Written by Nadine Wallnöfer

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  • Area: 9.596.960 square kilometres
  • Population: 1.38 billion (July 2016)
  • Capital: Beijing
  • State form: Centralized socialist party dictatorship
  • Official language: Standard Chinese or Mandarin (official)
  • Religion: Atheist (52.2%), Buddhist (18.2%), folk (21.9%)

  • Flag of China

    China is a country of superlatives: it has the largest media market and online population worldwide. At the same time, it belongs to the worst enemies of media freedom. The former socialist media have undergone a state imposed commercialisation process, but without an ownership-privatization. Most media outlets are still state-owned or at least affiliated with the CCP or a government agency. This makes it even easier for the massive censorship-apparatus to prevent any critical or otherwise unwanted coverage. Draconian and arbitrary punishments for reporting about taboo-topics, lead to self-censorship among journalists. China is the world’s second worst jailer of journalists and president Xi Jinping is on RSF’s “list of press freedom predators” since 2013. Every year, China is among the worst ranks of RSF’s “World Press Freedom Index” and Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Press” report. Lately, especially the internet was the target for restrictions because it is the population’s best chance to find uncensored information. Since the constitution also contains the direct media mission to serve and promote socialism, we sorted China amongst Idealism in our typology.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Form of government
    The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) political system is a centralized socialist party regime with its governance based on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP is organized due to Leninist principles with comprehensive decision and intervention authorities in the fields of politics, administration, economy and society. The basic constitutional and governmental structures are: leadership of the CCP and concentration of powers instead of separation of powers (regarding executive, legislative and judicative functions). Head of state is the president who is elected for a five-year term by the National People’s Congress (NPC). Since 2013, Xi Jinping holds this office. He is also general secretary of the CCP since 2012 and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Officially, China has eight small independent parties but they are ultimately controlled by the CCP. So, in reality, no substantial political opposition groups exist (Foreign Office, 2017a; CIA, 2017; Heilmann, Shih & Heep, 2016: 27).

    Legislation and jurisdiction
    China’s civil law is influenced by Soviet and continental European civil law systems and the Chinese constitution was last amended in 2004 (CIA, 2017). The constitution enshrines the “four basic principles” of the CCP’s rule:
    • socialist path,

    • democratic centralism,

    • leadership of the Communist Party as well as

    • Marxism/Leninism, ideas of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin (Foreign Office, 2017b).

    The NPC and its Standing Committee “exercise the legislative power of the state”. Furthermore, the Supreme People’s Court is the highest judicial organ. It “supervises the administration of justice by the people’s courts at various local levels and by the special people’s courts” and “is responsible to the National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee” (NPC, 2004). The judiciary is also controlled by the CCP and “party political-legal committees supervise the operations of courts at all levels, and allow party officials to influence verdicts and sentences” (Freedom House, 2016a).

    According to Article 35, “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration”. Article 22 states that “the state promotes the development of (…) the press, radio and television broadcasting, publishing and distribution services (…) and other cultural undertakings that serve the people and socialism (…)” (NPC, 2004). China’s modern media is still based upon Mao Zedong’s “mass line” governing theory, due to which the press “is a tool used by the party to ‘educate’ the masses and mobilize public will towards socialist progress” (Ni, 2009). Consequently, there is a direct media mission to serve socialism in the Chinese constitution.

    China does not have a specific press law but “many regulations and administrative orders have been issued to control publications and their distributions”. An example are the Propaganda Department’s “Six No’s” from 1994: “no private media ownership, no shareholding of media organizations, no joint ventures with foreign companies, no discussion of the commodity nature of news, no discussion of a press law, and no openness for foreign satellite television” (Ni, 2009).

    Restrictions and censorship
    In China, even the commercialisation of the media was state-controlled. Thus, it didn’t lead to more media freedom. For example, there was no ownership-privatization, so the state still owns most of the media businesses. This helps the state to maintain control over politically sensitive areas. Furthermore, the CCP’s Central Propaganda Department has a great bureaucratic apparatus at its disposal to monitor the media (Zhu, 2016: 272-273; Freedom House, 2016a; Freedom House, 2016b). Vertically it “commands the propaganda departments of CCP committees at five government levels— central, provincial, municipal, county, and township, as well as individual enterprises and institutions. Horizontally it controls China’s print and broadcast media, journals, books, television, movies, literature, arts, and cultural establishments” (Ni, 2009).

    Common methods to control the media are:
    • formal regulation (e.g. licensing, accreditation),

    • supervision of content (e.g. examination and censorship, content specifications),

    • psychological disciplining (e.g. intimidation, criminalisation),

    • and technological surveillance (e.g. blockage of online contents).

