This essay analyzes new trends in China’s media control mechanism and public diplomacy efforts in the past five years since the country issued its media and cultural policies pertaining to the 18th Party Congress’ 3rd Plenary Session’s Decision in 2014. It is built on my previous essay published in China Currents five years ago (Li, 2014). In that essay, I examinedthe intersection between cultural and media policies and the push and pull between the party-state and market-oriented media producers. Specifically, I highlighted potential changes in six areas: (1) media control mechanisms, (2) the prescribed nature of a media organization, (3) media censorship, (4) media consolidation and economies of scale, (5) the entry of private capital into the Chinese media industries, and (6) China’s soft power and public diplomacy. This essay only focuses on media control at home and public diplomacy abroad because these two areas have seen the most change and can offer a sharp contrast between China’s state-centric, nontransparent domestic policies and the participatory more democratic foreign policies (Li, 2006, 2016).
As I argued in my 2014 essay, media control has been gaining ground despite “potential seeds for at least a partial reordering of the dynamic tension between impulses demanding control.” Indeed, since Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, media censorship in China has been tightened not only in traditional media but also more apparently in new media sectors.
In traditional media, the two-pronged control system (the state and the party) continues to censor content ranging from news to entertainment through the unified organization State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, TV and Television of China (SAPPRFT) and the local and national branches of the Central Propaganda Department. Content considered vulgar and conducive to the promotion of blatant materialism is forbidden (Li, 2016), and new lists of forbidden programming are constantly added to a long list of already censored topics. For example, SAPPRFT issued an order in 2018 that forbids video dramas of power fights at royal courts (宫斗剧). Recently it issued a new order that further forbids a wide range of costume dramas, including those dealing with martial arts, fantasy, history, mythology, time travel, and other topics (“Zhongguo Zuijin,” 2019, March 24). As a result, several dozen costume dramas may be unable to be aired over TV or the internet.
The most stringent control occurs in the new media arena, especially on Weibo and WeChat. While the Chinese authorities found it challenging to control the internet in the early 2000s, and internet users employed parodies and spoofs to criticize and poke fun at the Chinese government (Li, 2011), information control online and over mobile phones has gained momentum. Such control aims not only to censor information but also to shape public opinion (引导舆论) through flooding these spaces with officially sanctioned and “desirable” information. In this way, the Chinese state and party hope to set the agenda and guide the formation of public opinion.
Chinese authorities are especially worried about social instability and disruptions before and during large national events and anniversaries of sensitive events. For example, China hosts the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference each year, and the Chinese authorities spare no effort in making sure that these meetings are held without any problems. The anniversary of the Tiananmen Square movement (also called the June 4thmovement) always attracts increasing police scrutiny and media censorship. Information about the movement is purged from history books, traditional media, and the internet. Terms associated with this event such as “64,”“89,” and “Tiananmen” are filtered by China’s great firewall. This year – 2019 – is the 30thanniversary and Chinese authorities and media operators took more stringent measures to ban public discussion. Not only did traditional media mention nothing about this movement that mobilized millions of protesters who demanded free press and democracy, but social media platforms were also compliant in tightening information. Many WeChat groups—capped at 500 each—were banned because members posted information—such as videos, articles, and comments—about the movement.
For such banned groups (often called half-ban, 半封), users of accounts registered within China cannot view or post any new content, but users of overseas accounts can continue to view and post new information. This method creates two separate spaces within the same group, thus separating users overseas and those in China. However, if all users are registered in China, the group will be completely dissolved, resulting in a complete ban. Another way is to ban accounts registered overseas and users of such accounts can only view others’ posts, but cannot post content. This method is called mouth-ban (封口). The third way is to ban an account completely (called account-ban, 全封) and the account cannot be revived in the future.
Online video programming is also tightly censored. In January 2019, China Netcasting Services Association issued an order that regulates online video, including title, commentary, dubbing, emoji, background, and other information. It includes 100 articles, specifying content that will be banned such as information attacking China’s political and legal systems, opposing the “one-China” policy, damaging the national image, damaging the image of revolutionary leaders and heroes, leaking national secrets, disrupting social instability, damaging ethnic and regional unity, opposing national religious policies, and other information (China Netcasting Services Association, 2019, January 9).
Even online emojis and pictures are subject to censorship. For example, following Xi Jinping’s and U.S. President Barack Obama’s two-day summit in California in June 2013, a Chinese artist noticed the resemblance between a picture of Xi and Obama strolling together and the cartoon characters of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger the Tiger walking together. The artist put these images together to show the similarities. Chinese censors immediately deleted the cartoon image from the Chinese internet. Various versions of Winnie the Pooh have since been blacklisted, suggesting that even harmless fun can be viewed as a challenge to Xi Jinping’s authority (Lee, 2017, July 16; Luedi, 2016, March 29). Gradually, the fictional bear has become a meme and a symbol of resistance against Xi Jinping. Because of this, Shanghai Disneyland reportedly removed Winnie the Pooh at the request of Chinese authorities (Stolworthy, 2018, November 30).
