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Game of cat-and-mouse

Matthias von Hein / jrbFebruary 27, 2013

China's new leaders have inherited a rigorous system of censorship. There are few signs of change under the new leadership, although it is becoming increasingly difficult for the state to control information.

Vendor adjusts a stack of newspapers (Photo: Vincent Yu/AP/dapd)
Image: dapd

For readers, the New Year edition of the weekly magazine Nanfang Zhoumo was more of the same.

The lead article greeted them with the headline "Dreams are our commitment to do what is necessary." It also contained a quote from new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping: "The great revival in China has always been the great dream of the Chinese people."

Chinese newspapers are full of headlines and quotes like these. But editors at Nanfang Zhoumo were surprised when they saw the magazine in print. They had actually submitted another story for publication with a headline that read "The Chinese dream is a constitutional government."

Turning point?

Headlines like that one are hard to find in Chinese publications, if not impossible. The censor had changed it overnight.

But this time, the editorial team wasn't willing to accept the censorship and went on strike in protest.

"Censorship has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years," said Chang Ping, editor of the exile magazine iSun Affairs and a journalist at DW. Chinese authorities give detailed instructions to editors of how and what to report, he notes. With warnings and sanctions, they also try to prevent critical stories from being published. If journalists decide to publish such stories, they risk being fired, together with their editor.

Chinese protestors (Photo STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Chinese protest the crackdown on press freedomImage: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Chang speaks from experience. He was a former editor-in-chief of Nanfang Zhoumo before he had to vacate his position after publishing a report that was critical of authorities.

Chang doesn't think anything will change in Chinese censorship under the new generation of leaders. "There's currently a lot of talk in China and abroad about a 'tipping point,'" he said. Despite this, Chang, is quick to add, there's also no clear evidence of this happening.

Becoming nervous

On the contrary, Xi Jinping continuously emphasizes how important it is for the Communist Party to strengthen its power – even by force. "If there is going to be any change in China, then it won't happen under Xi Jinping's leadership," Chang said.

Nor does the human rights organization Reporters Without Borders (RWB) see any movement toward easing censorship – in fact, just the opposite, according to spokeswoman Ulrike Gruska. "We're observing that the government is becoming increasingly nervous," she said.

For the past two years, the Chinese government has been cracking down on the press. Restrictions on journalists grew as the government prepared for a change of leadership. According to RWB, 99 journalists and bloggers were arrested during this period and remain in confinement today.

Despite censorship, interested Chinese readers can find critical coverage, which is actually on the rise. Since the 1990s, many of the country's state-owned publishing companies have been transformed into commercial enterprises that need to find paying customers. One way is to offer them real journalistic content that stays within the borders of censorship but right on the edge.

"The best investigative pieces in recent years have come from Chinese journalists working under very hard conditions," said Bernhard Bartsch, who has worked for years in Beijing as a correspondent for various German publishers. One of the publishers at the forefront of this development is Nanfang Zhoumo.

Chinese Internet user
The Internet is making censorship in China increasingly difficultImage: DW

Add to that the Internet, which has made censorship increasingly difficult, even in China, which has the world's most sophisticated Internet censorship regime. It consists of filter systems and Internet sensors that trawl the web. It blocks unwanted sites and communicates instructions and bans to Internet portals and social networks.

But with plenty of tricks and a good dose of fantasy, tech-savvy users repeatedly succeed in dodging the censors. "Chinese Internet users are probably the cleverest in the world," says Chang. “They continuously come up with new code words for sensitive topics – codes that the censors don't immediately recognize but other users do. For instance, the seven members of the party leadership are called the ‘Seven Dwarfs.’"

Game of cat-and-mouse

Programs that bypass the censorship technology also continue to flourish in China.

Even journalists who know their research will never pass through the censors find ways to publish it. "Chinese journalists have a lot of practice in putting news quickly in the Internet before the censors can react," said Chang, adding that they can also pay a price for such action. Of the 99 journalists in jail reported by the RSF, 69 of them are being held on charges of publishing content in the Internet.

So the game of cat-and-mouse continues between the censors on the one side and journalists and Internet users on the other. The government is determined to do everything necessary to keep this discussion under control. But it will have to make a greater effort to succeed. And the new leadership knows that.