telecom company ZTE. The film had hailed ZTE as a national champion, but the ban laid bare its heavy reliance on imported components. The export restrictions were later reversed, but ZTE’s American difficulties continue.
On April 25, a directive banned reporting, republishing, or “hyping” of an open letter by Yue Xin, then a senior student at Peking University involved in freedom of information requests regarding an alleged rape by a professor in 1998. “Content expressing so-called solidarity” was also banned from personal social media accounts. Yue’s letter, which CDT translated, detailed the university’s aggressive response to her investigations. Yue and other young labor and feminist activists were a key focus of CDT’s translation work in 2018.
A single directive in May ordered the deletion of an article on Guangzhou physician Tan Qinghong and the reported mental health toll of his three-month detention for questioning the efficacy and safety of “Hongmao Medical Tonic.”
On June 5, a notice sent to administrators of large WeChat groups called for “the highest level” of control during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s ongoing Qingdao Summit. The notice warned of permanent account deletions for those posting content that violated regulations, forbade changes to profile pictures or names during the summit, and requested “everyone [to] please refrain from disorderly WeChat posting.” The notice followed regulations introduced in late 2017 that made administrators legally responsible for content posted to their groups.
A directive on June 11 ordered websites to “leave no stone unturned” in removing content on strikes by freight truck drivers, and to “strictly guard against related overseas media reports and provocative commentary.” The strikes followed similar actions by crane operators the previous month amid a still ongoing chill in conditions for labor organization.
The same day, another directive ordered websites to hold back “draft content related to tax issues involving people in the film and television industry and ‘yin-yang contracts,'” meaning pairs of contracts for different sums used to understate transactions for tax purposes. The order followed a CCTV host’s accusations that movie star Fan Bingbing had used this ruse with her payment for Feng Xiaogang’s “Cell Phone 2.” Although these allegations were soon reported to have unraveled, Fan later disappeared for several months, before resurfacing with an effusive apology, renewed gratitude for “the great policies of the Communist Party and the state [and] the people’s love and care,” and a $70 million fine.
Finally in June, the year’s most-read Minitrue post contained detailed instructions on coverage of trade tensions with the United States. In a summary of comments attributed to Vice Premier Liu He, media were encouraged to “hold public opinion at a good level without escalating it.” To this end, they were instructed not to relay information from the American government or media, at least (in the latter case) until Chinese officials had had a chance to react. “Don’t attack Trump’s vulgarity; don’t make this a war of insults,” the directive went on. “Don’t follow the American sides’ fluctuating declarations. Play down the correlations between the stock market and trade conflict,” in order to avoid stoking anxiety among the country’s burgeoning but vulnerable investor class. The directive also reiterated the U-turn signaled by the April’s reversal of support for the Amazing China documentary, threatening “consequences” for continued use of the government’s “Made in China 2025” slogan, a key point of contention between Washington and Beijing.
A three-point directive on July 1 ordered filtering and account freezes for sensitive content related to the anniversaries of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and the 1997 handover of Hong Kong. One section stressed the urgency of “giving important content appropriate page placement to ensure successful traffic guidance,” while another urged those on duty to “put an end to inflammation of public opinion by hotspot incidents over the past few days.” These incidents likely included a knife attack outside a Shanghai primary school, in which two were killed. Stories involving violence and particularly harm to children are frequently targeted by censors due to their inflammatory potential. In this case, eight people were reportedly punished for starting or spreading rumors. A screenshot believed to be from an internal WeChat group at the Shanghai Morning Post provided more detailed instructions on coverage: “don’t expand coverage, don’t exaggerate or hype, and absolutely don’t report on flowers or candles left as memorials.” “Be sure to keep these requirements secret,” the newspaper’s editor in chief added.
Children’s safety came up again on July 25, with websites ordered to limit front-page coverage of a defective vaccine scandal to reprints of official copy, with other material given less prominent placement and a ban on special topic pages or links to similar stories in the past. (A separate vaccine scandal in Jiangsu prompted another directive in the New Year.)
Two more directives in July showed ongoing efforts to keep sexual harassment accusations under control. On July 10, nearly three months after targeting Yue Xin’s open letter on April 25, censors ordered the deletion of a report on allegations of sexual harassment against a Sun Yat-sen University primatologist. The order came with the added instruction, “do not allow the issue of sexual harassment in higher education to become inflamed again.” Towards the end of the month, two more directives ordered “strict control” of news and commentary about accusations against state TV host Zhu Jun. “Do not hype any content related to ‘MeToo,’” one of them demanded, using the English phrase.
Another pair of directives in late August dealt with heavy flooding in the Shandong agricultural region of Shouguang, where some blamed local officials’ decision to release water from reservoirs for worsening the damage. The first directive ordered strengthened control over self-media platforms, including deletion of “unconfirmed rumors, photos, videos, malicious comments, and so on.” The second ordered the deletion of an article about a local farmer’s reported suicide due to financial pressure from the impact of the floods and an earlier fine for violation of the one-child policy.
Also in August, media were ordered to stop reporting on a series of African Swine Fever outbreaks in pig herds across several provinces, and not to repost or comment on existing content on websites, media apps, or social media.
On September 7, media were ordered not to “aggregate, report, comment, or re-publish” on the trial of nine officials over the death of Hong Kong hotelier Lau Hei-wing. Lau died from torture in a detention center near the North Korean border in 2017. The following week, another directive forbade aggregation or reporting on an attack in Hunan, in which 12 were killed and dozens injured with a car, knife, and shovel.
October’s lone directive came from the county-level city of Dengfeng in Zhengzhou, Henan, ordering staff to share two articles about Sino-U.S. relations on social media. One stressed “China’s Contributions to the World,” while the other focused on “The General Downhill Trend of America.” Compliance was to be verified with screenshots, and weighed in employees’ annual assessments.
Part Two of this series, covering November and December, will be published soon. See also CDT’s 2017 censorship recap.
Since directives are sometimes communicated orally to journalists and editors, who then leak them online, the wording published here may not be exact. Some instructions are issued by local authorities or to specific sectors, and may not apply universally across China. The date given may indicate when the directive was leaked, rather than when it was issued. CDT does its utmost to verify dates and wording, but also takes precautions to protect the source. See CDT’s collection of Directives from the Ministry of Truth