China's (Still) Fettered Press

The recent reports of persistent penetration of western news organizations' computers by Chinese hackers are spectacular, but they are just a a small part of a much larger campaign to control China's image that began almost at the time of the revolution in 1949.

"For the past four months, Chinese hackers have persistently attacked the New York Times, infiltrating its computer systems and getting passwords for its reporters and other employees," the New York Times reported on January 30.

The attacks on the Times, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg began after reporters published stories detailing massive wealth accumulated by the families of incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping and outgoing premier Wen Jiabao.

The Chinese foreign ministry has denied any connection between the hackers and the government, however, it appears that these attacks and others almost certainly originated out of Beijing, along with a concerted campaign by the "5-centers," students and others who are paid a pittance to monitor Western news sites and bombard them with flame-throwing comments blaming Western imperialism for whatever troubles China faces.

Doug Young, formerly a Reuters correspondent in Beijing and Hong Kong and now an associate professor of journalism at China's Fudan University in Shanghai, outlines just how extensive China's control of the media is in a new book published in January and titled The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China (John Wiley & Sons). Young interviewed scores of Chinese journalists from local newspapers, television stations and national news outlets such as the state-owned Xinhua news service in the course of writing the book.

The Communist Party, he writes, uses the media to show the world as a harmonious place - "One whose farmers and factory workers smile and whistle while they work, whose scientific and economic achievements abound, and where the party is a source of comfort in times of trouble."

Clearly, the Western press, with its traditional adversary relationship to government, runs counter to that philosophy. The role of the Chinese domestic press is to present the party's message of the day, its broader agenda and information on how it can achieve its goals, Young writes. Thus when a scandal blows up, such as the conflagration over Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and his wife, who allegedly had a British businessman murdered, the press only delivers part of the story. Its bigger role is to deliver the party's response to the scandal and to inform the public on how successfully officials have handled it.

In fairness, China is hardly the only government that seeks to manage the news. Recently a former CIA agent was sentenced to three years in prison for merely leaking the name of a source to an American journalist. US Marine Private Bradley Manning has spent months in solitary confinement for his delivery of secret information to WikiLeaks. Ever since the end of the Vietnam War, the US military has tried to control the flow of news and images of war, with disastrous results in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, the extent to which the Chinese Communist Party dominates the message is extraordinary. A party propaganda chief sits in judgment on virtually every story, assessing its impact and determining the approach to be taken all the way up the line, from reporter to editor to play in the paper. The front pages of all newspapers are dominated by party doings - ribbon cuttings, party meetings, the comings and goings of foreign dignitaries.

Young's book was about two months early for an incident that famously blew up in Guangdong in January, when reporters and editors went on strike after a propaganda official pulled a critical editorial and demanded that it be replaced by a favorable one. The strike spread to Beijing where editors at another publication refused to print a similar editorial.

There are other indications that all is not well with China's control of the media. Despite government attempts to firewall the Internet, they are only partly successful.

"For the first 50 years in power, the Communist Party exercised strict direct oversight of all newspapers, magazines, and TV stations through strong Party connections, including powerful Party secretaries at all media," Young writes. "But the same is far less true for new media like the Internet, which are dominated by a field of young, entrepreneurial companies with names like Sina, NetEase, and Sohu, nearly all of which were founded by people born during or after the 1970s, many of them educated abroad and with few formal party ties."

The result is that news does leak through to millions of people. It is increasingly difficult to control some news like the massive scandal three years ago over dairy companies spiking milk with melamine, causing kidney problems for hundreds of thousands of children.

It also means that Western reports, which could be safely ignored a decade ago because of the party's control of the media, can no longer be ignored. If it is reported that the top 10 Communist Party officials are worth US$70 billion, that news threatens the party itself. It appears that, given the proficiency of China's hackers, they have decided that rather than seeking to keep the information out, it is better to try to spike it at its source - the Western news agencies trying to report it.