Minireview: 2018 in Censorship (Oct-Dec)

This series is a recap of 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.

With only 30 directives published by the end of October, the steady slowing of leaks over the previous four years since a high point of 171 in 2014 seemed set to continue. A flurry of directives in November and December, however, including several originally issued in October, nearly doubled the total for 2018 to 58, exceeding the 40 published in 2017 and 51 in 2016.

Efforts to dampen coverage of tensions with the U.S. continued on November 7 with an order not to “conduct live broadcasts or aggregate special topic pages” on the U.S. midterm elections. “Do not cite foreign media reports, and do not conduct reporting without prior arrangement,” it continued. When Xi and Trump met at the summit in Argentina, media were instructed to “strengthen inspection of relevant video information. Only publish standard source content, and do not modify the title. Without exception, do not promote content related to coverage by self-media. Especially with relevant content that is maliciously hyped, promptly delete content, and deal with relevant accounts.”

The demands for careful, anti-inflammatory handling extended to other countries caught up in the tensions. In mid-November, CDT belatedly received a directive issued the previous month to direct coverage of Japanese premier Abe Shinzo’s official visit to China. Websites were requested to “please quietly handle sensitive topics to avoid disturbing the overall positive mood of the bilateral relationship. […] Do not draw direct links between Sino-U.S. and Sino-Japanese relations, and prevent the appearance of clickbait and hot takes about ’embracing Japan to resist America.'”

The tech industry’s position as a focus of particular Sino-U.S. tension, previously illustrated by the rise and fall in official favor of the triumphalist “Amazing China” documentary, only intensified toward the end of 2018. On December 1, CFO Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the company’s founder, was detained in Vancouver following a still-pending extradition request by the United States. A week later, a directive ordered websites to limit coverage of Meng’s detention to “authoritative reports” from official departments and media. “Do not republish, independently gather news, use self media, or publicize via screen pop-ups,” it added. “Strictly manage comments.” U.S. authorities have since leveled an array of charges at Meng, Huawei itself, and two other executives variously including fraud, theft of trade secrets, sanctions violation, and obstruction of justice, but the company had long been at the center of suspicions over its fitness to participate in various countries’ upgrades to mobile networks. With Meng’s arrest and China’s apparent retaliation shining a still more intense spotlight on the company, a directive on December 9 sought to limit further fallout, stating that “it is currently inappropriate to publicize construction of the world’s first 5G commercial network, or publish material—such as seizing speaking rights on international standards—that could easily fan international resistance.”

With the geopolitical sensitivities surrounding the tech industry, 2018’s World Internet Conference was a more muted affair than with the previous year’s parade of top U.S. tech executives including Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai. In 2017, sites had been ordered to manage “attacks” on the conference, particularly those referring to high-profile foreign guests as “beggars,” and others using terms like “World 404 Conference” to highlight the irony of a “World Internet Conference” in a country walled off from significant swathes of the global internet. An order issued on November 2 last year returned to that theme, ordering media to “uniformly refrain from reporting, re-posting, and commenting” on the special Great Firewall-circumventing internet connections set up for the event. Another on November 6 forbade live broadcasts of the conference, together with hype, interviews, reporting, or reports about banquets at the event, or attendees’ clothing.

Away from tech, another raft of directives targeted the entertainment industry. One provided a sequel to an order from June to hold back content about tax practices in the film and television industries, apparently prompted by a CCTV host’s high-profile accusations against movie star Fan Bingbing. Fan then disappeared for several months, finally resurfacing in October with an effusive apology and a $70 million fine for tax evasion. Soon afterward, a directive banned unapproved reports or commentary, use of information other than that released by authoritative departments, and speculation about those involved in similar tax cases. Sites were ordered to “promptly clean up harmful information taking advantage of the opportunity to discredit, attack, question, and play up the hype.” A subsequent order on December 1 ordered “all websites [not to] report, repost, or comment on critical opinions” about authorities’ handling of film and television industry tax issues. Previously, in October, sites had been ordered not to report on negative responses to a public consultation on special personal income tax deductions. For more on China’s public consultation processes, and whether they offer more than “a veneer of popular legitimacy to decisions that government officials have already made behind closed doors,” see CDT’s 2014 interview with George Washington University’s Steven Balla.

