Inside Story

Trouble at the Chinese rumour mill

Beijing is cracking down on media and internet dissent, writes Duncan Hewitt. Corrupt local authorities are likely to be among the beneficiaries

Duncan Hewitt 13 December 2013 2809 words

Hu Shuli, the doyenne of financial journalism in China, has taken a strong stand against corrupt journalistic practices.

REGULAR viewers of China Central Television might be experiencing a severe case of déjà-vu. On at least half a dozen occasions since late August they have been treated to the spectacle of a penitent-looking man, often with a shaven head and dressed in prison overalls and handcuffs, confessing to misdeeds and expressing regret for his behaviour.

Two of the six men worked for foreign businesses: one was a British consultant and risk analyst who researched the finances of businesses in China; the other an employee of pharmaceuticals giant GSK, who admitted to bribing doctors to boost the company’s profits. The remaining four were very much part of China’s “national conversation,” and of the modern, internet-centred media culture that has produced it. Two were celebrity bloggers, another was a well-known online activist, and the fourth was a young journalist at one of the country’s more dynamic tabloid newspapers.

The journalist, Chen Yongzhou of Guangzhou’s New Express, owned up to accepting money to write negative stories about one of China’s biggest construction equipment companies, the partly state-owned Zoomlion. One of the three bloggers – Charles Xue, a prominent American-Chinese venture capitalist whose socially critical comments had won him more than twelve million followers online – confessed not only to publishing misleading blog posts but also to consorting with prostitutes, after allegedly being caught red-handed by the Beijing police.

A friend of Xue’s, Dong Liangjie, the owner of a water purifier company, apologised for alleging that chemicals in Chinese water supplies could cause infertility. He and Xue had also colluded to raise their profiles online, he said, by spreading “sensational microblog posts.” And Dong Rubin, a well-known blogger with a reputation for citizens’ rights activism, told TV viewers he had posted misleading information about various companies after receiving money from their business rivals.

This sorry procession prompted a series of attacks on the morality of journalists and bloggers on China Central Television and in the pages of centrally controlled newspapers, including the People’s Daily and its tabloid offshoot, the Global Times. The All-China Journalists Association weighed in with its own denunciation of Chen Yongzhou for betraying the ethics of a journalist and “harm[ing] the media’s credibility.”

There was just one discordant note in this parade of villainy. None of these men had been charged with any crime – and so far none of them has been sent to court for trial. Indeed, the reasons for their detention sometimes seemed vague. Charles Xue was apparently being held for consorting with prostitutes, yet he was also shown confessing to misleading people through his blog posts. Dong Rubin’s confession to online misdemeanours came after he was detained in connection with financial irregularities at his company.

Eyebrows were also raised in some quarters by the treatment of Chen, the journalist. Having initially defended him vigorously and called for his release – as did other Chinese media – his newspaper made an abrupt U-turn and issued a front-page apology for failing to check his stories carefully. (The paper’s editor-in-chief subsequently resigned, to be replaced by senior staff from the tabloid’s more stolid parent paper.)

There was also speculation online that Chen had been coerced into confessing. As media law professor Wei Yongzheng put it on his microblog, when someone has been “escorted out in prison garb and in handcuffs by a pair of brawny police officers – to say that they are consciously and willingly confessing their wrongs in their own words wouldn’t fool even a three-year-old child.” Whether Chen was guilty or innocent, others argued, the decision to broadcast his confession on TV amounted to a slap in the face for China’s recently revised Criminal Procedure Law, which is supposed to maintain a presumption of innocence and protect the right to a fair trial.

Not everyone is sympathetic to Chen, however. “He wrote over a dozen articles criticising the same company,” says one former investigative journalist. “That doesn’t sound quite right to me.” Corruption is certainly a far from rare phenomenon within China’s commercial media, with poorly paid journalists – and financially strapped media organisations – sometimes susceptible to bribes from businesses to promote their interests (or, in some cases, to suppress negative news). Hu Shuli, the doyenne of financial journalism in China, has written extensively about this problem; the magazines she founded, Caijing and Caixin, led the way in forbidding their journalists from accepting even the ubiquitous “transport expenses” (usually between 300 and 500 RMB, or A$55–100) given by companies to journalists who attend their press conferences.