    Another strategy is the distribution of “proactive propaganda” or “guidance of opinion”: in the case of unforeseen negative events, the propaganda authorities start to spread “compatible” official interpretations as early as possible, to influence the media coverage into the right direction (Zhu, 2016: 272-273; Freedom House, 2016a, Freedom House, 2016b). Television is the most strictly controlled news medium in China, followed by radio, newspapers, magazines, e-papers delivered to mobile phones, and the internet (Stockmann, 2012: 144).

    In 2014, the Central Internet Security and Informatization Leading Group, a new CCP body was established, to coordinate “work on cybersecurity and internet management”. It has “full authority over decisions on the entire online sector” and “is headed by President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and longtime propaganda chief Liu Yunshan”. Since then, the implementation of internet control has increased. There is “evidence of automatic filters for common taboo topics as well as frequent post-publication censorship of messages with keywords related to politics, corruption, and tabloid-style gossip”. Additionally, “the authorities have taken steps to actively guide user discussion online” by recruiting and training “an army of paid web commentators” or in some cases the internet in certain regions was just shut down completely by local authorities (Freedom House, 2016b). Moreover, “media must obtain a qualification certificate to disseminate information online” and “internet users charged with violating China’s strict security laws could face sentences of up to life in prison” (Ni, 2009).

    According to Freedom House (2016b), “several laws or amendments that codified existing media controls, increased penalties for political or religious expression, and required technology firms to assist security agencies with investigations” were adopted by the NPC in 2015. Moreover, in most cases “the constitution cannot be invoked in court as a legal basis for asserting individual rights”, since the CCP appoints the Judges and thus, they “generally follow its directives, particularly in politically sensitive cases” (ibid.). This is also due to a loophole in the constitution: Article 51 states “that national, societal, and collective interests cannot be damaged due to individuals’ exercise of freedom and their rights” (Ni, 2009).
    Media offers
    Television is the main news source in China to which virtually everyone has access (Zhu, 2016: 270). Especially among the rural population, higher illiteracy rates lead to the use of TV news as main information source (Ni, 2009). Freedom House (2016b) reported a “urban-rural digital divide”, too. Although there are thousands of radio and television stations (BBC, 2016), all Chinese broadcast media are owned by, or affiliated with the CCP or a government agency. Central People’s Broadcasting Station (CPBS) and China Central Television (CCTV) have monopolized the broadcasting sector and there are no privately owned TV or radio stations. CPBS operates 34 stations in China and is also transmitting to 34 other countries. The state-run CCTV’s provincial and municipal stations offer more than 2,000 channels. CCTV is also China’s most important and influential TV channel and “only licensed national television broadcaster, and all provincial and local stations are required to air its evening news programs” (Foreign Office, 2017a; CIA, 2017; Freedom House, 2016b; Zhu, 2016: 270-271; Ni, 2009).

    CCTV is also the PRC’s international news channel that is supposed to show the world through China’s eyes: it presents China as the centre of the world and praises the government’s actions as solution to “save the world”, in order to legitimize itself in the communist state (Kiermeyer, Paál & Wallnöfer, 2016: 16-20). To fulfil the people’s wish for investigative programmes, CCTV has launched the show Focus Report. It criticises specific cases of wrongdoing of local cadres, of course without making the national political system a subject of discussion (Zhu, 2016: 271). In recent years, CCTV has lost (especially young) viewers to the increasingly popular internet and provincial television stations. As a response, media regulators restricted entertainment programming, especially during prime time (Freedom House, 2016b).

    The most important radio outlets are China National Radio (CNR) and China Radio International (Foreign Office, 2017a; BBC, 2016). Nevertheless, many Chinese use circumvention tools to listen to radio broadcasts by U.S. government–funded services such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America (VOA) which are jammed by the authorities (Foreign Office, 2017a; CIA, 2017; Freedom House, 2016b).

    China has approximately 2,000 newspapers, partly, because every city has its own title published by the local government and a local Communist Party daily. Some publications “have private investors, but the government is required by law to retain a majority stake” (Freedom House, 2016b; BBC, 2016). According to BBC (2016), the CCP’s daily People’s Daily, the state-run China Youth Daily that is linked to the Communist Youth League, the official English-language paper China Daily, the state-run Global Times and Reference News which is published by the official news agency Xinhua, are some of the most important newspapers.

