How to Read China’s New Press Restrictions

A ChinaFile Conversation

On June 30, China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television posted a statement on its website warning Chinese journalists not to share information with their counterparts in the foreign press corps. Most major non-Chinese news organizations rely heavily on Chinese nationals to conduct research, identify sources, serve as interpreters, and, in some cases, interview sources who are reluctant to speak with foreigners over the telephone. The Chinese government doesn't consider these employees of foreign news organizations to be official journalists (and it forbids Chinese nationals from working as correspondents for foreign media organizations.) It's unclear to what extent the new rules target them. But when overt censorship or self-censoring editors prevent Chinese journalists who work for the country's own media outlets from publishing their stories, they often pass them on to reporters at foreign news organizations, sometimes doing so through their Chinese news assistants. It is this information exchange that the new rules appear to want to block. We've asked media watchers and journalists to tell us how they read the new restrictions and to gauge their likely impact.—The Editors


For much of the last two and a half decades, Chinese journalists have been pushing the boundaries—many going into grey areas, others stepping boldly into danger zones, others yet going into forbidden areas and getting punished for it. Chinese journalism, both domestic and international, is much the better for this bravery.

International news bureaus, whose Chinese-national staff in the 1990s and before were limited to translating, making appointments, and the occasional nudge and wink about deeper stories, now have bureau "assistants" who are full correspondents in all but title and official recognition. Some get bylines, some go on to full journalistic careers outside of China's borders. But all this has been done outside of the regulations and with the tacit acceptance if not approval of the authorities.

Chinese domestic publications like Caijing, Caixin, Southern Weekly and others have pushed reporting far beyond what the state news agency Xinhua or the official People's Daily would ever do. What was once a monolithic press is now full of diversity, and full of bravery.

Yet the Sword of Damocles has always hung over these brave reporters' and editors' heads.

What is not approved can always be punished. What is not in the regulations can always be stopped.

And sometimes it was.

"Assistants" were called in for "chats". Reporters or editors lost their positions. Others who allegedly violated China's vague but draconian secrecy laws faced criminal sanctions.

So why the new regulations? Why fray the threads on the hanging sword to make the sense of danger all the more imminent?

Certainly many things in the last 18 months have become much tighter in China and the restrictions on reporting and expression much stronger. What these new announcements will do will make the sense of doom ever more present, and make self-censorship seem ever more necessary. Faced with the loss of profession, livelihood, or freedom, only the bravest journalists will continue to push the boundaries. Most will retreat. Most will wait to see how the regulations are actually used. Most will pull back from the reporting and the transparency that a modern society needs.

That Beijing felt this chill was necessary is testament to how brave and pioneering Chinese journalism has become. But it is also a sad reminder of the risks journalists have taken and will continue to take if they try to shed light on their society.

Recently the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued a statement containing a new set of regulations warning members of the media against reporting outside of beats formally approved by their superiors or sharing “unauthorized” information with other—especially foreign—media outlets. Any such activities, it warned, might open an individual up to serious charges of revealing “state secrets.” The regulations even call on media organizations to require employees to sign non-disclosure agreements promising not to transmit unapproved information to outside media outlets.

Such pronouncements cause Westerners to wonder whether China is actually still “opening up,” whether more open markets are, in fact, leading to a more open society and a freer press. The Chinese Communist Party’s fluxing attitude towards its Fourth Estate, one which sometimes has the aspect of a constantly changing tide, has led to added confusion about what the trend lines actually are. It has hardly helped that the Party and State continue to “tighten down,” only to “loosen up,” all according to its perceived need for more or less control over the flow of information.

This confusion has been exacerbated further by the fact that the People’s Republic of China has two competing conceptions of the press that are vying with each other and are constantly in a state of dynamic yin-yang tension. The first is the Western notion of the press not just as an independent, public watchdog arrayed against wrong-doing of all kinds, but as a check and balance against the over-reach of state, ecclesiastical, and corporate power. The second is the Leninist notion of the press—indeed, of all art, culture and media—as the exclusive megaphones for the party and state. While a Western conception of the media’s role in society has never been officially codified by the Party in China, it has gained much currency in schools of journalism and communication and in the newsrooms of more enlightened media outlets, particularly during times of more active political reform such as China experienced in the 1980s when a press law even came under formal discussion. But the Leninist notion of the role of the press, has never been repudiated and has been the far stronger model.