The ban is part of a broader campaign that supports the government and Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power (Luedi, 2016, March 29). In February 2018, China announced it would drop the term limit on the presidency, suggesting that Xi has absolute power to rule the country indefinitely. While this shocking move motivated many Chinese to search for opportunities to immigrate to other countries, state-owned Chinese media gave supportive coverage. What’s more, various measures were taken to make sure that resistance was suppressed. For example, many journalists were imprisoned and overseas dissidents were silenced by targeting their families at home.
In addition to China’s continuing block of foreign sites such as The New York Times, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and many others, China’s control over virtual private network (VPN) services has also become more stringent. While visitors and dissidents could use VPN to bypass China’s great firewall in the past to access foreign sites, the Chinese government has cracked down on VPN, culminating in Apple’s deletion of all VPN appsfrom its App Store in 2017. Chinese internet service providers such as China Mobile, China Unicom,and China Telecom were all ordered to block access to VPNs.
Furthermore, new laws are implemented to punish the “wrong” use of social media. For example, the Amendment (IX) to the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China was adopted at the 16th Session of the Standing Committee of the 12th National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China on August 29, 2015, and became effective on November 1, 2015. A paragraph added in Article 219A states:
Whoever makes up any false information on the situation of any risk, epidemic disease, disaster or emergency and spreads such information on the information network or any other media, or knowingly spreads the aforesaid false information on the information network or any other media, which seriously disrupts the public order, shall be sentenced to imprisonment of not more than three years, criminal detention or surveillance; and if serious consequences have resulted, shall be sentenced to imprisonment of not less than three years but not more than seven years.
Criminalizing online information dissemination can further force people to censor themselves. Any WeChat group founders are legally responsible for information disseminated in the group. Anyone who spreads rumors to 500 people (the upper limit of a WeChat group)or more could face legal consequences. Several people were reportedly detained for spreading false information. As a result, WeChat group founders reportedly transferred the group administration right to members in other countries to avoid the risks. An overseas Chinese person reportedly became the administrator of more than 70 WeChat groups overnight in 2017 after the new rule was publicized (Qiao, 2017, September 13).
Freedom House’s report in 2018 gave China 14 out of 100 in Freedom in the World Scores (0 = least free, 100 = most free). Among them, China’s political rights score is the least free, 7 out of 7 (1 = most free, 7 = least free); civil liberties score is 6 out of 7; and overall freedom rating is 6.5 out of 7. The reports states (Freedom House, 2018):
China’s authoritarian regime has become increasingly repressive in recent years. The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is tightening its control over the media, online speech, religious groups, and civil society associations while undermining already modest rule-of-law reforms. The CCP leader and state president, Xi Jinping, is consolidating personal power to a degree not seen in China for decades. The country’s budding civil society and human rights movements have struggled amid a multiyear crackdown, but continue to seek avenues for protecting basic rights and sharing uncensored information, at times scoring minor victories.
In addition to the tightening of media control,the Chinese leadership has also developed new technology-driven instruments of control called the Social Credit System. While this system is not completely new, its recent development aims to utilize big data and collect any information of individuals and organizations, ranging from financial information to activities that cover economic, social, and political conduct of individuals and organizations. Specifically, the National Development and Reform Commission has already built a national credit system through sharing data and blacklisting businesses and individuals who break laws and social expectations. Other private credit entities have also been established, such as Alibaba’s Sesame Credit, Tencent Credit, and Kaola Credit, suggesting that both state and commercial agencies collaborate with each other to increase surveillance in Chinese society.
The control system involves a wide range of government agencies, commercial entities, and partnerships with private organizations. It aims to establish a comprehensive surveillance system that facilitates the development of a moral society supported by a legal and administrative monitoring system. While the primary purpose of the social credit system is to modernize China’s legal and administrative governance, it can be used to further suppress the voices of dissidents and freedom of expression. In this way, organizations’ and individuals’ political, social, and economic activities are under constant monitoring by the state through data aggregation and automation. While the credit system in the United States only collects financial data, the social credit system in China collects all kinds of data, thus making it a more powerful and dangerous surveillance instrument. Such a system has caused a lot of concern among scholars over China’s capacity to finally realize its total control over society (Creemers, 2018; Liang, Das, Kostyuk & Hussain, 2018).
