China isn’t, ahem, exactly known for championing the freedom of its press. But current events are about to become even more obfuscated in a country that already ranks 176 out of 180 in the Reporters Without Border’s Press Freedom Index.
Four of the country’s largest independent online news providers – news agencies that are not the official mouthpieces of the Communist Party – have been ordered to shut down or severely tone-down their original reporting in the run-up to a meeting of the Communist Party Congress next year. As several news outlets have reported, the Chinese government has had a penchant for seriously enhancing its internet censorship during important political meetings or events ever since Xi Jinping took over as party leader in 2012 . I can personally attest to this; during the Lianghui earlier this year I was unable to use my VPN to access the uncensored internet for at least two weeks.
Under Xi, press freedom (whatever little there was) has dwindled and several journalists have either been intimidated, jailed or deported for questioning or defying regulations set by the Communist Party.
The most concerning part about this is that most Chinese citizens will never know this is taking place, because they are unable to access uncensored information on television or on the internet.
Actually, some of them do know. But it’s such a commonplace aspect of life in China that it’s difficult for people to get worked up about it. As one of my students told me, he “already doesn’t trust” CCTV (the country’s state-run television network) and he isn’t surprised the government is trying to withhold information from the public. “This is China,” he simply told me. What else would you expect?
Sitting in this modern Shanghai café, full of people holding luxury-brand shopping bags and sipping cappuccinos, it can be easy to forget that this society exists under an iron-grip of information control.
It’s also concerning to see how distractions – smartphones and streaming television shows and shopping – really do stop people from asking questions. For many Chinese people, life now is better than it has ever been. Considering the turmoil of the past century, it’s not difficult to understand how having a full stomach and money in the bank trumps the desire for freedom of information.
It’s a slippery slope. And speaking of “trump” – I honestly believe that this level of information control would be pursued by the Republican presidential candidate who shall not be named with a capital “T.” The thin-skinned man, who supposedly loves everything about the United States Constitution except the First Amendment, has repeatedly expressed desire to curtail press freedom. You know, so the big-bad journalists don’t hurt his feelings.
If for some godforsaken reason (like if the entire American population decides to drop acid on Election Day) he makes it to the White House, you know he’s going to be looking to Xi for some management tips.