A newly released report by rights group Freedom House says that while repression and censorship by China’s Communist Party has intensified over the past two years since President Xi Jinping began taking over, so has resistance to government efforts to exert control.
In the report entitled The Politburo’s Predicament, that was released Tuesday, Freedom House argues that the growing resistance has required even more intense government crackdowns.
Chinese authorities have long exerted control over broadcast and print media. But as the number of Internet users has rapidly risen, government efforts to manage communications have brought it into direct conflict with more citizens.
The author of the report Sarah Cook says that compared to his predecessors, there is a clear change in how Xi Jinping is managing censorship and security in China.
“Overall this has meant more restrictions, not more freedom,” she says. “As the systems of coercion touch the lives of more Chinese people, Xi and his colleagues risk exacerbating the party’s legitimacy problems.”
The report notes that when China’s last leader Hu Jintao rose to power over a decade ago, there were only about 60 million people online. In 2012, when Xi began his rise to power, that number had reached about half a billion.
And it is not just the number of people online, but the different ways that the public can access information. The Internet in China remains tightly restricted, but the report argues that more people are becoming familiar with the government’s methods of control and resentment is rising.
“Content restrictions that were once encountered mainly by professional journalists in newsrooms have become familiar to tens of millions of Chinese,” the report said.
At the same time that repression has increased, researchers argue that “fear of the regime appears to be diminishing.”
Media analysts say that while the party is constantly trying to control what the public hears or reads, news outlets are also increasingly driven by profit. That incentive leads them to publish articles that at times run counter to censors but have a bigger audience online.
In big cities such as Beijing, bad news and more blunt critique of government policies has become almost routine, they say.
Widening, Tightening Noose
Communist party officials and supporters of their censorship practices argue that such efforts help create a more harmonious and productive society. In defense of their tactics, they have pointed to partisanship that has gripped United States politics as evidence of the dangers that come with an unfettered media.
In China, spreading rumors online could land you in jail. According to rules rolled out in 2013, Internet users could be sentenced up to three years in prison for posting content that “seriously harms” public order or state interests.
According to authorities, defamatory content was considered to be serious if postings were viewed more than 5,000 times or reposted more than 500 times.
The Freedom House report says that by setting such a low threshold, the party was signaling its increasing intolerance with the sharing of information, even with a small audience.
It went on to add, however, that while arrests and detentions followed the rollout of the new regulations, most were subjected to brief periods of detention rather than full criminal prosecution.
The government also has moved in to purchase larger shares of media organizations regarded as more liberal such as the Beijing News, in what some critics say has been a serious blow against the domestic media’s growing privatization.
Journalists are facing increased scrutiny and a growing number of investigative reporters have been sidelined.
The party has also stepped up efforts to indoctrinate journalists. Last year, it required reporters pass a new ideological exam before they could receive their press cards. The exam is based on an 18-hour training course and a 700-page manual that includes topics such as Marxist news values.
In some cases, the Communist Party has resorted to tactics reminiscent of the Mao Zedong era such as televised confessions.
The government has targeted popular micro bloggers, shutting their accounts and in the case of Charles Xue, a Chinese-American businessman who had more than 12 million followers on China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo service, publicly shaming them. Xue was detained for allegedly soliciting prostitutes and publicly shown on television expressing regret for using his microblog account to influence public opinion.
The report notes that speeches and official documents in China “convey a high level of anxiety over the spread of ideas about democracy and its components, including judicial independence and an unfettered press.”
One such example was in August of 2013, when President Xi delivered a speech to propaganda workers. In the speech, the report notes, he not only acknowledged popular dissatisfaction with the government, but expressed concerns that mainstream state media were losing their influence.
A Xinhua News Agency report on the speech quoted Xi as saying: “we are currently in a magnificent struggle that has many new historical characteristics; the challenges and difficulties we face are unprecedented.”
With few signs that any kind of top-down liberalization could take place in China, and growing resentment toward the government’s policies, the report argues that the country is facing a volatile combination.
The report says that although it is difficult to gauge societal fear in China and intraparty dissent, the findings suggest that there are fundamental flaws in the way the Communist Party is applying its repression. It also argues that while the government may be winning the battle for control, it is losing the war for the hearts and minds of the Chinese public.