China’s Soft Power, Public Diplomacy, and Challenges
China has been paying increasing attention to its soft power since 2000 (Li, 2012). As I stated in my previous essay, China has attempted to increase its soft power through foreign aid, cultural programs, and various other global programs in order to gain more attraction among foreign publics. China has also allocated huge resources to increase the international influence of Chinese media such as Xinghua News Agency, China Central TV, and Shanghai Media Group. However, China’s global outreach and projection of soft power have encountered many challenges. Specifically, I will discuss the Confucius Institute, China’s corporate globalization, and the One Belt and One Road Initiative.
Recently, China’s Confucius Institute has been under great scrutiny, especially in the United States. Launched in 2004 by the Office of Chinese Language Council International(called Hanban), the Confucius Institute has been increasingly criticized for its relationship to the Chinese Communist Party, ranging from concerns over academic freedom, institutional autonomy, control over curriculum, China’s use of it as a propaganda instrument, and the quality of the teaching faculty. As U.S.-China tensions intensify, Washington has called for American higher education institutions to close the institutes down. At least 10 have closed or announced plans to close the Confucius Institutes since 2018 (Redden, 2019, January 9). While some American educators still believe the Confucius Institute offers valuable resources for cultural exchange and that the politically motivated criticisms are unsubstantiated, such scrutiny means that China’s soft power strategy has experienced a huge backlash.
The global expansion of Chinese companies has also proved to be challenging. Since around the 2000s, the Chinese government has supported Chinese companies in going global (Li, 2016). Many companies such as Lenovo, Huawei, and Haier have established their global presences. However, the way business is conducted in China has proved to be an inherent obstacle for these companies’ global expansion, especially in the West. One example is Huawei. While Huawei is a leading global provider of information and communication technology and smartphones, its entry into the U.S. market has been constantly blocked mainly based on the alleged security risk because of Huawei’s perceived close relation with the Chinese state and party. Huawei’s 5G network has also been banned in Australia.
However, the difficulty facing Huawei is not unique. Any Chinese telecommunication and technology companies planning to enter the American and Western markets may encounter similar challenges. After all, the boundary between a government agency and a commercial entity in China is not as clearly marked as in the United States and European countries. With the Chinese government’s tight control, no company can become completely independent. Even foreign companies doing business in China are required to obey Chinese laws regarding media control and censorship. In this sense, the government practices at home actually become a hindrance when a Chinese company goes global.
Another high-profile project that China has launched recently is the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21stCentury Maritime Silk Road, called the One Belt and One Road Initiative (OBORI). The OBORI is the most ambitious global project launched by China since the country started to open itself to capitalism in 1978. The area covers 65 percent of the world population and one-third of global GDP. Since 2013, various measures have been implemented to support this initiative, including the founding of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank.
However, views toward this initiative are mixed. For example, while some countries in Europe are receptive to China’s investment, other European countries are more cautious and insist that China must “follow international standards and not exclusively pursue its geostrategic interests” (Le Corre, 2017). This initiative also marks China’s divergence from its old foreign policy cultivated by Deng Xiaoping asking China to bide time for development and to keep a low profile. The initiative is generally viewed as having not only economic importance, but also geopolitical significance in shaping global trade policies. While it is hard to tell whether OBORI will be successful, China will definitely face tremendous political, cultural, and economic challenges to implementing the plan both at home and abroad.
Interestingly, there is a sharp contrast between China’s domestic policies and foreign policies. While China’s foreign policies often advocate for a multipolar global order that enables smaller countries to have voices so that China can increase its influence and benefit from broader global political participation, China’s domestic policies are characterized by tight control and nontransparency. The inconsistency often causes the international community to be concerned about China’s promotional rhetoric of global political participation. In order to gain credibility internationally, China has to seriously transform its own domestic policies and make them more transparent and democratic.
I argue that China’s control over traditional and new media has tightened tremendously since I first examined this in 2014, making China one of the least free countries in the world. China’s data-driven social credit system has the capacity to even further intensify the monitor and surveillance mechanism, thus allowing the Chinese government to have a total control over citizens and corporations. While China has actively encouraged the companies to go global, the very nature of the domestic business environment makes Chinese companies the target of suspicion because of the lack of separation between the government and the corporate world. As a consequence, China’s efforts to increase its global soft power through economic means and corporate diplomacy will encounter tremendous challenges.
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Zhonguo Zuijin Gongbu “Xian Gu Ling”: Guzhuang Ju Quanmian Jin Bo (2019, March 24). Reprinted from Ziyou Shibao. https://www.wenxuecity.com/news/2019/03/24/8183297.html
Image 1: Xi Jinping and Barack Obama at the Sunnyvale Summit in 2013 and the image of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger strolling together