First articulated by Mao Zedong in the 1940s, this idea that the primary, indeed the only, role of the press in society is to advance the interests of the Chinese Communist Party remains the pillar conception of China’s press. The Party has sometimes tempered this rigid notion with a certain flexibility, or laxness, by exercising less onerous controls. But, whenever members of the press have pushed the boundaries of independence too far and strained the Party’s indulgence, the Maoist notion of the press has been reasserted, sometimes with a vengeance. And, what we are evidently now seeing with these new regulations and warnings is just such a correction, a re-articulation of intention of the organs that manage the media to reign in the latitude that journalists have become accustomed to enjoying. Whether these new rules are immediately exercised or not is not as important as the role they play in warning journalists, even threatening them, that there are limits to how far they can stray from beyond the Party’s field of political gravity.

When Deng Xiaoping in effect cancelled Mao’s economic revolution, overthrowing his whole laboriously constructed system of state-run industrial factories, state-owned commercial enterprises, and people’s agricultural communes, he dismantled neither the ideological principles which underlay the operating system for cultural and media organs, nor the elaborate systems and institutions set up to control and manage them, such as the Central Propaganda Department and the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Nonetheless, it was tempting to imagine that as tectonic economic reforms transformed China, similar changes would ineluctably also transform such organs of control. But this was a naïve pipedream.

In explaining why, it is important to remember that both the ideology of control and the institutional system it spawned have very deep roots not only in Mao’s revolution, but in the Bolshevik revolution as well. In fact they both were exported to China in the mid-1920s when Sun Yat-sen, and later Chiang Kai-shek borrowed Leninist organization principles to create the Guomindang, and later when men like Chen Duxiu, Li Dazhao, and Mao Zedong set up the CCP. Simply put, Vladimir Lenin’s notion was that all organs of media, art, and culture in a revolutionary society must become “cogs and screws” in the machine of socialist and political revolution.

Mao echoed this notion in his 1942 “Yanan Forums on Art and Literature,” a series of evening talks during Japan’s occupation of China in which he proclaimed that, like all literature and art, journalism is one of the “indispensable cogs and wheels in the whole machine, an indispensable part of the entire revolutionary cause.” He went on the explain that “there is, in fact, no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above classes or art that is detached from or independent of politics.” Thus, in his view, it was just as important to control the organs of culture and information as it was to control the organs of military power. “To defeat the enemy we must rely primarily on the army with guns,” he declared. “But this army alone is not enough; we must also have a cultural army, which is absolutely indispensable for uniting our own ranks and defeating the enemy.”

And, as a reminder to any who might have imagined room for dissent, he added, “If anyone opposes the Communist Party and the people and keeps moving down the path of reaction, we will firmly oppose him.”

Lest some good comrades had forgotten this fundamental principle on which the PRC was founded in 1949, Mao reemphasized it again in 1961. “The role and power of newspapers,” he said, “consist in their ability to present the Party’s line, its specific policies, goals and work methods to the masses in the most effective and rapid of ways.”

And when Deng Xiaoping came back into office in late 1978 to initiate his extensive reform program, his newly formulated “Current Propaganda Regulations for Print and Broadcast Media” reminded any over-zealous reformers that China’s leadership would not countenance an independent press mimicking a Western model.

“Professionals in publishing, news, radio and television must uphold the spirit of the Communist Party,” it re-emphasized. “Party newspapers and periodicals must be sure to publicize the opinions of the Party without condition.”

Even as professional journalists have sought to adopt elements of the Western press model and to perform a greater watchdog role in Chinese society, the Party has never wavered from its foundation principle that the press in New China must remain the CPC’s “mouth and tongue.” It is this unyielding principle which lays behind each restatement of the Party’s right, obligation, and commitment to manage China’s press to serve its own goals, even as those goals have morphed substantially since the time of Mao. The latest set of regulations is only the most recent in a long string of reminders that the media in China has no legal basis to assure its independent, watchdog status.

These new regulations find themselves at the intersection of two trends in China’s media landscape. First, as David Schlesinger and Orville Schell have indicated, the Xi leadership is clearly aiming to re-discipline investigative journalism and critical voices. Second, they reflect a growing unease with the role of foreign players in various areas of China’s information order writ large.

When I read these new regulations, I immediately thought of Gao Yu, the septuagenarian, international prize-winning reporter, who was detained in May on the accusation of leaking state secrets. It is widely speculated that the document she leaked was the controversial “Document No. 9,” in which the Central Committee defined seven categories of harmful speech. It was not only published in Mingjing magazine in Hong Kong, but also translated and posted on this website. Obviously, the very act of sharing this document with what the propaganda authorities probably see as foreign hostile forces, has taken on a treasonous flavor in this tense environment.