The impression that Chen’s very public confession may be part of a campaign to tame the media and the internet was reinforced by the fate of another New Express journalist. Liu Hu was detained in late August on suspicion of “fabricating and spreading rumours” after he wrote a post accusing a former provincial-level official, now a vice-minister, of selling off a state firm on the cheap. According to his lawyer, Liu Hu was offered a deal – confess to defamation in front of the TV cameras and be spared a spell in jail. Liu stood by his story, however, and was formally arrested in October, the usual prelude to being sent for trial (though the charges against him have yet to be announced). The contrast with the treatment of those who had confessed was striking.

WHATEVER the rights or wrongs of individual cases, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that these very public confessions, with their jarring echoes of the humiliations of the Cultural Revolution, were designed to discredit journalists and bloggers in the eyes of the public.

Such a shrill approach seems increasingly out of step with a society that has matured in other ways, but it may well reflect growing official anxiety about the expanding power of the internet and the media in China. While the authorities often talk these days about the need for public “supervision” of government – partly in recognition of the growing voice of China’s online community – they are clearly rattled by the influence of the nation’s half a billion netizens and the celebrity bloggers (or Big Vs, as they are known in China) who are increasingly shaping public opinion, and indeed by signs that the country’s journalists are chafing at government controls.

It may therefore be no coincidence that Chen Yongzhou was shown on TV saying that his case had damaged “the whole news media industry and its ability to earn the public’s trust.” It might sound like a strangely exaggerated claim for an individual journalist, but it may well convey exactly the message the authorities were hoping to get across – that China’s new “commercial" media, which has eroded the power and influence of the country’s more traditional party newspapers, is not to be trusted.

The official discomfort at media scrutiny has been apparent for some time. In 2010, the (now jailed and discredited) police chief of Chongqing, Wang Lijun, issued a battle cry against the media, telling his force that “if any newspaper attacks the reputation of the Chongqing police force or an individual police officer through the misrepresentation of fact, the public security bureau will sue both the newspaper that published the story and the author of the piece.” The Chinese authorities were further alarmed at the beginning of 2013 when the censoring of an editorial in the popular Southern Weekend newspaper led to street protests in support of the paper and its journalists, and sympathetic reporting by other media around the country.

The power of the internet and the media converged earlier this year, to striking effect, when Liu Tienan, the powerful head of China’s National Energy Administration, and deputy head of the influential National Development and Reform Commission, was effectively brought down by a tweet from Luo Changping, the thirty-three-year-old deputy editor of Caijing magazine. Luo accused Liu of abusing his position to enrich his family, and although the allegations were furiously rebuffed by Liu’s department, he was subsequently removed from his posts and placed under investigation.

It was not only a demonstration of the potential power of the web, but a virtually unprecedented intervention in Chinese politics by an individual journalist. Yet Luo Changping has said that several factors needed to combine for his reports to be taken seriously, and he believes it is unlikely such a “success” will happen again in a hurry. Perhaps to emphasise the point, in August this year Chinese officials ordered that all journalists should attend Marxist study sessions for two or more days as a reminder that their first duty is to the party. And when a China Central Television producer, Wang Qinglei, dared to criticise the station’s role in broadcasting the humiliation of Charles Xue and others, he was quickly sacked by the TV station. Wang later wrote that the “media integrity and professionalism” of the national broadcaster “has long gone.”

Official alarm at the rise of the internet seems even more pronounced. Social media has provided China’s citizens with a new platform, the like of which no authoritarian regime has hitherto had to face. So far has the ground shifted, in fact, that it’s not unusual to hear officials complaining that the web is unfairly biased against them. As one commentator in the Global Times put it recently, after the latest in a string of local officials was forced out of office following online criticism, “the magnification of individual voices… is putting great pressure on the authorities.” Public scrutiny of government was “an absolutely necessary force,” he wrote, but “this force cannot be overused as a form of ‘soft violence.’” The official military newspaper, meanwhile, suggested that some online criticism carried “artillery shells of negative sentiment,” magnifying minor issues so that they “become a critique of the national culture, the state system and its path.”

In response, president Xi Jinping has launched a nationwide “anti-rumour campaign” and is reported to have ordered the nation’s propaganda apparatus to “form a strong internet army to seize the ground of new media.” A Supreme People’s Court ruling in September means that anyone who intentionally posts (or retweets) “defamatory” or “false” information that damages social order can face up to three years in jail if the material is retweeted 500 times or read 5000 times. A Supreme Court spokesman sought to reassure netizens that the ruling was not designed to prevent online whistleblowing, stressing that it helped to clarify previously vague rules for posts that have “serious” negative social consequences.

