A Close Up Look at How the Chinese Regime Censors the Media

Over twenty mainland reporters spoke with Hong Kong media about their experiences
September 13, 2018 Updated: September 13, 2018

It’s well known that China enjoys very little freedom of the press. Based on the 2018 index from Reporters Without Borders, China is ranked 176 out of 180 countries listed.

Hong Kong’s Initium Media interviewed 23 Chinese reporters on different beats from around the country about their professional experiences. To protect the journalists’ identities, each was assigned a number that was used in the report.

Number 1, who has worked as a journalist for six years, described the increasing severity of censorship: “In the beginning I would get a notice on a report two or three days after I’d published it, or I would be informed when doing field work. Back then, I would still do the work because there was still a chance that the story could be published. Nowadays, there’s no chance, so I don’t even bother.”

According to the reporter, there are only two types of media in China: the state news that receives instructions from the central authorities, and media that rewrite news from the state mouthpieces.  

“Current censorship guidelines are not that there are certain things you can’t report on,” said Number 3, “but that you are not allowed to report on hot-button social issues at all. Actually, the censors specify which subjects you are permitted to work on, and what content you should include.”

Journalist Number 5 explained the censors’ lexicon of “sensitive words:” “There is a function in the system that can check your report against the list of sensitive words and determine whether your writing is up to standard or not. Nobody knows how large the list is. [The search] finds sensitive words constantly and have to keep revising the article until [it no longer] registers an alert.”

Some media organizations are allowed more leeway than others, as a veteran journalist described: “Once I received some information about military officers who had colluded with a real estate company and embezzled several billion yuan [several hundreds of millions of dollars]. My superior said that we can’t report on this matter, but that we could forward it to Caixin, which is the only media that is given some amount of freedom to run sensitive topics. Caixin didn’t report it until now, but it happened six months ago. ”

“After a Didi Chuxing [rideshare] driver raped and killed a 21-year-old flight attendant who was his passenger on May 5 in Zhengzhou, we cooperated with the local reporting office and made a set of in-depth reports with solid data. I saw the deputy chief editor approve the copy, but the next day, this report appeared neither in print nor online. I was told that the chief editor deleted the article without making any comment.” Reporter Number 10 said.

Number 12 talked about “Dying to Survive,” a 2018 comedy that based on the real-life story of leukemia patient Lu Yong. “The movie attracted lots of attention since the day of its release. But on the fourth day, we received a notice that nobody should report on this film. We even got an exclusive interview with the director, but couldn’t use it.”

“Dying to Survive” tells of how Lu Yong smuggled cheap, effective, but technically illegal medicine from India for himself and over 1,000 other cancer patients after he had sold all his properties for the legal and expensive medicine. Lu was arrested in Jan. 2015. The incident highlighted the poor quality of China’s domestically produced pharmaceuticals.

All the reporters mentioned the forced closing of their media’s social media accounts. According to Tencent, which owns Weibo and WeChat, it closed more than 99,000 accounts in the first 130 days of this year.

The Chinese Communist Party has imposed many regulations on the media, particularly focusing on cyberspace and social media platforms, as well as traditional news reporting.

In 2015, China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, passed a national security law defining the concept of “cyberspace sovereignty.” The next year, a cybersecurity law forced foreign enterprises operating in China to house their data in the country and make it accessible to the CCP regime.