Another spate of directives followed the prestigious Awards ceremony in Taipei on November 17. While accepting an award for her documentary “Our Youth in Taiwan,” set during the 2014 Sunflower Movement protests, director Fu Yue said that her “biggest wish” was for Taiwan to be “treated as a truly independent entity.” This prompted an order for “all websites [to] immediately cease live streaming and live broadcasts.” Two days later, industry executives were warned that “in the future, all joint productions and domestic films will not be allowed to apply for the Golden Horse Awards.” On November 28, a third directive banned reporting on either “Our Youth in Taiwan” or Best Film winner “An Elephant Sitting Still,” a four-hour drama set in northern China whose director Hu Bo had committed suicide the previous year.

Other directives dealt with historical sensitivities. A short summary of comments by Premier Li Keqiang on strengthening AIDS treatment and prevention was deleted from government web portals ahead of World AIDS Day on December 1. Li’s reputation is dogged by his handling of an outbreak during his earlier tenure in Henan, where his suppression of activists and obstruction of international assistance were blamed for compounding the consequences of a mismanaged government blood-buying campaign. Looking further back, the death on December 17 of former State Council spokesperson Yuan Mu, whose comments on the 1989 June 4th crackdown became internationally notorious, prompted an order to “only republish information from authoritative media such as Xinhua and People’s Daily. Delete all other information without exception, and remove harmful messages.” In January, Shanghai-based state media outlet The Paper was struck with a 30-day syndication ban, apparently for violating this injunction. Another directive dealt with celebrations of the 125th anniversary of Mao’s birth in his birthplace, Shaoshan, on December 26. “News websites from all regions are not to assign journalists to cover [these events] unless arranged in a unified manner. Any unexpected circumstances at these events must uniformly not be reported on or disseminated.”

A directive from late October, obtained and published the following month, barred “publishing, commenting, hyping, or linking” to information related to the sentencings of nine former prosecutors involved in the death from torture of Hong Kong hotelier Steven Lau Hei-wing. “Quickly dispose of harmful information attacking our social system and judicial system,” the order added, calling also for recipients to “take care of” the social media accounts of Lau’s relatives including CCTV host Liu Fangfei. An earlier directive had forbidden aggregation, reporting, commenting, or republishing on the trial in late September. Another belatedly released directive from October 24 banned further investigation or commentary on an open letter by Inner Mongolian dairy firm Yili Group, denouncing its former chairman and his “official protectors.” The letter was posted and soon deleted amid lingering fallout from the former chairman Zheng Junhuai’s conviction for embezzlement in 2006. In October, two bloggers were imprisoned for spreading rumors that Zheng’s successor, Pan Gang, was under corruption investigation, allegedly under direction from Zheng. A third order, from October 20, banned reporting on the death of Macau Liaison Office head Zheng Xiaosong, who ostensibly jumped from a building while suffering from depression.

Four more directives guided coverage of so-called “sudden incidents.” An October 16 directive published more than a month later barred unapproved interviews, reporting, commentary, or republishing on protests by PLA veterans, which have repeatedly occurred over grievances involving pensions and other benefits. Another order on December 9 ordered sites to use only Xinhua reporting, in full and without modification to text or headlines, on charges against ten organizers of allegedly fake ’ protests in . Another reporting, commentary, and republishing ban was issued on November 18 against a group of black lung sufferers from Hunan who had been pepper sprayed by police after repeatedly traveling to the city to petition. On November 27, an order cautioned media to cite only authoritative sources on an explosion which killed 22 at a Hebei chemical plant. (Accidents, like natural disasters, are classified together with protests under the “sudden incidents” designation.)

Also in the last quarter of the year, CDT published bans on reporting on China’s new, domestically developed Hong-20 long-range strategic bomber; independent newsgathering, reporting, or commentary on a “dispute” between Guangzhou lawyer Sun Shihua and local police (who reportedly beat and choked Sun when she visited their station with a client); independent news-gathering and “harmful commentary” on CRISPR gene-edited babies; “irrational claims” and “harmful information” about a gaokao university entrance exam scandal in Zhejiang; and any reporting on the arrest of more than 100 members of Chengdu’s Early Rain Covenant Church in coordinated raids.

For more directives, see part one of 2018’s two-part Minireview, the 12-part 2017 series, or CDT’s full archive of directives up to the present.

真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