Many fear, though, that the definition of what constitutes a rumour is both hazy and open to interpretation – or abuse – and that the 500-retweet rule is open to manipulation. The regulations certainly appear to have found favour with some local authorities, however: soon after they were introduced, a sixteen-year-old high school student in Gansu province became the first person detained under the new rule after he questioned the police’s handling of a case involving the suicide of a local karaoke bar manager. After a storm of protest online, and the intervention of Beijing-based lawyers, the boy, Yang Hui, was released – yet when he accused the police of having beaten him during his detention he was effectively expelled by his school. (A school he had formerly attended said it would welcome him back, however.)

In all, several hundred people are reported to have been detained or questioned under the anti-rumour rules, according to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. Anxiety remains high that officials have been given a handy new weapon for settling scores. One of those shown confessing on CCTV, for example, blogger Dong Rubin, had a history of being an irritant to the local authorities in Yunnan, where he lived. In 2009, he played a key part in a high-profile online campaign which led to officials admitting that a man whom they said had died by accident in a local detention centre had actually been beaten to death; two policemen were later jailed, and a nationwide review of detention centre standards was announced.

If the new rules do give local authorities greater power over bloggers in their areas, the impact could be significant. Many observers, notably the blogger and internet analyst Michael Anti, have argued that the rise of the internet in China poses particular problems for local governments. Accustomed to controlling what was reported in their local media, they now find their abuses and problems being exposed online, picked up by the national media and – local government’s greatest fear – brought to the attention of the central government.

Some influential Chinese internet figures, like the well-known writer and blogger Han Han, acknowledge that the country does have a problem with unreliable information spreading online – in fact, he himself has been a victim of it. Yet he argues that the root of the problem is a lack of credible alternative channels, and he believes that the solution is to open up rather than restrict the media. The authorities are unapologetic, however. According to Lu Wei, director of the State Internet Information Office, “Freedom means order.”

THESE developments have undermined hopes that the new leadership of president Xi Jinping and prime minister Li Keqiang might prove more accepting of the role of the media, and the new media, in China. November’s Communist Party central committee plenum did nod towards a “healthy, normal society,” both by announcing the abolition of “re-education through labour” camps and by partially relaxing China’s one-child policy to allow more couples to have two children. There was even an unprecedented announcement that the public’s views would be sought about the dates of the nation’s public holidays next year – something previously treated like an official secret.

But some commentators have suggested the labour re-education reforms may have limited impact, with many inmates simply transferred to drug rehabilitation centres. And a continuing focus on stability and security was highlighted by the creation of a new national security agency, with responsibility for domestic security as well as combatting external threats. A number of civil rights activists and lawyers have been detained in recent months; one of them, entrepreneur Wang Gongquan, who has a large online following, is also reported to have made a video confession. Recent official rhetoric, meanwhile, stresses China’s continuing rejection of Western political models and warns of anti-China conspiracies from abroad. The head of the government’s official mouthpiece, the Xinhua News Agency, for example, launched a vitriolic attack on the Western media, accusing it of “creating rumours to attack and vilify our country and party” in order to hinder China’s development.

Those comments were no doubt partly a response to articles by Bloomberg and the New York Times in 2012, which broke new ground in reporting on the wealth of the families of individual Chinese leaders. China’s anger at such reporting is underlined by the fact that the authorities have yet to renew the visas of journalists from either of these media organisations for 2014. (Renewals are normally approved routinely before the end of the calendar year.)

As one intellectual put it, official anxiety may reflect the fact that the authorities find themselves in a delicate situation, aware that many citizens are eager for a more open society but unwilling to jeopardise the “bottom line” of party control. “They’ve reformed all the easy things already now,” said the intellectual, who didn’t want to be named. “What’s left is much harder to tackle.”

How long the tough line against the internet will persist is unclear. But there are already reports that the number of posts on Weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent, has declined in recent months. Some commentators remain optimistic, and journalist Chang Ping argues that the government’s efforts to cow the most influential online commentators could actually “promote the diversity of opinion and more even distribution of information, making public opinion control even more difficult.” Others, however, fear that such a prospect might, after all, turn out to be just another rumour. •