For the first time, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on Tuesday placed China on its list of the world’s 10 most censored countries — a designation Beijing is sure to reject, even if it won’t harm the country’s short-term economic growth.
The CPJ’s list, which has been published every year since 2006, never before featured China, though censorship of the press, a guiding principle of the ruling Communist Party, is as old as the People’s Republic itself, said Robert Dietz, the CPJ’s Asia program coordinator.
China didn't previously make the list, he said, because independent Chinese news outlets, at various times in recent history, had the freedom necessary to break news on issues considered sensitive to the state, as long as they did not directly attack Beijing’s leadership.
Now the CPJ is taking a stand against what it says is China’s assertion that it can successfully marry a free market economy with a censored press.
“We used to argue with China that a modern society requires a free, open flow of information. I think that’s true. I think China is determined to prove us wrong,” Dietz told Al Jazeera. “They say you can have this authoritarian control and stop people from speaking out and yet have a modern economy.”
For the time being, China’s economy continues to grow — albeit at a slower rate — and social unrest in Hong Kong late last year doesn’t seem to have tempered international interest in directing investments to the mainland.
“There’s no question that China’s economy is booming. It looks successful. People are saying this is the Singapore model, the Chinese model, the authoritarian model that should be replicated,” Dietz said.
Since President Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, China has instituted what Dietz called an unprecedented crackdown on media.
Under the Xi administration, Beijing has arrested journalists; silenced publications from reporting on controversial subjects, including political corruption, without government approval; and tasked censors with blocking users of social media from employing politically sensitive search terms.
Beijing has also worked to undermine the influence of organizations like the CPJ.
In November 2013 a party communiqué referred to as Document 9 in English and Chinese media revealed renewed indignation over nongovernmental organizations taking China to task for censorship.
“Some people, under the pretext of espousing ‘freedom of the press,’ promote the West’s idea of journalism and undermine our country’s principle that the media should be infused with the spirit of the party,” the communiqué read, according to a translation by Chinese news and analysis site ChinaFile.
Days after the document’s release, veteran dissident journalist Gao Yu, 71, was detained for having allegedly leaked it to overseas Chinese press. She was sentenced to seven years in prison on April 17 on charges of divulging state secrets to international media.
Such actions lead Dietz to believe that the list will have little influence in Beijing.
“It will be rejected. We will be denounced as an unprofessional organization. That was the response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when we released the list of jailed journalists in December,” he said.
Gao Wenqian, a policy adviser with the international advocacy group Human Rights in China, explained that any formidable change would have come from within China.
“The person who ties a knot is the only person who can untie that knot,” he said, employing a popular Mandarin saying, before adding that China will reject the CPJ’s list and accompanying report as “Western interference,” even if they are based on what he calls “international principles of human rights.”
Even if Beijing dismisses the list, Dietz says there’s good reason to keep China on it.
“These things do reverberate” among independent journalists and bloggers in China, he said. “Is this going to change China? No. Is it maybe going to make China more adamant in its positions? Yes. Is that a reason not to do [the report]? No, I don’t think so.”
Dietz said that the CPJ’s report is a stand for the principle that a modern society must have a free press and an unfettered Internet to stay afloat in the long term and that while China continues to attract foreign investments, that may not last.
“I don’t see that working in the long term,” he said, adding that the international business community makes investments at a risk. Investors “might see an opportunity to get a return on their investment, even with those conditions. Are you looking at a country you want to invest everything in? I’d be wary about that.”
China ranked eighth on the CPJ’s list, which was topped by Eritrea. North Korea came in second place. Although Dietz noted that Singapore, like China, is employing a governance model that couples a free market with censorship, it did not make the list.
“You know, it’s small. Laos isn’t on that list either. They’re small. And we weigh these things. We had to weigh these major figures and their impact and significance in the world,” he said.
In late March the CPJ reported that a Singaporean teen, Amos Yee, was arrested for publishing a video celebrating the death of the nation’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.