Self-censorship is Beijing's most effective gag on truth
Chang Ping says Beijing's authoritarian power is such that more and more international media wishing to work in China will begin to watch what they say and write, with truth the biggest casualty
A Western media company recently commissioned me to write an article but suggested that I do so under a different name. That's because articles with my name on are blocked on the internet by Chinese censors, and the company naturally wished to reach more readers on the mainland. Given these concerns, I am grateful the company still wanted me to write. Such is the power of the Communist Party in getting the international media to self-censor.
Earlier this month, Bloomberg reporter Robert Hutton was barred from attending a press conference in Beijing with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Premier Li Keqiang . Although Cameron's office issued a statement of protest, and Cameron himself raised the matter with President Xi Jinping at a dinner, the Chinese stuck to the decision. A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry even denied there was any problem, saying the arrangements were no different than before.
Bloomberg News won little sympathy from those in the media business, however. Many thought it deserved the put-down, after its editor-in-chief, Matthew Winkler, allegedly killed an investigative report on the financial relationships of Communist Party leaders for fear of reprisals from the Chinese authorities.
The news company's two websites - bloomberg.com and businessweek.com - have been blocked on the mainland since June, after it angered the government by publishing an article about the personal wealth of Xi's family. Its reporters have also been denied residency visas. So this time, the efforts by reporter Michael Forsythe, who was working on the latest article, were apparently not appreciated. Forsythe was suspended after news leaked of the self-censorship at Bloomberg; he later left the company.
After all that Bloomberg has done, who knew that it would continue to be a target of official ire? Others may laugh but Bloomberg editors won't find it so funny. No one can really say what the government would do in retaliation if the article was published.
In media reports on Bloomberg's decision to kill the story, Winkler apparently explained his decision to staff by comparing it to self-censorship in Nazi Germany, saying it would allow Bloomberg to avoid expulsion and continue reporting from inside China. Yet, soon after, men claiming to be plain-clothes police officers arrived at Bloomberg's bureaus in Beijing and Shanghai for unannounced "inspections". According to a report, one of the officers asked the company for an apology from Winkler for comparing China to Nazi-era Germany. Oh, the irony.
Tolerate the restrictions or walk away? That is the question international media companies are grappling with. Google abruptly quit China a few years ago because it refused to submit to censorship. It lost the lucrative Chinese market but won little applause from fellow media companies; in fact, all it got from the Chinese internet companies that profited from its absence were plenty of jeers.
The Chinese-language website of The New York Times has been blocked since October last year, after it published an article on the family wealth of former premier Wen Jiabao . Late last month, the publisher's chief executive officer, Mark Thompson, said the company would review its loss-making operations, including its Chinese site. "The fact that we can't be seen officially inside China means the revenue is not as large as we would have wished it to have been," he said.
Both Bloomberg and The New York Times deny self-censorship is at work, but their actions say otherwise. If they wish to continue working in such an environment, self-censorship is inevitable. News is a business after all; we can hardly fault media companies for thinking like other companies.
In fact, even those media outlets supported by government money and public donations, and which have no shareholders to be accountable to, will still need to draw in Chinese readers to answer to their donors.
When it comes to China, self-censorship has long been an open secret in international academic and publishing circles. China scholars who don't watch what they say may soon find themselves barred from entering China, thus losing precious opportunities for research and study. Just last month, exiled Chinese writer Yuan Hongbing criticised the Taiwanese bookstore chain Eslite for allegedly refusing to put a book he co-authored, Death of a Buddha: The Truth Behind the Death of the 10th Panchen Lama, on its shelves for open sales because the topic was "too sensitive". Eslite only accepts online orders for the book.
Of course, we know about this and other incidents of self-censorship because the media reports on them. But when more and more media companies themselves exercise self-censorship, the voices of truth and justice will fall silent.
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from the Chinese