The long shadow of Chinese censorship: how the Communist Party’s media restrictions affect news outlets around the world

News media
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This study provides a survey of how the Chinese Communist Party's information control affects the news media beyond mainland China’s borders.

Executive summary

China’s ambassador to the United States urges Bloomberg’s chief editor to withhold a story about Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. A French satellite company cuts the signal of an overseas Chinese television station to “show a good gesture to the Chinese government.” A Taiwanese talk show host resigns after station executives try to stop his program from touching on topics sensitive to Beijing. And in Hanoi, a Vietnamese man sits in prison for broadcasting uncensored radio programming to China.

These are a small sample of incidents that have occurred over the past five years and are discussed in this report. Collectively, they illustrate the various ways in which Chinese Communist Party (CCP) information controls extend beyond mainland China’s borders.

This study provides a survey of this phenomenon and its recent evolution as it pertains to the news media sector, though similar dynamics also affect the film, literature, and performing arts industries. Specifically, this report focuses on six types of media outlets based outside mainland China that together reach news consumers in dozens of countries: major international media; local outlets in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; mainstream media in Hong Kong and Taiwan; exile Chinese outlets providing uncensored news to people in China; and media serving Chinese diaspora communities around the world.

In many cases, Chinese officials directly impede independent reporting by media based abroad. However, more prevalent–and often more effective–are methods of control that subtly induce self-censorship or inspire media owners, advertisers, and other international actors to take action on the CCP’s behalf. The interviews and incidents analyzed in this study suggest a systematic effort to signal to commercial partners and media owners that their operations in China and access to Chinese citizens will be jeopardized if they assist, do business with, or refrain from censoring voices the CCP has designated as politically undesirable.

These efforts–ranging from discreet to blatant–are successful in some cases, and encounter significant pushback in others, with journalists and activists at times scoring important victories. But whatever the outcome of each contestation, the “China Factor” is palpably present, be it at the internationally renowned Washington Post, a local newspaper in Nepal, or a Chinese radio talk show in Los Angeles.

The Chinese authorities’ transnational media controls manifest themselves differently in different environments. Within China, local officials, security forces, and regulators forcibly prevent foreign correspondents from accessing sensitive locations or interviewees, intimidate their Chinese assistants, and block websites. Outside China, diplomats urge senior executives to alter content, compel businesses to refrain from advertising in disfavored Chinese-language media, and in extreme cases, pressure other governments to suppress CCP critics.

More subtly, a number of political and economic incentives lead media owners and journalists to avoid topics likely to incur the CCP’s ire, especially commentary that challenges the legitimacy of one-party rule or reports that touch “hot button” issues such as the plight of Tibetans, Uighurs, and Falun Gong practitioners.

Over the past five years, many of these dynamics have intensified in scope and nature. Physical assaults against foreign reporters in China have become more violent. Chinese government alliances with media owners have spread from Hong Kong to Taiwan. And major Western news outlets have found themselves facing the kinds of restrictions–including wholesale website blocking and intrusive cyber-attacks–usually reserved for dissident Chinese websites.

The impact of these obstructions reaches beyond the content of news reports, affecting the business models and economic sustainability of independent media. As news outlets and journalists struggle with these complex challenges, democratic governments and international donors can offer diplomatic support, professional training, funding for further research, and direct financial assistance where appropriate. Such efforts can yield innovative solutions to a multifaceted challenge to media freedom, helping to sustain vital sources of uncensored news and open political debate for tens of millions of people in China and around the world.

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