    There are different types of newspapers “in terms of their degree of marketization” and associating “with different stages of media reform”: for simplification, “official”, “semi-official”, and “commercialized” papers are the terms that are used by Chinese media practitioners (Stockmann, 2012: 51, 73). The term “official paper” is generally used for party and political organ papers. Commercialized papers are called “nonofficial papers”, although truly private, nonofficial papers do not exist in China (ibid.: 67-68). According to Ni (2009), “even papers that are seemingly not related to the party are actually controlled by ministries that are under party control”. “Semi-official papers” are a middle category between those two extremes. They are described as so-called “son-papers” within a press group, “headed by an official paper as ‘mother paper’” (Stockmann, 2012: 67-68).

    The State Press and Publications Administration (SPPA) must approve all applications for publishing newspapers (Ni, 2009). To get a license from the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), they must find a sponsor who’s “rank determines the administrative rank of the newspaper as well as its scope of circulation” (ibid.: 52-53). Thus, a newspaper’s circulation does not reflect its popularity or influence, especially because the real circulation numbers of Chinese newspapers are unknown. They vary depending on the source. All newspapers, except for party papers, must have an area of specialization, an official registration number and a responsible control department. With the commercialisation of the media, instead of former state subsidies, advertising, commercial sponsorship and prescriptions have become the major pillars of press financing, even for many party papers (Ni, 2009; Freedom House, 2016b). Freedom House (2016b) reported that this trend “has been reversing in recent years amid a revived reliance on government funding, particularly for print media”.

    With more than 660 million internet users, China has the largest number of internet users in the world. Most Chinese internet users have at least one account on a messaging or microblogging service and over half a billion people are using mobile internet (Freedom House, 2016b; BBC, 2016). The web 2.0 has become the most important forum for expression and formation of opinion (Foreign Office, 2017b). The rapid development of the Chinese internet happened due to massive state support: The government believed the internet to be a key technology to drive economic growth and strengthen international competitiveness. The Chinese mainly surf the internet to communicate (via instant messaging), to find information (search engines, online news), for entertainment (online music, online video, online games) and for online-shopping (Zhu, 2016: 274). The three most powerful online companies are Tencent that dominates online gaming, the top search engine Baidu and the e-commerce leader Alibaba which has allied with Sina, the operator of the top Weibo microblog platform (BBC, 2016).

    Since the turn of the millennium, new internet-based media are challenging China’s traditional media. Internet message portals like Sina, Sohu or Netease cannot get a state license for reporting since they are private enterprises. However, they offer comment and communication platforms which approach the interactive media-preferences of many users. The fast growth of the IT industry made internet-based media attractive for experienced journalists and editors and some of them have set up media Start-ups of their own (Zhu, 2016: 271). Furthermore, “a number of new, state-subsidized digital media platforms gained readers and increased the dominance of official narratives” and “traditional party mouthpieces”, like People’s Daily and CCTV, which “increased their presence on social-media sites” (Freedom House, 2016b).

    Well-known international platforms like YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, some Google services, the photo-sharing site Flickr and cloud services like Dropbox, are permanently blocked by a nationwide technical filtering system that “restricts internet users’ access to uncensored news and information hosted outside of China”. Consequently, strictly censored Chinese “equivalents of these sites have gained popularity”. The authorities have also intensified their efforts to identify and block VPNs, proxy servers and other popular online circumvention tools that are believed to be used by millions (ibid.), to look beyond “the Great Firewall”, as the network filtering systems are referred to (Yang & Liu, 2014: 249-250; Dong, 2012: 404).
    Journalists’ autonomy
    Education, professionalization and journalist’s role perception
    Most journalists went through an education which, on the one hand, was subject to ideological indoctrination, but on the other hand was influenced by international exchange and new professional standards (Zhu, 2016: 271-272). All journalism students must take “political indoctrination courses” and reporters and editors have to attend “refresher courses on the role of the media in China’s Communist society” (Ni, 2009). The journalistic education of media operators like editors-in-chief, producers, directors, etc., is usually very similar to Western media education, “and their collective tendency is to treat media as a public service” (Luo, 2015: 52).

    There are journalism studies in more than 200 colleges and universities in China. TV-broadcast editing and news anchoring are the most popular subjects. The most prominent journalism departments are at Beijing University, Wuhan University, and People’s University. The All-China Journalists Association, the China Radio and Television Society, the China Newspaper Publishers’ Association (CNPA) and the Chinese Publishers Association are the four major journalistic organizations in China (Ni, 2009). But as claimed by Zhu (2016: 271-272), China’s media industry is still very far from professional journalistic standards or even a connecting professional ethos. According to Zhu, very harsh competition for advertising revenues, a lack of separation between editorial work and business, as well as a lack of self-control, have led to corruption in China’s media companies. Moreover, there have been cases of blackmail in editorial offices of party- and commercial media, in which journalists demanded special incentives to prevent negative reporting (ibid.).