To a certain degree, this is not new. Shielding inside information from foreigners has been a constant factor, even in a period of “openness.” This ranges from the minute—such as a 1987 circular warning domestic publishers not to tell foreigners that copyright regulations had been passed, because otherwise China would face demands for royalties to foreign businesses—to the highest levels of politics, where the Tiananmen Papers are a controversial example.

What has changed, however, is the perceived extent to which foreign presence is seen as harmful to domestic “information security.” After the Snowden revelations and the escalating tensions surrounding cybersecurity, the government has become increasingly concerned about domestic reliance on foreign telecommunications software and hardware, and has intensified efforts to develop indigenous technology. Shortly after Gao Yu was detained, Beijing reportedly ordered large, strategic state-owned enterprises to cut ties with foreign consultancy firms, apparently out of fear that these might engage in industrial espionage.

But perhaps most importantly, foreign reporting on China has vastly improved in quality and quantity in the past few years, and is reaching a quickly-growing domestic readership. Successive reports about the leadership’s wealth published by, amongst others, The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, have further fuelled growing domestic disaffection, and challenged the credibility of official news outlets.

In response, the leadership now seems to be bent on erecting new barriers between domestic and international information environments: what happens in China, must stay in China. Conversely, what is outside may only enter under strict controls, as the demise last week of the all-volunteer media translation website Cenci seems to suggest. This is not strange in the light of the Xi administration’s reform project. The leadership is trying to pull off a profound political and economic reorientation, and therefore aims to minimize the possibility of unpleasant surprises.

One big question, however, is the extent to which self-imposed information autarky may hurt China’s economic prospects. The Chinese government generally has not been great at fostering international trust through transparency and communicative clarity. The fact that it took months to provide an official translation of the 3rd Plenum documentation is only one example of the failure to recognize that being the second largest economy in the world means many more people want to find out what’s going on. The time for averting the limelight is over.

I don’t believe that the government has ever been confused about its own stance on media controls. The core principle of the CCP’s Leninist notion of the press is that the Party controls the media, and the media should be the mouthpiece of the Party and the people. From Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping, even up to Xi Jinping, this stance has never changed.

Beginning with the founding of the Western China City Daily in 1993 and culminating in the Southern Weekly incident in 2013, twenty years of commercialization of the press in China have given many outsiders the impression that media controls are on the wane. But this is a misconception.

At the time of Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 “southern tour,” Party newspapers had no competitive market power and were funded primarily by subsidies from the government. With the introduction of market reforms, Party newspapers started founding daughter publications with stronger market appeal, whose proceeds could then support the operations of their parent newspapers and lighten their financial loads.

The authorities have never loosened their grip over these daughter publications, the commercial press. In general, the parent newspaper assigns the top staff of commercial newspapers, and the Party’s propaganda organs continue to exert direct influence over the commercial media outlets, using phone calls, critiques of already published articles, and other measures to intervene on matters of content, overall direction, and personnel assignments. Nevertheless, over the past two decades, the staff of commercial newspapers have gradually adopted a value system and a market position similar to that of the Western media, resulting in friction between them and the authorities. The Southern Weekly is a good example of this.

As digital technology has accelerated the spread of information and the commercial media have become more influential, the government has continued to implement targeted restrictions in an effort to control the press. These include passing laws that prohibit and other websites from reprinting articles published in commercial newspapers, and other measures that limit the growth of commercial media. This trend came to a head in early 2013 when the Propaganda Department of Guangdong province forced Southern Weekly to pull its annual New Year editorial and replace it with one glorifying the Party, sparking protests from the staff and public. This was the final consequence of a steadily escalating campaign to reign in the power of commercial media.

Xi Jinping’s speech on August 19th, 2013 signaled that the fifth generation of CCP leadership planned to tighten its grip on media and ideology even further. Since then, a number of prominent Internet commentators have been arrested in harsh cyberspace purges, and at the same time the government has adopted a series of stricter measures, including banning the system of “cross-regional reporting” [that Chinese media outlets used to expose corruption], requiring newspapers to publish only the Xinhua News Agency’s coverage of non-local stories, forbidding journalists to report outside their regular beats, imposing strict limitations on visas for foreign journalists, prohibiting reporters from using social media without approval from their organizations, and banning journalists from publishing unofficial critical reports. Most recently, under a set of new rules, Chinese journalists are barred from “illegally recording and transmitting state secrets” or writing articles for foreign news outlets, and are required to sign confidentiality agreements. Shortly beforehand, the 70-year-old veteran journalist Gao Yu was arrested for “divulging state secrets.” All this testifies to the state’s continuing determination to keep commercial media under its thumb.

— Translated by Austin Woerner