    Although, surveys show that Chinese journalists have a high motivation to “uncover social problems”, the Western notion of media as an “indispensable instrument of power control” collides with the “mouthpiece-function” that the CCP assigns to the media. Chinese journalists must constantly keep in mind the risks they face when they test their scope for criticism of grievances and power (ibid). Furthermore, as mentioned above, China’s media are based upon Mao Zedong’s “mass line” governing theory that makes the press a tool to educate the masses and promote socialism. Thus, the Chinese media are often described as the “mouth and tongue” and “eyes and ears” of the Party: The Chinese press serves “as Party-policy announcer, ideological instructor, intelligence collector, and bureaucratic supervisor”, instead of “serving as an objective information source” (Ni, 2009).

    State repression and punishment
    Freedom House (2016b) calls China “home to one of the world’s most restrictive media environments”. President Xi Jinping is an established member on the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) “list of press freedom predators” since 2013 because “China continues to be the world’s leading country for censorship, self-censorship and the suppression of freely-reported news and information”. With 38 imprisoned journalists, China was the world’s number two top jailer of journalists in 2016, as reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists – only topped by Turkey (81). Ranked 87th out of 100 countries in Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Press 2016” report and 176th out of 180 in RSF’s “2016 World Press Freedom Index”, China belongs to the world’s worst enemies of media freedom.

    There are still serious violations of basic laws in China: cases of criminal prosecutions for political reasons, administrative detentions (non-judicial sentences), violations of general guarantees in criminal proceedings (like the presumption of innocence), death penalties as well as ill-treatment and torture are reported frequently. Especially the freedom of opinion and freedom of the press, as well as the rights of human rights defenders such as lawyers and the civil society, have been further restricted by arbitrary arrests and intimidation measures – even against family members (Foreign Office, 2017b). Journalists and online activists are facing poor conditions and frequent denial of medical attention in custody, “including for serious chronic illnesses like diabetes or heart conditions”. Furthermore, smear campaigns in state media and forced to confessions on TV are used against detained journalists (Freedom House, 2016b). In the face of these draconian measures, it is easy to see, why most Chinese journalists are practicing a very careful self-censorship, to avoid crossing a red line.

    Even the peaceful expression of views considered objectionable by the CCP routinely leads to imprisonment. Journalists can be arbitrarily “jailed on apparently trumped-up charges of financial mismanagement, corruption, or illegal business activity, masking the link between their detentions and their reporting or commentary”. Other grounds for imprisonment are the expression of “opinions critical of the government”, “leaking state secrets”, “disseminating information online or sending it to contacts outside China”, “stirring up trouble” and “inciting ethnic hatred”. Ethnic and religious minorities like Uighurs and Tibetans have to fear “particularly harsh treatment for their online activities” (Freedom House, 2016b). In addition to the “standing taboos”, there are “secret directives on other subjects that are communicated regularly to website administrators and traditional media editors”, like the topics “health and safety, the economy, official wrongdoing, and censorship itself” (ibid.), or more generally, events that can cast China or the CCP in a bad light. The legal requirement “to hold government-issued press cards” for (online and offline) journalists and other media workers is also used to discriminate “those who violate content restrictions”: they “risk having their press-card renewals delayed or rejected, being blacklisted outright, getting fired, or facing criminal charges” (ibid.).

    Foreign journalists
    Foreign media are strongly restricted in China, too and websites of several foreign news outlets are consistently blocked (Freedom House, 2016b). The Chinese government “tries to limit access to foreign news by restricting rebroadcasting and the use of satellite receivers, by jamming shortwave broadcasts” (BBC, 2016). Website blocking and the threat of visa denials are used “to retaliate against foreign journalists and news organizations for reporting they deemed objectionable”. Moreover, “foreign reporters continued to face harassment, including occasional physical attacks, hostile editorials in state media, and intimidation of their Chinese sources and staff”. Foreign journalists are “free of internal travel restrictions in most areas and allowed to conduct interviews with private individuals without prior government consent”. These “looser rules do not apply to correspondents from Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan”. Travelling to politically sensitive regions like Tibet “still requires prior approval and close supervision by authorities” (Freedom House, 2016b). Foreign correspondents are not provided information by official sources, but must try to “develop alternative sources, such as embassy personnel, the foreign community in China, and Chinese intellectuals, artists, and dissidents”. They also “must take extraordinary pains to protect their Chinese sources” and “are subjected to surveillance, including the monitoring of telephones and mail”. Moreover, their “Chinese staff, such as interpreters, drivers, cooks, and maids, are also instructed on their duty to keep an eye on foreign correspondents during their work” (Ni, 2009).
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    Related Links
    Recommended citation form
    Nadine Wallnöfer: China. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date).

    China's Internet Censorship Explained. Source:

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